Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Scheiderer and Beckett Visit Cairo

The following article was printed in the April issue of The Beacon, the official newsletter of the Great Lakes Colleges Association. (via Denison)

By Gregory Wegner
Imagine being able to design a college from the ground up – making fundamental decisions about programs, staff, and facilities on a campus built in an entirely new location.

Last fall the directors of athletics from two of GLCA’s member colleges – Dr. Larry Scheiderer of Denison, and Dr. Keith Beckett of Wooster – experienced something of this kind when they were invited by the American University in Cairo (AUC) to provide consultation to the University as it undertakes a wholesale move from metropolitan Cairo to a location some 40 miles to the east, in a desert suburb of New Cairo, Egypt. They wanted to better understand the role of sports in a liberal arts education.

AUC was founded in 1919 as an American style institution liberal arts committed to providing
a broad foundation of education in the liberal arts and sciences. It currently enrolls 3,900 undergraduate and 1,000 graduate students. Faced with a rapid growth of demand for higher education and limited options for growth in the city, AUC is building an entirely new campus on 260 acres in its New Cairo location with a capacity to educate 7,000 students. Among other things, moving the campus to a less congested suburban setting makes it possible for AUC to offer expanded athletics facilities and programs. GLCA is working to develop a program, called the Jeffersonian Alliance, to make possible visits of this kind in response to particular needs or opportunities that arise between its member colleges in the U.S. and American-style higher education institutions overseas that offer a liberal arts curriculum.

Through the past two years GLCA has developed initial relationships with several such institutions in Europe and the Middle East. AUC’s President, David Arnold, had contacted Rick Detweiler, President of GLCA, to ask if he could recommend athletics directors from American liberal arts colleges to provide insights and considerations in developing expanded programs and facilities. Following some inquiries and arrangements, Larry Scheiderer and Keith Beckett boarded a series of flights together from Ohio to Cairo and AUC.

In the course of their flight, Scheiderer and Beckett voiced some anxieties about what expectations their Egyptian hosts might have, and whether their American experience could be truly helpful to AUC officials in working through considerations of staffing, facilities, and programming on a new campus. Both came to feel much more at ease after meeting their hosts. From their first exchanges with officials of the University, they realized that the experience of being guests would be rewarding while providing opportunities for reciprocal learning between themselves and their Egyptian counterparts. Mohamed Taher Ragab, the acting sports director of AUC, was a principal liaison to the two athletics directors from Ohio. They felt a sense of camaraderie with him almost immediately.

"Mohamed began telling us stories of things he encounters as athletics director," said Scheiderer. "Keith and I perceived very soon that we knew exactly where the stories were going, and the kinds of challenges they posed. We came to feel a close sense of rapport with Mohamed and his colleagues from the very start of our visit."

Beckett and Scheiderer found that they were able to speak candidly about difficult issues and conflicts that can arise in the context of an athletic event – or in the more general environment of an academic community. Mohamed Taher Ragab had observed that episodes occasionally occur on the playing court or field that have an international cast and reflect differences in culture among athletes.

Having arrived in Cairo shortly after a racial incident at Denison Scheiderer was able to discuss openly the Denison experience and the steps toward healing that his campus was taking. In the course of their visit Beckett and Scheiderer observed many commonalities in the role of athletics in the U.S. and Egypt. Egyptian students pursue athletics with a passion equaling that of students in the U.S. In both nations, athletics provides important opportunities for students to set and achieve goals.

The enthusiasm that students bring to athletic achievement can often be seen in other areas of their lives; many athletes exhibit an active engagement in service to the community as well as a strong commitment to family. Egyptian students who play sports understand their participation in sports or recreation as one part of their educational growth and development. A female student who was an accomplished squash player had observed, "Playing this sport is a commitment for me, but it’s not a priority over academics."

At the same time, Scheiderer and Beckett observed differences in culture that distinguished the Egyptian context from that of liberal arts colleges in the U.S. Scheiderer said that "It took Keith and me some time to figure out their athletic model."

Colleges in the U.S. participate in college- or university-based athletic conferences or leagues that result in well-established seasons and standards of reference for given sports. These kinds of intercollegiate organizations are not present to the same degree in Egypt. Athletic competition tends to occur in more of a "home club" environment; the University’s athletics teams compete with the teams of other clubs in the Cairo region. Many also play in their club teams while attending the University. This circumstance may create uncertainty in athletic events on campus; some players may not be present for an AUC basketball game, for example, because it conflicts with a game they are playing with their home town club.

In a variety ways, the rhythms of AUC’s athletic and recreational programs correspond to national and cultural norms. One of the highlights of the athletic season is the Ramadan Open Tournaments, conducted during a season of the Islamic year in which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. After sunset, students of the University gather with their families to break the fast and celebrate. As a result, athletic events generally do not begin until nearly midnight during Ramadan. This circumstance has created unusual patterns of staffing and facilities usage in the AUC’s downtown Cairo location; as the campus and its athletics facilities relocate to a setting more distant from the Cairo family homes of many students, additional challenges will likely occur.

"We have a mindset of how we do things, and the scheduling of athletic events is always a challenge," said Beckett. "Seeing the cultural context of those general challenges helped us to see issues of our own colleges in a broader perspective."

Both Beckett and Scheiderer observed that in some respects, the tenor of AUC’s athletics program recalled an earlier era of athletics in the U.S., one that regarded sports contests more informally as activities that benefit students and contribute generally to their academic and social development through college. In the past three decades, intercollegiate athletics has become increasingly specialized in the U.S.

"Twenty-five or thirty years ago," observed Beckett, “it was not uncommon for the head football coach to serve also as the assistant basketball coach during the off season.” Scheiderer added, "The thinking in that time was that a general knowledge of coaching would make it possible to coach students in any sport, regardless of the specific experience one might have had in that sport."

Today a coach of intercollegiate sports in the U.S. focuses on a single sport and spends the offseason primarily engaged in a college’s recruitment effort, seeking to attract the most promising scholar-athletes to the institution. While the pressure on AUC’s coaches seems generally less intense, it is possible to observe signs of movement in the direction that intercollegiate sports have taken in the U.S. One of AUC’s most accomplished swimmers had said to their American visitors, "If we want to be truly competitive, our coach will need to work hard during the off-season to recruit a strong team."

Both recount the experience of visiting AUC as one that helped them see the setting and circumstance of their own programs in a broader perspective. Beckett observed, "The experience gave me a strong sense of appreciation for the range of opportunities that our students have in the U.S. Sometimes we take for granted the things we have before us; I came away with a heightened respect for what our coaches and physical education faculty in these U.S. colleges are able to do."

They were struck by the hospitality of their hosts, the excitement they showed in having them as guests, and the interest they took in the advice that Beckett and Scheiderer could give as athletics directors of colleges in the U.S. The two Americans were able to give helpful advice on staffing needs, facilities usage and maintenance, event scheduling, as well as in the qualifications and process for hiring a new athletics director. Reflecting on their experience, it was clear that these athletics directors from Wooster and Denison had learned as much as they taught.

"Whatever your facilities are like," says Scheiderer, "you can still put a program together that meets the athletics and recreational needs of students. The experience reinforced that what we do in athletics is common throughout the world, it just takes place in a different cultural context."

View Photos by Larry Scheiderer

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