President Ricciardone: Our People, Identity Are Our Greatest Assets

As the academic year begins, AUC President J. Francis Ricciardone shares with News@AUC his priorities and plans during his first semester on campus and his future vision.

What is your top priority as you begin your tenure as AUC’s 12th president?

My first priority is to meet and get to know the AUC community: students, faculty, staff and parents. Our community can’t exist without the participation and interdependence of these four constituencies here on the ground, plus two critically important sets of stakeholders dispersed globally: our alumni and trustees.

What are you looking forward to the most during your first semester at AUC?

I had a nice chat with Student Union leaders on the first day I arrived, and I’m looking forward to walking around campus with them to meet other students. After all, students are the focus of this institution. I also want to interact with people in their workspaces, so I will visit maintenance areas, campus facilities and, of course, classrooms, laboratories, the library and athletic facilities –– where all the learning and teaching take place. I’m also meeting with faculty members and parents, and I plan to reach out to alumni and our very generous independent supporters in Egypt and around the world. Parents and alumni are very much a part of our University. They care about this place, and we care to make them feel connected.

What will be your main focus as president?

Strengthening our sense of community. If there is one thing that is a priority for me, what brought me here, it is our community: its health, its vibrancy and its impact on the world. Every individual at the University should feel that he or she is part of a larger AUC community both in Cairo and the world –– an important and meaningful part. Students, faculty, staff and parents should feel that they are each co-equal and interdependent elements with the others. We should all focus on our responsibilities and contributions, not just our rights: what we can give for the future, what we can contribute to AUC, and through AUC, to Egypt, this region and the world.

What should be the most defining feature of AUC in the next chapter of its history?

Three pillars that have been important throughout our first century, and which we must carry into our second century: identity, continuity and excellence.

How do you define excellence?

If there is one word to describe AUC and where we want to be in the future, it’s excellence –– in all we do, in all we are. To excel means to stand out –– by definition, to stand as an exception to the norm, to that which is “capped” by mediocrity or passing fashion. Excellence demands personal and community discipline and effort, and very substantial fiscal resources. It is rare, and it is not cheap. That’s what we offer at AUC. Excellence also means a focus on the whole person –– training students to be globally qualified, competitive, innovative and giving –– demanding in the first instance of himself or herself, not of others. With an AUC diploma, AUC graduates have the equivalent of a diploma from any school in the United States, in terms of what it says about them as individuals: native-level English and the ability to think analytically and creatively, yet with discipline and focus –– to come up with new ways of doing things. AUC graduates welcome and enjoy innovation and creativity. They are not afraid of change. On the contrary, they welcome change as an opportunity to not only identify threats, but also to improve oneself, organization and country. They look beyond the accepted group wisdom. When we say ‘excellence,’ it is everything about us –– our students, our educational product, the way we conduct ourselves, our morals and values. 

What about AUC’s identity – what makes it unique?

At our best, AUC is unique in bringing together the best of East and West. The University’s location in Cairo –– “Mother of the World” –– and our American liberal arts education, with its emphasis on critical thinking and inquiry-based thought, give AUC its distinctive identity. AUC has always been Egypt’s global University, serving as a portal for Egyptians from all walks of life to not only learn English, but also to learn how the outside world works: its science, literature, music, art, comparative religions, economy, business, ideas, innovation. AUC has also been a welcoming portal into Egypt for the world, especially for Americans. Our identity as the American University in Cairo is very precious. Generations of teachers, students, parents, trustees, alumni and other generous benefactors have sustained AUC throughout a turbulent 20th century. It is a huge privilege to serve as the 12th president in this line of powerful tradition of service, and God willing to lead us into our second century. We, together, must continue to uphold and preserve this identity.

How can we preserve this identity that has lived on for nearly 100 years?

It’s all about continuity –– which itself stands at the core of the identity of Egypt itself, a culture and civilization as old and enduring as humanity itself. Continuity depends in turn on sustainability, which no human institution can ever take for granted. My job as AUC president –– as with presidents of all U.S. nonprofits –– is to keep raising funds from people who believe that each generation bears a shared responsibility toward the next, and that supporting high-quality education is the best and most impactful way to discharge that responsibility of the “intergenerational compact.” At a personal level, all parents accept that responsibility when they become parents, and their gift of an AUC education to their sons and daughters is an exceptional, even heroic, fulfillment of that responsibility. All of those who enroll at AUC as students are benefiting from that gift of their parents and of the many who have sustained AUC in the past and who continue to do so. I hope that all students will begin, even as students, to accept this intergenerational responsibility of full adulthood and begin “giving back” to the AUC community in all appropriate ways.

