American University in Cairo responds to allegations of academic freedom violations, but says little

August 14, 2019

Late last month, FIRE shed light on numerous academic freedom violations that occurred at American University in Cairo, an institution bound to expressive rights by both its policies and its American accreditor’s requirements, during its treatment of professor Adam Duker formerly AUC’s assistant professor and Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religion. 

AUC has now responded to FIRE, but its answer does little to quell the important concerns raised by Duker’s case.

For a full account of Duker’s allegations, read FIRE’s letter to AUC, but here’s a quick recap: 

Duker experienced a number of troubling incidents beginning in October 2016, shortly after he began teaching at AUC, when a department chair told Duker his proposed course would be approved only if he cut the PG-13 documentary “Super Size Me” from the syllabus. Citing the film’s “offensive” elements, including “some frank discussion of sexual relations,” the chair worried that others would find the film controversial, causing AUC “considerable trouble.” 

Then in January of 2017, Duker was asked to meet with Tarek Taher, who is the son of the late Abdulhadi H. Taher, the namesake of Duker’s endowed professorship, to assuage Taher’s concerns about his “vision” for the chaired position. In that meeting, Taher asked that Duker give him approval power over Duker’s lectures and requested that Duker use the position to proselytize for Islam in class. Duker refused. 

According to Duker, he was told the decision was based on his failure to promote Islam in class.

Six months later, Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman unexpectedly informed Duker that Taher requested AUC revoke Duker’s title of Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair in Comparative Religion, and the university acquiesced. According to Duker, he was told the decision was based on his failure to promote Islam in class. In June of 2019, AUC found Duker responsible for faculty misconduct over his “continuing use” of the Taher Chair title and “public statements maligning the reputation of Mr. Taher.”

FIRE stepped in upon learning of Duker’s decision to resign in May of 2019 after fighting for months to defend his position and right to make pedagogical decisions. 

FIRE’s July 24 letter called on AUC to affirm that it will no longer prioritize a donor’s demands or fear of controversy over the academic freedom rights of a faculty member, and that a similar departure of the university’s commitments will not occur again. 

AUC’s Aug. 4 response restates the university’s written commitments to freedom of expression, but does not acknowledge that AUC failed to live up to those commitments, nor how it will recommit to those values in the future. Abdel-Rahman wrote:

We respect FIRE’s commitment to freedom of expression for students and faculty, and we share that dedication. The university is committed to advancing academic freedom with respect to teaching and scholarship. The defense of academic freedom is a core principle of AUC, and it is a matter which we approach with the utmost seriousness. AUC is proud of its robust policies on freedom of expression and, as noted in out Freedom of Expression policy, we recognize that freedom of expression “must be at once fiercely guarded and genuinely embraced.” These principles are vital to enhancing our core educational and intellectual mission on our cross-cultural campus. 

AUC does not comment publicly on employment-related matters, and we do not intend to respond to the specific allegations made in your letter . . . . However, several university officials have carefully considered this case and I can assure you that academic freedom was not infringed in any way in this matter. 

While FIRE is pleased to learn that AUC remains “proud of its robust policies on freedom of expression,” Abdel-Rahman’s letter does not suggest the university understands how it failed the policies it claims to uphold. 

Adopting policies that respect expressive rights is an important first step, but the followthrough is what matters most. It remains unclear how banning a professor from showing a PG-13 film, removing his title at the request of a donor, and then later finding him responsible for faculty misconduct for “public statements maligning the reputation” of that donor responsible for this lost title, is representative of a university that is proud to stand by expressive freedoms. 

If AUC has any explanations for its behavior toward Duker, it certainly hasn’t provided them here — and its community members should keep in mind that when challenged for violating the rights it has committed to uphold, AUC resorts to platitudes rather than answers. 

Schools:  American University

Cases:  American University in Cairo: University Revokes Chaired Title from Professor in Response to Donor Complaints