By Dalia Al-Nimr
“I’m excited to be part of the AUC community. I’m here because this is a community that is inspiring, and I look forward to serving it, working with it and belonging to it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in this impressive community.”
For AUC’s 13th President Ahmad Dallal, people matter and openness is crucial.
“I have every intention to engage with our community — honestly, faithfully, transparently,” he said. “We will agree, disagree and debate — this happens in our homes, with our families, everywhere. It’s impossible — indeed undesirable — to start with consensus. We are academics. We should bring to the table different perspectives and points of view.”
The first Arab American to lead the University, Dallal is a prominent scholar of Islamic studies. He served as dean of Georgetown University in Qatar; provost of the American
University of Beirut; and professor at Smith College, Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown, where he was also chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. He earned his BE in mechanical engineering from AUB and his MA, MPhil and PhD in Islamic studies from Columbia University.
Engineering and Islamic studies?
“Yes, this is an aspect of my background and career that some people might find surprising,” Dallal said, smiling. “I was pretty good at school, and in our part of the world, if you’re good at school, you either study medicine or engineering —perhaps business. I enjoyed math and the sciences, so I chose engineering, even though my father, a medical doctor, was hoping I would opt for medicine. I told him that if I did opt for medicine, I would be fully immersed in the field and won’t get a chance to do other things in life.”
“I have every intention to engage with our community — honestly, faithfully, transparently.”
Even as an engineering student, Dallal strived for more. “I deliberately chose engineering because I didn’t want to limit myself to a narrow field of study. I audited most of the history courses available at AUB while pursuing my BE and developed a deep interest in history.”
Dallal practiced engineering for almost five years working in the aviation industry, where “precision is critical for people’s safety,” he reflected. He acquired all Federal Aviation Administration maintenance licenses in mechanical systems. “Then I got to a point in my career where I had to make a decision on whether I will continue with engineering. I could either do what many in my generation did — get an MBA, combine it with engineering and then work in a field connected to engineering management, or deviate from the usual path and opt for something totally different. I chose the latter, took a leap of faith and moved to another field, and I never regretted my decision. I’ve practiced and enjoyed both disciplines, and this has informed my ability to work across these areas and understand the associated challenges and social pressures. In fact, one of the first things I did was to work in the history of science, combining the two fields.”
Family Man and Intellectual
Dallal comes to Cairo with his wife, Dalal El Madade, and his 8-year-old daughter, Kinda. The Dallals have a 26-year-old daughter, Shezza, who is practicing law in New York as an appellate defender. “Interestingly, my wife’s first name is similar to my last name, but they’re not the same. If you don’t know Arabic, you might not notice the difference, but thankfully, you can easily tell us apart,” Dallal pointed out with a laugh. “We’re excited about being in Cairo; I’ve always thought Cairo is an inexhaustible city, so there’s so much to look forward to. It’s one of the few cities in the world where you could live your whole life and never grasp everything about it. When I was young, I spent some time here exploring, but I only saw a tiny fraction of Cairo and Egypt’s treasures. Cairo is obviously a historic city with multiple layers of civilization and culture. I sincerely hope I have time to explore these layers with my family.”
Traveling, visiting cities and learning about different cultures are some of Dallal’s hobbies, but he particularly cherishes the time he is able to spend with his family. “At my age and given my responsibilities, what I look forward to the most is having quality time with my family,” he said.
Contemplation is also essential to his approach. “I cherish the opportunity to have a little time to just step back and think, and reflect on what I’m doing and where it fits in the larger scheme of things.”
Of course, an academic and scholar who likes to reflect naturally likes to read, from books by philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, cultural theorist Raymond Williams and literary critic Edward Said to historian Eric Hobsbawm, sociocultural anthropologist Talal Asad and 11th-century scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, often described as the founder of anthropology. Dallal also enjoys historical novels, such as Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat, and especially poetry. “I love poetry in many languages, but I appreciate Arabic poetry in particular,” said Dallal, who is fluent in English and Arabic and reads French, German and Persian. “I read classical and modern poetry by poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Agha Shahid Ali — it’s all amazing. Actually, if I have a little time to read truly for pleasure, it’s definitely poetry.”
