Working in collaboration with the global Talloires Network, the Ma’an Arab University Alliance aims to bring together Arab universities with the collective goal of encouraging and enhancing civic engagement implementation in higher education and supporting the exchange of best practices.
The Arab region is witnessing an upsurge of public interest in citizenship and participation. University students are among the most active sector, forming youth service organizations and creating other avenues for local and national participation. Furthermore, a tradition of civic engagement and social responsibility has deep historical roots in Arab universities, but is in need of reinvigoration and redefinition. Recent decades of rote learning and theoretical distancing from everyday life have rendered many universities inhospitable to student impulses for a more engaged pedagogy. Additionally, some administrators view engagement as an alien idea – and one that interferes with a controlled academic environment. Nevertheless, there are important signs of change. A number of public and private universities are now exploring off-campus programs, often linked to career placement and internships. At the same time, student clubs are lobbying for a more engaged relationship to local communities and problems. Challenges remain, but increasingly, more and more voices are calling for higher education to remember its responsibilities as a member of its community and society.
Founded in 2008, the Ma’an Alliance for Arab Universities is a regional platform connecting university leaders, faculty and students around a common vision of increased civic responsibility on Arab university campuses. Ma’an is a regional affiliate of the international Talloires Network, an active international alliance of 304 universities whose presidents have committed to strengthen the civic roles and social responsibilities of institutions of higher education. The Ma’an Alliance aims at catalyzing a movement that is owned and driven by a vigorous network of Arab universities involved at regional and national levels. University members commit to graduating civically engaged youth capable of building the societies they aspire to live in. Ma’an activities are driven by a participatory and consultative approach, one that engages multiple stakeholders representing students, faculty, senior administrators, the private sector, public agencies, and civil society partners. Currently, the Ma’an Alliance encompasses 15 universities from nine Arab countries.
The secretariat of the Ma’an Alliance is hosted by the John D. Gerhart Center at The American University in Cairo (AUC). In December 2013, the Gerhart Center has partnered with Silatech and Innovations for Civic Participation (ICP) to hire a manager for the Ma’an Alliance, who works closely with the director and assistant director of the Gerhart Center to expand the network and create a sustainable governance structure for the alliance. The Gerhart Center (GC) serves as a leading provider of knowledge and resources for strengthening philanthropic practice and civic engagement in the Arab region. In addition to hosting the Ma’an Alliance for Civically Engaged Arab Universities, the GC has spearheaded university innovation through a range of programs. The Gerhart Center has three main units, the University Civic Engagement, under which the Ma’an alliance is administered, the Philanthropy and Social investment unit and the Research Program. The GC serves as the coordinating institution for a multi-stakeholder initiative to establish an Egyptian national debate league, with 13 local student-initiated clubs in the first year.
Another GC university initiative, the Lazord Civic Leadership Academy, has proven successful in helping youth to utilize their civic skills in transiting to the workforce. From 2007 to 2012, the center successfully incubated the Community-Based Learning program at AUC before integrating it at the heart of course creation under the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate studies. The programmatic experience of the center in incubating university-based initiatives and its extensive knowledge in best practices in the field made it a natural host for the Ma’an Alliance secretariat, which when ready will be rotating among its university members, who have the capacity to host it.
Over the past years, the Ma’an Alliance had organized activities at the regional and national level. In 2008, Ma'an launched its first Tadamunn conference in Beirut, with the slogan, “It Takes a Village” to share experiences in civic engagement and explore new approaches, in collaboration with Innovations in Civic Participation, and the Talloires Network. In 2013, Ma'an held the presidents meeting including three presidents of public Egyptian universities (Asuit University, Helwan University, Suez Canal University). In April 2013, a roadmap was developed through a consultative workshop with six public Egyptian universities with delegations of senior administrators, faculty and students. Currently, six case studies are in progress about civic engagement activities held in seven public Egyptian universities.
In 2014, Silatech and ICP had convened a regional consultation with university presidents and senior administrators to discuss the role of civic engagement in higher education, where Ma’an has re-launched the alliance and was able to reach out to increase membership and identify needs of universities across different countries of the region through a survey.