The dream and vision of the university’s first president established the foundation for AUC as it is today
By Jeffrey Bellis
Photographs from the University Archives, Rare Books and Special Collections Library
Charles Watson was born and raised in Cairo,
leaving for the United
States once he reached adulthood to study at the Lawrenceville School and Princeton University. After teaching in different prestigious universities including Princeton, he spent many years in various positions affiliated with the United Presbyterian Church, first as a pastor and later as secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions. As a college student, Watson had often dreamed of launching an American university in Cairo, and as part of his work, he made separate trips to Cairo in 1912, 1915 and 1917 to evaluate the Egyptian educational system.
Largely as a result of his efforts and passion for the project,AUC’s Board of Trustees was organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915, and Watson was chosen as president-elect of the proposed university.
The First World War (1914 - 1918) inhibited fundraising efforts and delayed the opening of the university, but to Watson, it provided more of an incentive to fulfill his dream. In 1916, in a letter to the Board of Trustees, he wrote, “I think you will agree with me that in these days, when the energies ofWestern civilization are so largely absorbed in activities of destruction, we Americans must count it a God-given privilege, indeed a solemn responsibility too, to devote our energies to such constructive work for the uplift of humanity as is contemplated” in the founding of the university.
After the war ended, the board needed to decide the location of the university campus.The original plan was to build a campus near the pyramids, but this was met with some resistance, as it was too far from the center of Cairo.There was also the possibility of buying a plot of land near Tahrir Square, but the price was far more than could be raised in the time needed to complete the deal. This changed after the British arrested nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul and violent demonstrations broke out, causing land prices to plummet.The price of the land of the Tahrir Square Main Campus dropped to half of its value at $93,000. On April 18, 1919, Charles Watson officially gained the rights to AUC land.
In the time it took to actually purchase the land, the Board of Trustees was working furiously to complete the legal necessities in Philadelphia, and to do so, they needed to officially name the university. In early correspondence, the college was referred to as Cairo University, but the British leaders in Cairo balked at this because it was too similar to the government-funded Egyptian University (today’s Cairo University).The British had plans to expand and modernize the existing Egyptian university, and a competing American college was seen by them as “inappropriate.” Eventually, the board settled on The American University at Cairo.The name was changed in 1961 from “at Cairo” to “in Cairo” because one government official believed it made Cairo seem like a small, unimportant village to the outside world.The Board of Trustees saw no need to create a fuss over such a small issue and agreed to the name change.
Initially,AUC was created to be a preparatory school and a university. It opened on October 5, 1920, with 142 students in its sole department, the College of Arts and Sciences.There were eight Americans and nine Egyptians making up the first year’s faculty, with Watson overseeing that everything went smoothly. During his tenure,Watson cultivated an association with the Hill family, who gave generous contributions to the university. He promoted freedom of discussion and brought in carefully selected young professors from the United States and Egypt to teach at AUC. His early vision of the university expanded into a desire to express service to Egypt and prepare its youth for their later positions in life; therefore, he established the Division of Extension in 1924 as a means of educating the whole community. He wanted AUC to provide quality education with an emphasis on honesty and integrity of character, and he gave numerous lectures on this topic
throughout his many years of service.
“The American University at Cairo has from the beginning laid a unique emphasis on character training in
education,” said Watson in the commencement address of June 1925. “Our education is directed not merely to the student’s head and intellect, but also to his heart and moral character. … It becomes a duty, therefore, to see that moral training shall go hand in hand with scholarship in all our processes of education.”
Watson, who was known for his even temperament and dignified character, worked tirelessly in support
of AUC as its president from 1916 to 1945.These efforts culminated in his receiving an award from King Farouk
in 1944, the High Decoration of the Order of Ismail, one of the highest honors conferred by the Egyptian
government at the time. The first American to receive the award,Watson was granted it in recognition of his
years of devotion and dedication to the people of Egypt, and for the university becoming a bridge between East and West.As Watson once noted,AUC’s mission is to act as a “bridge of friendliness. At one end of the bridge stands Egypt and other Muslim lands eager for help in solving the new problems of this day. At the other end of the bridge is America. ... The big idea is bringing the two together.”