By Yakin Ouederni
Nada Hussein Habib had no idea she was about to be offered a full scholarship to AUC on live TV. As the highest performing thanawiya amma student of 2018, she was invited to appear on the Maakom Mona Elshazly show, prepared to talk about her accomplishments and future goals. Little did she know, AUC President Francis Ricciardone had orchestrated the whole thing — from tracking her down to getting her on the show — and was waiting for the right moment to break the news.
“The crowd went wild,” Ricciardone says, laughing as he recalled the moment. “And she accepted, of course.”
This is just one special moment Ricciardone picked out of what he calls his “photo album of memories” that have made his time at AUC worthwhile. As he enters his last few weeks as president of the University, retiring in June 2021, he says he’s grateful for every chat, laugh and interaction he’s had with AUC’s most prized possession: its people.
”It’s all about the wonderful people you see, and then the beautiful surroundings, gorgeous gardens and lovely architecture, the little nooks and crannies, where a student will be sitting in the sunshine almost as if to compose a photograph for you,” he says.
A former diplomat, Ricciardone started his career at AUC in 2016, following posts as ambassador to the Philippines and Palau in 2002, Egypt in 2005 and Turkey in 2010, and deputy ambassador to Afghanistan in 2009. Higher education was unlike any environment he’s worked in before, with its own tribal rules and culture, its secret handshakes, its power structures and its taboos. “It has been a real growth experience for me, and I’ve really loved it. The production and transmission of knowledge is a very high purpose,” he says.
But traversing a new environment doesn’t come without challenges. Ricciardone joined AUC in the midst of one of the biggest shocks nationwide: floating the Egyptian pound and its resulting sharp devaluation — losing almost half its value to the U.S. dollar. This meant an unprecedented increase in the prices of all goods and services, and for AUC, a potential spike in tuition fees.
As students sparked up in protest and the administration was pounded with pressure, Ricciardone promised that no student would drop out due to financial difficulties, creating a $5 million program to alleviate the impact and provide assistance to those who needed it. And AUC kept its promise.
That was just the first of the major challenges Ricciardone had to deal with since coming to AUC. Revising the faculty handbook was a timely feat that was completed in Spring 2019. He also led the University through settling the issue of income taxes and updating AUC’s 1975 protocol — both with the Egyptian government.
Ricciardone notes that challenges of this sort are policy and procedure, and while they are of great importance, they are also foreseeable and mainly require the right team. “I have learned to deal with resilient institutions where you know who your strong talent is: people who are calm, focused and disciplined,” he says.
It’s the more abrupt difficulties that pop up suddenly, ones that shake up the whole institution — or world — overnight, like the COVID-19 pandemic, that proved to be the most challenging. It’s safe to say that no one had a clue what was going on in March 2020. As the world scrambled to figure out how to handle a virus spreading at an unprecedented speed, AUC was caught in the same puzzle as other educational entities.
Ricciardone guided the University through a swift shift to online instruction and remote work. For three semesters and continuing, students, faculty and staff have been navigating both fully online and hybrid modes of instruction and work, alternating as needed to ensure the safety of all individuals. It was drawing on past experiences as a diplomat that has helped Ricciardone handle even the most flustering of situations.
“I don’t panic very easily,” he says. “This isn’t like running an embassy in Kabul or Baghdad in a wartime environment. It’s not nearly as hard. I learned not to take problems personally, so I just focus on the institutional strengths, look at the weaknesses and challenges, and figure out with our strongest and best people how to address those challenges and overcome the weaknesses.”
And in the middle of the coronavirus storm came a movement against what many also consider a pandemic — sexual harassment. What started as women, including students at AUC, taking to social media to expose a predator became a nationwide movement to hold perpetrators accountable and put an end to harassment in Egypt. “I see sexual harassment as an abomination,” Ricciardone says. “I’m really proud of those who spoke out. There should be zero harassment at AUC, and that itself is still a low standard.”
Working to prevent and combat sexual harassment and encourage victims to report, AUC launched SpeakUp, a University-wide campaign that affirms there is no denial harassment takes place on campus and elsewhere. “We swung into action very quickly. Even if it’s only rumors, we’ve got to dig into them and encourage victims to speak up and make sure they know they’re not going to be even further victimized,” Ricciardone says.
As part of SpeakUp came the Office of Institutional Equity, which is dedicated to overseeing all centralized initiatives for preventing, reporting and responding to concerns related to discrimination and harassment. Reporting channels were strengthened and communicated more clearly, and a mandatory anti-harassment training was developed for all members of the AUC community. “We’re not perfect, and we definitely never will be,” Ricciardone says. “But I feel very good leaving behind a place where this is now openly talked about, and we’ve got stronger systems in place to both prevent and react when it does occur.”
