Donor influence sparks controversy in Egypt's American University in Cairo

EGY070519JW003CAIRO - Seventeen years ago, a Saudi billionaire endowed a chair in comparative religion at the American University of Cairo (AUC) to promote religious tolerance and peace through knowledge.

Over the past two years, though, the donor's son allegedly pressured the chair to give preference to Islam over other religions---or to stop teaching them at all---until the university canceled the professorship completely.

The incident has set off a renewed debate over academic freedom---and whether the elimination of the chair constitutes a violation of it---and over how much control should a university allow over endowments.

Estimated at over $3.5 million, the Abdulhadi H. Taher Professorship in Comparative Religion was the largest endowment for the humanities in the Arabic-speaking world. It was established in 2002 by Saudi billionaire Abdulhadi H. Taher who died in 2013. A former professor that held the chair described it as intending "…to increase understanding of the world's different religious traditions, foster respect and tolerance among persons of different religious traditions, and thereby promote peace between religious communities," according to AUC's website.

Tarek Taher, the donor's son, however, believed the professorship as it was currently being conducted, was violating the spirit of the endowment as his father intended, according to emails reviewed by Al-Fanar Media. He wanted his father's name removed from the professorship and the chair canceled. A request for comment from Taher was not answered.

The university confirmed the change.

"While AUC kept the professor, courses and program unchanged and unrestricted, it agreed with the deceased donor’s son to remove his father’s name from the chair and re-direct his bequest to support unrestricted scholarships for outstanding students who are not otherwise able to attend AUC," according to an emailed statement from the university to Al-Fanar Media.

Adam Duker, a religious historian specializing religious violence and confessional identity in late medieval and early modern Europe, was the fifth academic to hold the professorship. Duker, who started in his position July 2016, taught a “Religions of the World” survey course at the university, lecturing on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

He calls the university's move to dissolve the chair and abolish the title awarded to him "illegal," a violation of his contract and an abuse of his academic freedom.

He said he was pressured to change his instruction following a January 2017 meeting with Taher at the donor's home in Malibu, California over the latter's concerns over how the course on comparative religion was taught to a class made up mainly by Muslim students.

According to email correspondence between Taher and Duker in January 2017, emails from Duker to university officials and Duker's recollections, Duker said Taher wanted to pre-approve lectures and course materials in advance, and encourage his non-Muslim students to convert to Islam. Taher, Duker said, wanted the program to promote Islam over other religions, teach other faiths as if they were "incorrect," and asked Duker to refrain from teaching about non-Abrahamic religions such as Buddhism altogether. Meanwhile, he objected to Duker's use of the Oxford translation of the Koran, which uses the word English “God” instead of the Arabic “Allah.”

Also, Taher wanted the program to have more autonomy and be governed by a partially independent advisory board made up of AUC officials, Taher himself, his wife Jessica, Duker and an outside scholar, according to an email on the California meeting from Duker to AUC administration officials dated Jan. 24, 2017.

Explaining his motivations, Taher said in an email to Duker on Jan. 17, 2017, "I am only looking for the best interest of my father's professorship and make sure it is in line with his vision."

After emails between the university administration, Duker, and Taher, on July 11, 2017, Duker was ordered to stop using the title of the chair by the university Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman. Duker refused, saying that he was not offered a comparative title or position and that the withdrawal violated the terms of his contract. He was subsequently investigated by the university for using the title and threatened by the university's counsel, Sunanda Holmes, to desist or be held liable for "financial and reputational damage to AUC," according to an email on Feb.6, 2019 to Duker.

He says he didn't stop using the title because it was important to his work and his career.

“I came [to AUC] for two reason. The first was to build the only non-sectarian comparative religions program in the Islamic world. The second was because of the endowed chair,” he said, adding that in the academic world, holding a chair is an honor that opens doors, and that in relation to his research field, Egypt wouldn't have been a draw for him otherwise.

Duker's last class was in mid-May. He has resigned from the university. He says the experience was a significant career setback and doesn't rule out the possibility of a lawsuit in the future.

“I am not litigious and I never wanted a battle," he said. "I just wanted to teach and research and make a difference here in Egypt.

The university, meanwhile, says it didn't have a choice but to dissolve the professorship.

"AUC policy, acting under law, permits the University from time to time to adjust the terms of the gifts by donors, whether living or deceased, striving always to keep faith with the donor’s original intent under the changing circumstances of a dynamic world," according to the email from the university. "It is important to note that while the donor's endowed funds were re-directed to scholarships, the university continued to fund the program, courses and the faculty member retained all privileges."

The university also said it would continue to offer the comparative religion course with another professor.

Correspondence reviewed by Al-Fanar Media between AUC administration and faculty show that the donor had the power to control the endowment including the ability "direct and possibly withdraw funds." Also, university counsel Sunanda Holmes wrote in a Feb. 16, 2019 email to Duker, that "the donor has stopped supporting this professorship which is well within his authority to do so."

Some with knowledge of the contract say it was a disadvantageous arrangement for the university. It was an unusual but not unheard of arrangement, say those with knowledge of such contracts. It's more common for universities to engage donors over their endowments but bar donors from a say in hiring decisions, or how research or teaching is conducted. Most contracts do not give the donor the ability to withdraw professorships.

"There is a general concern within higher education, as there should be, that donors don't control content, that they don't control hiring decisions," said Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, an independent not-for-profit corporation based at New York University that promotes academic freedom. "I'm aware of such situations [regarding questionable strings on donations], but it doesn't mean it happens a lot. The main issue is to make sure people involved in the research and teaching functions of the university are part of the decisions [regarding donor gift agreements] so there is transparency about any terms or conditions for the gift. This would go a long way toward protecting academic freedom and avoiding any misunderstandings or problems down the line."
Some say donor interference is "not infrequent" and unacceptable.

