|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (397)
The National University, Egypt's first, was on the verge of closing down but for the timely intervention of a royal decree. From then on it would be closely watched by Al-Ahram which took special interest in the institution's emblem and the attire of its students, perhaps trivial concerns at first glance but they had, in fact, much to do with tradition and identity. Of more substantive issues -- and certainly more intriguing -- was the in-fighting which involved the composition of the board of directors, and the quality of the teaching staff, particularly foreign professors. As Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* discovers, campus news of the National University made for some stimulating press stories
Entrenching university traditionsOn 11 March, 1925, the privately-owned National University was turned by royal decree into a public institution. The move merited all the relief and optimism embodied in the ceremony which marked the occasion. Not long before, the financial difficulties it suffered during World War I prompted speculation that Egypt's first university would have to shut its doors. However, as is usually the case with the establishment of such institutions, it was not long before the question arose of how to ensure the university's continuity and prosperity, a process Al-Ahram monitored closely over the following year.
In February 1926, the newspaper featured a number of articles on the university, stressing such concerns as attire and the university emblem. At first glance, Al-Ahram commented, such matters might appear trivial, "but after all that has been accomplished, we do not believe they are trifle matters meriting no examination or explanation." It continues, "Let us, therefore, consider at length the university emblem and the attire of its students. Let us examine the emblem in light of the heritage of the ancient Egyptians and the Arabs, the two authorities we should rely on in the choice of our university's motto, after which we will turn to a discussion of attire."
The newspaper said the emblems of many of the most time- honoured universities consisted of a decorated medallion inset with an inscription taken from a famous philosopher or a passage of a holy book. In Arabic, the word for medallion was rank, which was taken from the Persian language to signify the insignia of a king or tribe. The custom, however, dated back to the Pharaohs, who were known to use flowers, birds or other wildlife as their insignia -- images that found their way into the insignia of Muslim princes, kings and sultans, including such symbols as the crescent and the sword.
The choice of emblem colours was also significant. The Ummayad dynasty used white, while their successors the Abbasids opted for black. In the West, the newspaper continues, the design and colour of insignia "developed into a special branch of science in which experts could establish the origins of a noble lineage in a manner very similar to the science of genealogy practised by the Arabs."
Following this introduction, Al-Ahram explains that "in advanced nations, the university emblem is printed on all its official correspondence, documents and publications. You also find it embroidered on the uniforms of the university's sports teams. The uniforms of football and other sports teams are of the university's colours, as is the school tie worn by every member of the student body and its graduates." The logic behind these emblems and colours was to promote the university's name and instil pride and respect for the school in the student body, the newspaper said. "Students sporting the school tie and school colours are expected to comport themselves in a manner which guards the university's name and reputation from taint and disrepute," it said.
This, however, did not mean that the university had to blindly adopt Western designs and symbols. Quite the opposite, the writer felt that an appropriate emblem for an Egyptian university would be the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom "depicted on a papyrus scroll containing in the upper half the image of an inkpot framed by two pens intersecting at an angle and below which there could be a simple quote from the Qur'an." Eventually, the university adopted the idea, choosing the moon god Thoth as its emblem. This god, depicted with the head of an ibis and the body of a baboon, was thought by ancient Egyptians to be the father of language and writing and became the symbol of ancient Egyptian scribes.
Turning to the university's uniform, the newspaper said that universities in the West first emerged among others, in the Italian princedoms that were known to have the closest contact with Arab civilisation and, indeed, were modelled after the internationally reputed centres of learning in Andalusia. By the 14th century, such institutions had sprung up in Rome, Montpellier, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. As these universities, like Al-Azhar, had been originally established for religious instruction, attire was essentially the garb of the clergy. Thus, the newspaper proposes, "if the uniform of our university today was to be inspired by clerical dress, whether that of our ancient Egyptian forefathers or that of the Arabs, we will not have diverged from the tradition of the world's great universities. In Egypt, we have many archaeologists who are able to advise university officials with regard to the selection of the emblem, colours and attire which can be adopted from the legacy of the ancient Egyptians." However, the writer was quick to point out that if ancient Egypt does not offer an appropriate model for university attire, there was always the oriental abaya, or cape. "This is eminently suitable because, with certain modifications, it will resemble the gowns worn by students in European university lecture halls." Then, too, there was "the headdress of the ancient Egyptians and the Arab okal (headband) and kaffieh either of which could serve as an attractive emblem for headgear."
Of course, costumes would have to reflect the university hierarchy. Thus, there would have to be a special gown for the president of the university (who was concurrently the minister of education), another for the university dean, a third for professors with modifications to indicate their respective ranks, and a fourth to be worn by professors in the lecture halls.
Finally, there was the question of the gown to be worn by students, "a custom not practiced in all universities and is, therefore, a matter which should be decided by our university's administrative body." The writer said that the gowns which served as insignia of office were not to be worn all the time "but only during official university functions and celebrations, such as graduation ceremonies, receptions for visiting foreign scholars, official university lectures and the like."