Looking forward has been a pillar of Ricciardone’s presidency. Even before he stepped foot on campus in 2016, he had emphasized three goals to achieve: re-internationalization of the University, managing the institution sustainably and making the AUC experience excellent. While sustainable management will always be a work in progress, excellence is within arm’s reach. And it’s not just about the intangible experiences but the physical ones as well.
AUC’s centennial celebrations started in 2019 with the establishment of the Tahrir Cultural Center, a hub in downtown Cairo for cultural activities and events serving the Egyptian community. The celebrations ended in 2020 with AUC Next 100, a multiyear plan to physically expand the New Cairo campus with new learning spaces, sports facilities, gardens, restaurants and other enhancements to the current space — all based on community feedback, wants and needs.
“We’re smack in the middle of traditional Cairo and the New Administrative Capital, which is the future. We’re right on a monorail line, and we’ve got property to expand. So the next big task that I’ve had to work on is to really set the table for our physical expansion into the future,” Ricciardone explains.
Ensuring that the campus expansion plan is in line with the Egyptian government’s vision for the future of this space is the key element of Ricciardone’s final task. After formalizing a written agreement with which actual construction can begin, the rest is up to Ricciardone’s successor. So this closing of the centennial year can be much better looked at as an opening of the next 100 years and a future committed to continuing on the path of excellence, he says.
Photos: (Left to right) At the January 2020 commencement; At his inauguration in 2016 as AUC’s 12th president, with Chair Emeritus Richard Bartlett; (Bottom right)
For Ricciardone, the biggest accomplishments he’s seen over the last five years have been AUC’s people: watching as students pull off tremendous events, seeing faculty members advance their research and become pioneers in their fields, being there as staff members are awarded for their hard work and seeing security guards smile for photos after students thank them for helping return their lost items. “Those are the happy memories that stand out for me the most,” he says. “There are just so many magical moments.”
He sees all this materialized through the purpose of higher education: to transmit knowledge throughout a country that has so much to offer. And who do you invest in? The people, of course.
Ricciardone has signed off a great number of scholarships and fellowships established at AUC, from the Hadhramout Foundation Scholarship for Yemeni Students to public school scholarships, and the recent $36 million USAID Scholars Activity that is providing full-tuition scholarships to 700 Egyptian students from all of the country’s governorates over the next 10 years. Ricciardone believes scholarships are the best thing a University has to offer. In a land where economic opportunity isn’t level, access to education should be.
“That’s precisely what we at AUC love to do,” he asserts. “We offer an education that many in Egypt believe is the platinum standard. There are students with moderate means who can never dream of affording AUC, so we’re helping those striving, ambitious and smart people do great things for themselves.”
It’s his hope that members of the community take their accomplishments off campus as well — that the investment of higher education is reinvested back into their communities.
“We want people who have a full heart, who want to give and do something to make Egypt or their home countries better,” he says. “They want to conquer disease, overcome conflict, alleviate poverty, save the environment, grow more food, reverse global warming or invent something that will make life better. These are the kinds of people who want to solve great problems.”
They say when you drink from the Nile, you’re destined to return to it. This couldn’t be closer to the truth for Ricciardone. His love of Egypt, which he refers to as Umm al Donya, Mother of the World, started back in 1977, when he visited Cairo for the first time with his wife, Dr. Marie Ricciardone. “We fell in love with Egypt then as young tourists,” he says, recalling how he had long hair, an untrimmed beard and nothing but a backpack stuffed with all his belongings. Not too soon after, he came back to Egypt as a young diplomat in the mid 1980s, and then again as ambassador in the 2000s. His daughters grew up here, and one even lived on a boat on the Nile while she studied at AUC. Today, his three grandchildren run around the house in their tiny galabiyas.
“I believe there’s no place more exciting and stimulating to release human ingenuity than Egypt, which has been the fountainhead of creativity since forever,” he says.
Ricciardone will miss his favorite foods, molokhiya and koshari; roaming around the corners and crevices of the city that tourists don’t really know about; and the relationships he’s formed with people all around, like drivers turned friends. “I mean, just the memories of this incredible country. I can’t stay away,” he says.
Just as excited to flip back through his photo album, Ricciardone matches that energy to looking toward the future. For now, he has nothing planned but a relaxing summer vacation with his family, free of emails and phone calls.
As for the next president, Ricciardone leaves him or her with some simple advice: If you’re looking to make the most of your time at AUC, you won’t find it inside your office. “Savor every moment with the students, faculty and staff,” he says. “Get out and enjoy this incredible, dynamic country.”