A prolific author, Dallal has written dozens of articles, book chapters and publications, as well as several books that include An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy: Kitab Ta’dil Hay’at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari’a (1995); Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History (2012); The Political Theology of ISIS: Prophets, Messiahs & “the Extinction of the Grayzone” (2017); and Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought (2018). At AUC, Dallal is a professor in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations. How does Dallal find the time to juggle all these responsibilities? “You just work,” he simply stated. “It’s okay to be overwhelmed at times, but be persistent and keep at it.”
At AUC’s Helm
When asked about his top priorities as president, Dallal reiterates that it is essential to foster community. “I want to continue supporting the AUC community to forge a culture of excellence in academia and scholarship — and a culture of care as a community,” he said. “Our commitment to excellence is coupled with our community’s well-being. Combining the two is a big challenge, but it’s important. Engaging with the community is not a means to an end; it’s an end in itself. I want to engage with our constituents: faculty, on whose shoulders the University stands; students, whom we serve and measure our success by their success; and staff, our valuable and essential enablers.”
For Dallal, this engagement with the community is one of the things he looks forward to the most. “I’ve dealt with members of the AUC community, and I’m impressed by the passion for AUC that I saw in everyone I met and by their inspiring work. I really want to learn more about what they’re doing, engage with them, and facilitate and support that work. We also have our alumni, who are successful and influential in society. We need to not only engage with them but have them regularly connect with our students.”
In the end, community is at the heart of what we do, Dallal affirmed. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, like adopting digital tools that we didn’t use before — at least not on such a scale — but it also taught us that we learn better in communities. In fact, the loss of a sense of community during periods of lockdown affected people’s ability to learn as well as their well-being and mental health. So we should never compromise the community part.”
“I’ve dealt with members of the AUC community, and I’m impressed by the passion for AUC that I saw in everyone I met and by their inspiring work.”
Along with community engagement come the nuts and bolts of University leadership. “We will work on specifics as we move forward, but some of the challenges we face are not unique to AUC. There is a pressing need for all higher education institutions to rethink their models, and we need to be part of that global conversation on issues such as the value of higher education, or the balance between the liberal arts and professional programs. Specifically, in our context, the landscape in which we operate is much more competitive, not just in Egypt, but in the Arab region and globally. We need to sharpen our competitive edge, expand access for excellent students who can’t afford AUC, introduce new disciplines and constantly think about how we can do better as an institution — both from efficiency and ethical points of view — and how we model integrity in our institutional practices. We also need to make use of what we learned during the pandemic and lockdown, primarily that digital tools complement, not replace, what we do in person. Education is transforming, and we have to think about the future of higher education from all these prisms and perspectives.”
And AUC stands on solid ground, Dallal emphasized, because of its heritage, reputation, quality education, vibrant community and its location in Egypt — the heart of the region and Africa. “We are a small institution, but being in Egypt, with its cultural and human depth and sociopolitical weight, is a huge asset,” said Dallal, who first encountered AUC while conducting research in the library on the Tahrir Square campus in the late 1980s.
Dallal was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, and spent 25 years studying and teaching in the United States. This unique blend gives him an insider’s perspective — both on the region and U.S.-style liberal arts universities. “I am fortunate to have deep knowledge and experience in the best academic setup worldwide, U.S. higher education, which, to me, is America’s greatest and most enduring legacy. Everyone today is trying to model U.S. higher education institutions. I hope this will help me serve AUC, one of the handful of truly U.S.-style legacy institutions in the Arab region. AUC is structured as an American higher education institution, but it’s in the region, of the region and for the region. So that combination is unique.”
“I want to continue supporting the AUC community to forge a culture of excellence in academia and scholarship — and a culture of care as a community.”
Being an American citizen of Arab descent gives Dallal a rare vantage point. Having studied the region and addressed contemporary scientific and historical issues in his writings and research is crucial to his understanding. “I hope that my experience, research and knowledge of the sensibilities and aspirations of the region — and knowledge of higher education in the United States and the Middle East — make me better equipped to serve AUC,” he said. However, Dallal is quick to point out that such insights are useful but have limitations: “Success in leadership requires being attentive and receptive to input from the diverse constituencies of the AUC community.”