Students, professors and guests await the arrival of King Fouad at a ceremony marking the opening of Cairo University
Following this discussion, attention soon shifted from symbols to significance and from form to substance. Of primary concern were certain provisions in the university law published the previous year. In a series of articles for Al-Ahram, Prof Abdullah Hussein addressed what he felt were necessary revisions in light of the university's first year in operation as a public institution. He began with Article 11, which addressed the composition of the university's board of directors. This consisted of the university president as chairman, the deputy chairman, the deans of each faculty and two faculty members elected by the faculty boards every year. In addition, it contained a delegate from the Ministry of Finance appointed by the minister, and five appointees from the Ministry of Education "who shall serve a three-year term and who may be eligible for reappointment." The only change Hussein suggested here was that the five Ministry of Education appointees "have the status of former university professors or technical advisers."
Hussein strongly criticised Article 14 which concerned the faculty boards of directors. These were chaired by the dean of the faculty and consisted of a deputy chairman elected annually by the members of the faculty board, and the faculty's professors and assistant professors. The article also stipulated that every ministry with a particular interest in the faculty's operations had the right to appoint a member to the faculty board, a provision that Hussein charged was "extremely ambiguous." Under this provision, he wrote, the Ministry of Waqfs (religious endowments) could claim it had a vested interest in the activities of every faculty because the ministry hired engineers, lawyers, physicians and teachers -- the professionals produced by what were then the university's four faculties. Similarly, he wrote, the Ministry of Health could claim an interest in the Faculty of Medicine on the grounds that it taught forensic medicine, while the Ministry of Finance might press for a right to membership on the board of the faculty of law because that faculty's curriculum included political economy and finance. In order to avoid the confusion that could arise among the ministries and between the ministries and the university, Hussein urged that Article 14 be amended to specify which ministries had the right to be represented on the faculty boards.
Hussein next turned to Article 10 which stated that every university faculty would have a dean "appointed from among the members of that faculty by a decree issued by the minister of education after having obtained the opinion of the faculty board." This provision, Hussein complained, had not been put into effect the previous year. The minister of education had certainly not taken the opinion of the various faculties into account when he appointed non-faculty members as deans, he charged.
Finally, Hussein took exception to the one-year term for the deputy chairman of the board. The short term of office hardly gave the university sufficient time to benefit from that official's expertise, he argued. He also argued against an additional salary increment for that position and that of the dean, "in order to ensure that the election of faculty members to the board takes place in accordance with sound democratic practices based on academic qualifications and honest competition to promote dedication among the staff and close the door on rivalry over money."
But rivalries over position have since remained a constant in academia. Moreover, in light of these principles, one can fully understand the writer's anger at the budgetary allocations when they were presented to parliament after the university's first year. Above all else, Hussein took issue with the high salaries and remunerations accorded to "those who hold positions of leadership in the university." Not only did they lack the appropriate academic credentials but their activities over the year demonstrated a lack of awareness of university systems of operation, "as a result of which we have seen chaos." On the basis of these criticisms, Hussein called for a reduction in the salaries of those heads to levels commensurate with the salary scales of the rest of the university staff.
Prof Doget, the dean of the faculty of law in Bordeaux, was hired by the Egyptian government to oversee the Egyptian university's faculty of law. While in Egypt, the French academician was made responsible for designing the curriculum for the faculty of law. He also took part in a committee formed to draw up university by-laws and, in the short time he spent in Egypt, was able to join in drafting regulations pertaining to the hiring of teachers. According to these regulations, although the government had the power to make professorial appointments, it had its limitations. Its decisions were to be based on recommendations by the university faculties and candidates had to possess the adequate academic qualifications for their prospective posts. In addition, the committee instituted guarantees against the arbitrary dismissal of professors.
In spite of all these accomplishments, the French legal scholar felt compelled to express his dismay that after his departure many of the decisions adopted unanimously by the Faculty of Law's administrative board and approved by the university's board of directors had been circumvented. Perhaps the starkest example of this was when the Ministry of Education appointed one of its functionaries as a professor in the faculty of law. Not only did the appointee not hold a PhD but he soon was promoted to principal, without the opinion of the faculty board being taken and in violation of the faculty's by- laws.
Another assessment of the university's performance was offered in an open letter to parliament's educational committee and published in Al-Ahram of 17 December 1926. The criticisms in this letter suggest that the author had first-hand familiarity with conditions. He chose to sign himself anonymously as "a teacher at the university."
Following a brief overview of what he felt to be the university's shortcomings, the "teacher" went on to make several recommendations. He urged the need to promote cohesion in the university. "We cannot build the university on a solid foundation unless there is homogeneity in all its branches," he wrote. "For the past two years we have sacrificed more than enough the energy of our student body." Part of the problem lay with the type of professors the university engaged. Closer scrutiny should be given to the qualities of the teaching staff, although that did not mean that the university had to import professors from abroad "for we have perfectly capable candidates available in Egypt." He also appealed for the increasing use of Arabic as the language of instruction. "Do not be put off by those who claim that Arabic is unsuitable, for their strongest argument -- that it lacks the necessary terminology and academic publications -- can be easily countered," he argued. Finally, he recommended that the university be accorded a measure of autonomy in its operations, but not full autonomy, "for there can be no government within a government if the latter is to retain its dignity."