I accepted this responsibility as a labor of love because I believe that AUC is a uniquely worthy place to support for its positive impact on a deeply troubled yet rich, pivotally important and dynamic region of the world. At the threshold of our second century, we need to have systems in place –– including a culture of managing scrupulously and giving generously –– to sustain, to replenish and to grow our resources.

With the completion of AUC’s strategic plan, outlining the University’s priorities as it approaches its 100th anniversary, the focus remains the student. What, in your opinion, is the most important trait AUC students should graduate with?

Selflessness: a willingness to serve and give back. To measure your worth as a human being by what you give to others and how well you serve. Putting others before oneself, being an active part of the community –– these are the true signs of maturity and adulthood.  

Your diplomatic career spans many years of distinguished service in the Middle East, including three years as U.S. ambassador to Egypt. In addition, your wife, Dr. Marie Ricciardone, has extensive experience working as a molecular biologist with health professionals in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey as she directs the Middle East collaboration programs of the Center for Global Health at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. What do you find most memorable about living in Egypt?

Marie and I feel very much at home in Egypt. We both have a deep affinity for the land and people of the Nile. As ambassador, I always used to say that every human being should come and experience Egypt. It has an incredible history and is one of the oldest civilizations that humanity knows. It’s not only a place to study the past, but also to develop science for the future. Egypt is all about continuity, durability and sustainability. It’s been through ups and downs — foreign occupations, wars, revolutions, collapse of empires, new dynasties, great periods of building, art, science, growth and advancement. The story of humankind is right here on the Nile.

What draws you to Egypt?

The warmth of its people. Kindness and hospitality come so naturally to Egyptians. When Marie and I lived here with our two young daughters, everywhere we went –– from deserts, mountains and camps to cities, towns and people’s homes –– we were warmly received. Some of the most vivid memories I have are climbing minarets in Mamluk Cairo, attending moulids like the Sayid El Badawi every year in Tanta, and meeting with AUC’s LEAD scholarship students and their parents when I visited Egypt’s governorates. I love Egypt. I feel not only comfortable, but happy, warm and safe here. It’s painful to me when I see foreigners worried about coming to Egypt because they have the wrong idea about the country and the Arab and Muslim world in general.

How can we rectify that?

Egypt has a rich history, and Egyptians should tell their own story to the world. We at AUC can help Egypt tell its story and keep its doors open to the outside world. Where else would a curious young American, Chinese, European, Indian or Japanese come to study Arabic other than umm el donia? This is the center of gravity of the Arab world, and it’s especially rich, warm and welcoming.

On the eve of AUC’s centennial, what are the main challenges you foresee?

Maintaining AUC’s international perspective by attracting international students back to Egypt, amidst other states and societies violently falling apart in the region. Keeping our resources replenished and ensuring we are sustainable. Compared to other private universities in the United Sates, AUC is healthy, but not wealthy. And above all perhaps, the struggle for excellence vs. the universal pressures for mediocrity and conformity with the herd. This means, for example, hiring top-notch faculty in all fields ­­–– from the sciences to the arts –– who perform at global standards and accept no less. Continuously raising funds for scholarships. Currently, every student at AUC is enjoying a subsidy. No student pays more than 60 percent of the cost of his or her education, and in addition, 60 percent of students receive full or partial scholarships to study at the University. We need to increase scholarships while keeping the cost of tuition down as much as possible.

What about the opportunities?

We have strong assets in our people –– expert faculty; dedicated staff; bright and ambitious students; parents who care, are forward-looking and ready to sacrifice for their children; and alumni who are making a difference in the world –– and who see that AUC helped launch their careers and enrich their lives. We have a fabulous new campus, and our reputation at home and abroad is very special and precious. This reputation means everything to AUC. Without it, we cannot build and strengthen our identity and cannot sustain our continuity. But we can never take our reputation for granted amidst the global competition. We must live up to this reputation for excellence, and we can only do that as one, solid community. As I mentioned in welcoming our new parents and students at the Fall 2016 Convocation ceremony, we should always remember four defining traits at AUC, under one good acronym:  G.I.V.E –– Giving, Integrity, Vitality and Excellence. That’s who we are.