Brandeis in Cairo

I’m thinking about Egypt. You gotta give this to them – they know how to pull off revolutions.

Egyptian students are demanding – and receiving – huge concessions from their administrations. Stuff that we always wished we had here at Brandeis.

At this point, you might say “ok, but they’re, like, you know. Egyptian. Foreign. Far off. Different context. Their administrations are clearly corrupt and they are coming from a lower baseline.”

Well, let’s take a look at what’s really going on.

In Egypt there are a few different education-related revolts happening. First off, the teachers are united in demanding a sane education system. They’re dealing with 60+ student classrooms, meager pay, and “In many cases to make ends meet, teachers essentially force undereducated students to pay for private lessons to pass their grade, creating a shadow education system that places a financial burden on parents.”. About 70% of Egyptian teachers went on strike to demand a reform of the education system. Go teachers unions!

Next up, we have the case of most Egyptian Universities. The administrative bureaucracy, deans, Presidents, etc, were all appointed by the Mubarak government. Amazingly, Professors are the ones taking the lead and protesting to basically replace them with democratically-elected administration. Students are backing them. They have been partially successful so far. Imagine this – a University where the faculty (and students) get to pick the Administration that serves them best.

Those two cases, however, have no real analogue to here and now. We don’t have corrupt propagandistic heads of public universities (there will always be exceptions) and our primary education system is bad, but nowhere near as broken as Egypt’s.

I want to talk about the American University of Cairo.

Located on the western desert fringes of Cairo in a newly developed area called the Fifth Settlement, AUC’s gleaming, multimillion-dollar campus is a world away from its historical home in the heart of Tahrir Square, and it boasts a level of corporate sponsorship that would tickle the imagination of most neoliberal economists, complete with a Pepsi gate, CIB fountain, and Mobinil tower. AUC students pay $17,000 a year in tuition — more than eight times the annual income of the average Egyptian.

Their President, Lisa Anderson, is a former dean of faculty at Columbia University. She’s not some far-off foreigner with strange ways. She would fit right in at Brandeis. Hell, she’s the co-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. They speak English at AUC. It really is an American-style University.

You know what they were demanding?

The students’ demands include the reversal of a 9 percent tuition hike, permanent student representation on the university’s budget committee, and transparency in school finances. But among their chief concerns was an end to what they viewed as the university’s exploitive practices regarding its workers, including security guards, janitors, and groundskeepers.

Less tuition. Representation on the budget committee. Better treatment of labor.

In my time at Brandeis we haven’t achieved any of these goals. Tuition rises a lockstep 1% above inflation every year. Our endowment stays shadowed in mystery. Aramark continues to run roughshod over workers.

Well, these students who are much like us faced their President who is much like every other American University President. And they demanded the sort of things we would like to see here. And they won.

the university administration announced it had reached a compromise on many of the protesters’ demands, including greater budget transparency, the creation of an ad hoc committee with student, alumni, and faculty representatives taking part in tuition and budget decisions, a guaranteed five-day work week for custodial and landscape staff, greater worker protections, and a review of employee salary levels. Anderson also stressed that no university employees would be punished for taking part in the strike.

Look, of course there are differences. Waltham is not Cairo. Fred Lawrence is by all accounts pretty great. Our tuition hikes aren’t as high (in percentage, but maybe not in absolute terms). Brandeis workers are unionized (thanks in part to amazing Brandeis Labor Coalition work in the early 2000’s).

Still. These kids are like us students here in the states. (Or we used to be. I don’t know if I count as a student any more). Their problems are like our problems. They succeeded in pulling off a solution. Let’s cheer them on, and learn from them.

Update:
There’s a good Chronicle of Higher Education article on the AUC strike.

Also, did you know that there’s been a National Student Union in Egypt since August? They pulled off a national student union – can we pull off even a statewide one?