The teacher thus opened old wounds and it is not surprising that such issues as the question of staff appointments and the language of instruction became the focus of heated debate. On 27 February 1926, the university's board of directors met to consider the recommended amendments to its charter and by- laws submitted to it by the relevant committees. Perhaps the most controversial was that pertaining to the number of assistant professors which, it was proposed, should not exceed half the number of professors. When reporting this recommendation, Al-Ahram added three exclamation marks after it. Its reaction was quite understandable. According to Article 14 of the university's charter, membership on the faculty boards -- "which administer the curricula, system of instruction and examinations within the faculties" -- included both assistant and full-time professors. As most assistant professors were Egyptian and most full-time professors were foreigners, "limiting the number of assistant professors can only be interpreted to mean depriving Egyptians of practical participation in the management of the faculties." In answer to the argument that the ratio of Egyptian to foreign professors was temporary and would eventually disappear, the newspaper countered that by curtailing the appointments of assistant professors the university would "block the way for Egyptians wanting to be full-time professors."
Many Al-Ahram readers felt the same way. Under the headline, "The finger of politics in the university," one reader, using only his initials to identify himself, complained that the considerable influx of foreign professors was letting in "the dross along with the good," to the extent that "there are rumours that the university has become yet another channel for showering favours on foreigners." Moreover, he observed, university officials appeared to be restricting its advertisements for positions to Britain "not because the scholars of that nation happen to have particular qualifications which set them apart from those of other nations but simply to augment the British element in the university."
The anonymous writer was quick to add he did not blame the university principal Lutfi El-Sayyid for these policies. Rather, they were the fault of "a heterogeneous group of professors and other staff members" around him. Among them were "some who are sincerely dedicated to their jobs and to Egypt's interests and others who came to Egypt solely to seek personal gain or to further their own nations' interests."
Another reader to join the fray signed his letter to the editor "an informed source." He began by reminding readers that when the university was turned into a government-sponsored institution, it fired most of the Egyptian staff upon whose shoulders the original university was built. In so doing, the university "turned away some highly qualified individuals with a thorough knowledge of European university educational systems."
The university then began to engage foreigners. "They now enjoy prestige they had never imagined and authority and salaries they never dreamed of." Evidently the informed source was indeed who he claimed he was, for he managed to obtain a letter sent by the British director of the Egyptian mission in London to most British universities. The letter read: "The Egyptian Ministry of Education has instructed me to inform you that it intends to hire British nationals to teach mathematics and chemistry at the Egyptian University in Cairo. The salary offered is LE1,140 (equivalent to nearly £1,170) a year. Appointments are for three years and travel expenses to Egypt will be reimbursed." The writer concludes that the only possible explanation for this policy is that the powers that be in the university are intent upon catering to the British, "who want to have a majority on the university's faculty boards."
He then asks, "What is the opinion of the minister of education under whose nose these matters are transpiring, and the principal of the university upon whose recommendation such instructions are sent?" On 23 May 1926 Al-Ahram readers opened their newspapers to have their worst misgivings confirmed. The four new professors for the forthcoming academic year were foreign appointees, though admittedly none were British and all had sterling credentials. But the hiring of foreign professors began to stir discontent among the students. In November 1926, Al-Ahram reported that first-year students in the faculty of law went on strike and sent telegrams to the press. "Most of the courses, if not all, are taught in foreign languages which we do not understand sufficiently to warrant attending lectures," the students wrote. "In fact, most of the subjects have no bearing whatsoever on the law. We have been patient until now in the hopes that changes would be forthcoming. However, our patience has worn thin and we can no longer deceive our conscience." Certainly student concerns were not assuaged when it came to light that a professor from Scotland had been signed on to teach history whereas his field of expertise was "editing and propaganda."
Eventually, the intensity of criticism levelled against university staffing policy prompted Al-Ahram to send one of its senior correspondents to interview El-Sayyid who expressed dismay at those he felt were being too impatient with the pace of change in the university's charter. He also stressed that the language of instruction of the university was Arabic, but added, "The need to benefit from professors from abroad and the need to maintain constant contact with developments in education in Europe require that other languages accompany Arabic in instruction."
Finally, in answer to the charge that the increase in foreign staff was an obstacle to learning, El-Sayyid responded that once students overcome the language barrier they will come to realise how important it is to rely on the leading scholars of the day "who will not only impart their knowledge to our students but will contribute to the spread of sciences and literature among the public." It was a lofty goal, albeit one which present-day universities are not aiming for.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Recommend this page© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time