"It happens everywhere---these endowments involve a lot of money and ego and of course the donor wants to control things," said John Waterbury, a scholar and author, and former president of the American University of Beirut. "The university has to insist on full control over how money is used. As president of AUB, I never accepted the right of donors to even be consulted on who filled a chair. This sounds like gross interference in the affairs of the university."

Meanwhile, the issue has set off a debate about academic freedom at the school and whether the donor pressure and subsequent dissolution of the professorship qualifies as a violation.

Some believe it does.

In April, its Faculty Senate Grievance Committee issued a formal finding expressing concern.

"The committee is concerned that the donor was allowed to interfere in academic matters and influence the Provost’s decision to strip Dr. Duker of his title," the committee wrote in its April 6 report submitted to Professor Amr Shaarawi, chairman of the University Senate. "This interference set a very dangerous precedent and infringed on Dr. Duker’s academic freedom."

The committee also expressed concern that Duker was not offered a suitable alternative.

The Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom sent a letter June 7 to the university expressing its "deep concern" over the "peculiar circumstances" of the chair's termination, calling on the university to "vigorously respect and defend" academic freedom.

"The protection of both academic freedom and university professional standards demands a separation between the basic framing of the intention of a gift creating an endowed chair agreed upon by a donor and the university, and the process and requirements involved in the actual hiring and academic performance of the chair holder. To put it simply, donors should have no say in who is chosen to fill a chair or what they teach, nor should a donor have the right to terminate a chair once endowed," it wrote.

"Whatever the terms of the original Taher chair agreement, the cancellation of the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair by the donor’s son and the subsequent repurposing of the donation appear highly irregular," it added, saying that Duker should have been awarded a revised contact.

The university, however, says there is no such violation.

"No member of AUC's faculty or administration has interfered at any time or in any manner with the complainant’s courses, curriculum, teaching, outside activities, or freedom of expression," the emailed statement said. "… Until Dr. Duker’s unsolicited and voluntary resignation in 2019, he has continued to enjoy his full rights and privileges as a faculty member. The university is deeply committed to religious and academic freedom and has stayed true to those values."

Pascale Ghazaleh, chair of the university's history department, which housed Duker’s professorship, says there has never been a threat to Duker's academic freedom.

"He retained his position, retained tenure, remained in the department," she said. "No one told him what to teach or not teach, what to research or not research. This is insulting to people whose academic freedom is actually threatened."

Ananya Chakravarti, who held the AUC chair from 2013 to 2015, says that in her experience, she saw AUC vigorously defend academic freedom.

"AUC has lots of problems," said Chakravarti, now an assistant professor at Georgetown University. "But some aspects of my work could have gotten me into trouble and AUC defended me."

"If this had happened while I was there, I would have wanted AUC to take away the title (in order to) to protect academic freedom," she added, referring to the professorship being dissolved after donor pressure. "The outcome here is right for academic freedom because it means the donor can't affect the academic freedom of scholars within the school."

AUC, the only Egyptian institution of higher learning certified by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education---a US credentialing consortium---sits in a country that has seen academic freedom decline significantly since the revolution in 2011, two regime changes and a general crackdown, also on academia, since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi took over in 2014.

"Under El Sisi, it's proven to be a very difficult place for freedom of speech, freedom of critical inquiry," said Miriam Lowi, professor of Middle East politics at The College of New Jersey, and chair of the Middle East-North Africa wing of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. "Some say it's a lot more difficult than it had been."

Students taking the comparative religions class, meanwhile, say they were not immune from the pressure from the donor or Egypt's current political and religious climate.

A student received messages from Taher complaining of Duker's "misuse of the chair" and that "we felt (Duker's) Zionist direction" and other plans "we stopped when we found out."

Many of Duker's students also said they were dismayed that he is leaving the university because they found the course a great opportunity to engage in open and honest discussions about religions not their own---and even express disagreement---something they said was rare in Egypt.

“As an atheist, I wanted to understand what it is that I am not believing in—especially when it comes to Asian cultures because I've only seen the Abrahamic side of things,” said Alex Ben Ghanem, a 21-year-old economics and computer science major who grew up in a Muslim household.

“But in recent years Muslims in the Middle East have not allowed academic debate regarding the theology of Islam or certain problems within it because you're supposed to believe that it is perfect and that it has come to us from an all-knowing God,” he added. “Professor Duker pointed out epistemological problems with each of the religions.”

On the student fan page for Duker, some students lamented what happened.

"Students and faculty are right to be angry with AUC. But as Dr. Duker says 'anger doesn't solve anything.' So let's step back from anger for a minute to remember why we liked him in the first place.

Dr. Adam is an amazing teacher. He opens religions and ideas that we would never have learned about. He introduces us to real live Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists who we can disagree with and learn from. he shows our shared humanity. professor Duker teaches us how to understand them as they understand themselves and to walk a mile in their spiritual shoes."

Photo: April 29 2019 - Cairo, Egypt - American University in Cairo Professor Adam Duker introduced Egyptian undergraduates to world religions - an influential Saudi donor intervened to stop him. His departure from Egypt raises questions about religious diversity and academic expression at one of the few American accredited universities in the Middle East.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (04/29/2019)
Story/photo publish date: 06/14/2019

A version of this story was published in Al Fanar Media.
You are here: Home Newsroom Middle East / North Africa Donor influence sparks controversy in Egypt's American University in Cairo