During his tenure, Dallal plans to build on AUC’s “track record of excellence,” he said. “I’m not coming to an institution that just started yesterday. AUC is deeply rooted. When I say legacy, I don’t just mean AUC being 100 years old. It’s an institutional legacy that enabled AUC to produce extraordinary people who are well-placed, successful, and serve their communities in Egypt and beyond.”
Dallal’s vision for AUC rests on two main pillars: students and faculty. “I want AUC to be known as the place that produces the most qualified, sought-after, well-trained graduates — ones who contribute to their nations and communities and are problem solvers who can think outside the box to address new issues every day. It should also be known for faculty who are the go-to experts in their fields, whose research is mindful of the challenges facing us and provides answers to relevant issues locally, regionally and globally. This is already the case, but we want to develop that further.”
The areas in which AUC trains its students are also critical. “Fields such as artificial intelligence and data science didn’t exist a few years ago. Now they shape humanity,” Dallal said. “The environment, climate change, water scarcity, energy — these are all challenges that are becoming more acute exponentially, and we need to train students to deal with these problems. We have a basis to build on, but we must intensify our efforts.”
And, of course, there is liberal arts, which also defines AUC. “I’m a strong believer in the vital role of a liberal arts education,” explained Dallal. “By and large, our institution is committed to liberal arts, but what exactly does that mean at this point in time? After COVID? In the next few years? How do we integrate that into our educational model? The exact answer is something the community has to work on; we have to come up with the specific formula together. We have to revisit, rethink and redefine our commitments. We will definitely engage our entire community to decide what it’s going to look like, today and tomorrow.”
This constant reassessment is a normal part of any institution’s advancement. “Work in these areas is never finished. We must be attentive to changes happening in higher education, and be able to evaluate and rethink our approaches. This is the hallmark of successful universities,” emphasized Dallal.
What People Have to Say
“Congratulations. You deserve the best.”Fatma Tarek
“As our chief academic officer, Ahmad Dallal has been the primary driver of programs that have resulted in AUB achieving the most prolific research output in Lebanon and the region, and the implementation of processes that have greatly enhanced both teaching and learning. Ahmad set a high bar for AUB’s academic and institutional integrity. He not only helped us reach that bar; he ensured we would exceed it.”
– American University of Beirut Board of Trustees Chairman Philip S. Khoury, 2015
“Congratulations to him, The American University in Cairo and all AUC students.”Saber Sufyan Al Daery
“How lucky is AUC to have Ahmad Dallal as its new president? To those who don’t know, Ahmad Dallal served as AUB provost, [and] no one had or has been able to match Ahmad’s high academic caliber nor his full dedication to AUB. I was so lucky and fortunate to witness Ahmad’s hard work and great achievements for AUB as we served together in the Academic Affairs Committee at the university’s Board of Trustees. [His] ever-going energy and success led Ahmad to become dean of Georgetown University in Qatar and now AUC president in Egypt. But what mostly made me write this note is Ahmad — the genuine and real person, the humble and very smart intellectual. Behind Ahmad’s success are a wonderful and fully supportive wife, Dalal, and their beautiful children. Upward and onward, AUC, and good luck to my friend, President Ahmad Dallal! Mabrouk!”
“Best of luck. Hope this brings fresh change and collaboration with alumni, students and stakeholders.”Amr Abouelazm
“Wonderful news. Dr. Dallal is a competent educator and administrator. AUC made the right choice with this appointment. Congratulations, Dr. Ahmad Dallal. Congratulations, AUC’s Board of Trustees.”
“It’s refreshing to have such an astute academic and accomplished administrator to lead AUC and build on our enviable legacy. Our brand can only soar higher. Congratulations are in order.”Gabriel Meiriga Alhassan
“As a @GUQatar board member, I’d like to extend my deepest gratitude to Dr. Dallal for his great contributions during his deanship. I’m deeply glad that academia in the Arab region gained a great human & scholar as he becomes the 13th President of the prestigious @AUC. Congrats.”
AUC is fortunate to have a person of Ahmad Dallal’s stature.