Religion expert in row over cancellation of prestigious chair

American University in Cairo withdraws chair in comparative religions at request of donor’s son

April 11, 2019
Cairo
Source: iStock

A religious studies expert is locked in a row with his university after his prestigious chair was withdrawn at the request of the son of the donor who endowed it.

The American University in Cairo cancelled the Abdulhadi H. Taher chair in comparative religions after discussions with Tarek Taher over teaching by Adam Duker, who was appointed to the position in 2016.

However, Dr Duker has continued to use the title, claiming that he is contractually entitled to it and that he would not have moved to Egypt without it. He is now being threatened with disciplinary action, according to internal AUC emails seen by Times Higher Education.

At the heart of the row is the legacy of Abdulhadi Taher, a former oil executive and director general of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, who established the chair in 2002. He died in 2013.

According to a now-deleted section of the AUC website, the chair was created “to support a course of study which exemplifies the beliefs of Dr Taher by teaching religious tolerance and equality, thereby promoting peace”.

In emails seen by THE, Francis Ricciardone, the president of AUC, said that Tarek Taher had expressed “concerns” about the position and the associated programme of study, and proffered that Mr Taher might be concerned by lectures that might suggest a connection between Islam and extremism or terrorism. Separate AUC emails indicate that Mr Taher felt “that it is his religious duty to ensure that his father’s wishes are continued through the chair” and had asked for details of reading materials on the course.

Mr Ricciardone said that he had provided Mr Taher with information about teaching and lectures which, he said, had nothing to do with terrorism or extremism.

But in July 2017 Dr Duker was told that “the donor has clearly indicated to AUC that he did not want his family name associated with this position, that this endowed professorship would no longer be supported, and was cancelled”. Dr Duker was left with the title of assistant professor in the department of history.

According to Dr Duker, an expert in religious violence in late medieval and early modern Europe, Mr Taher wanted the chair to focus more closely on Islam.

Dr Duker continued to use the title, arguing that his contract for the tenure-track position was binding with AUC and that the title could not be altered without mutual consent.

Dr Duker was then told that his “continuous use of this title is causing financial and reputational damage” to AUC, and that AUC had been “well within its right” to withdraw the title under Egyptian law. Dr Duker was also told that the university was considering launching a formal investigation that could lead to disciplinary action.

Dr Duker said that he had moved to Egypt after completing his PhD at the University of Notre Dame “in order to take up this prestigious and important position and to take up the important work of cross-confessional religious studies in a region that desperately needs it”.

“The title of chair was the reason I took the job. On a personal level, the decisions of Tarek Taher and the AUC administration are devastating,” he said.

Asked by THE whether the chair had been withdrawn for religious reasons, Mr Taher said that “the information you have is incorrect”.

AUC did not provide a comment for publication by THE’s deadline. In an email to Dr Duker, Sunanda Holmes, the university’s general counsel, said that AUC has “neither changed your job, nor deprived you of any salaries or benefits proposed under your contract. AUC has only asked you to stop using the title that is in the donor’s name, upon the donor’s request.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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