Over the past year I’ve listened to university CEO’s and higher education scholars in the United States and Europe speak about “the future of the university”. While one cannot characterize them as panicked, it is clear that the mood that hangs over some of them could be labeled as a “malaise.” They are quick to affirm that the academy will survive while at the same time doubting that this or another type of institution, usually not their own, will remain intact. The apprehension exists more in terms of surviving and thriving as they are right now, rather than surviving at all.

In order to seek another perspective I went to see people at Al-Azahr University in Cairo, which has been running more or less continuously for over 1,140 years. This institution had survived three hundred years of the Ottoman Turks and a century of western power conquest and fight for control. I went there to talk to a young university history scholar who works for the current President. Perhaps he could be my guide as to how I could learn from their story of survival. Maybe there would be a lesson there for us here on how to survive as a post-secondary institution in the 21st Century.

Al-Azhar and surroundings

Al-Azhar is a very impressive place, crowded like the rest of Cairo, sitting in the oldest part of town and challenged by every inconsistency and contradiction found in that part of the world. He met me with a large legal case filled with papers from which he extracted four inches wrapped around with a rubber band.

Al-Azhar opened its doors toward the end of the 10th century, the century in which Alfonso III began the re-conquest of Spain slowly retaking it from the Moorish overlords.  Islam was retrenching and in Egypt, Al-Azhar built a Mosque with the mandate to raise the educational levels of its people and strengthen their faith to fight off the threat. At the time this process began the threat if any from Spain could not be easily observed, but one thing about Al-Azhar is that they anticipate events.

They expanded into Africa toward Ghana and into Asia toward the 17,000 islands of Indonesia and brought back students and new knowledge and things to trade and engaged in a commercial and trade dialog wrapped around Al-Azhar’s control of knowledge and resources. The “mission statement” if you will, was to engage in two opposing acts simultaneously, the expansion in Asia and Africa to propagate the faith and the contraction in North Africa and Europe.

At that time most of the written culture of the Western World was in Arab hands and Al-Azhar kept most of it during the retrenchment. They followed pretty much that business plan for nine centuries, as the British were trying to keep French, Belgians and Italians from access to the Nile.

Control of resources and facilitation of trade had been an important operational advantage for Al-Azhar, which, along with their effective and unrelenting spread of the Islamic faith, made Al-Azhar the ultimate survivor of the era.

Today universities who are not succumbing to malaise and are competing successfully are paying attention to owning the resource. University foundations have been created which hold patents, the present day equivalency to spice trade, in trust with their professors and labs. Some have successfully weathered the recent economic storm, which included the significant depletion of endowments invested in the stock market, by spreading the footprint of their investment to new high-tech ventures, income producing real estate and other entrepreneurial activities just as Al-Azhar was doing 10 centuries ago. “The key seems to be maintaining reserves,” commented my tutor. “One lesson we have learned is that there will be 7 years of famine following the 7 years of plenty and this is also part of the daily reality around here.”

At the conclusion of our first meeting we had hardly gone over a tenth of his documents.  He must have seen the look of concern on my face as he turned to me and said “Don’t worry, it gets easier, the first 500 years are the hardest.”