How I Got Here: Lisa Anderson

A conversation with
Lisa Anderson

Feb 25, 2020

Feb 25, 2020 • by Lisa Anderson

Lisa Anderson

  • Professor, Harvard University and Columbia University
  • Dean, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs
  • President, American University in Cairo

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A variety of things, because I was a curious child. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while, and then I wanted to be ambassador to the Soviet Union.

What kind of kid wants to be ambassador to the Soviet Union?

I grew up in eastern Long Island, but I was always vaguely interested in the rest of the world: this was the era of Life magazine. Then I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, and then I briefly flirted with being a hairdresser. My parents worried about the hairdresser thing and sent me off to Sarah Lawrence College, where I fell under the spell of a remarkable teacher, Adda Bozeman. She taught a two-semester course called “Politics and Culture and World Affairs”: everything you wanted to know about the whole world. She was very conservative politically and a great enthusiast of the war in Vietnam. I went home for Thanksgiving supporting the war, and my parents thought to themselves, “For this, we’re paying?” Her course took me down to the basics: What do I believe? Why do I believe it? How do I do analysis? This battle-axe of an instructor imperiously assigned people papers they should write, and at one point, she said I should write about Egypt. Sixty pages later, having read everything in the Sarah Lawrence College Library about Egypt, I was off and running, having decided to pursue an academic career.

What was it about Egypt that resonated?

I don’t know. Perhaps the timing was good. When [President Gamal Abdel] Nasser died, and it was on the cover of Time magazine, I knew all about it. That sense of knowing something in depth was satisfying and energizing.

What came after college?

I went to Fletcher [Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy] for a master’s. I hadn’t realized that Bozeman was one of relatively few women in the field. When I got to Fletcher and there weren’t any women on the faculty, I realized I had to navigate things a bit differently. I continued to do the Middle East and development, interested in what we would now call “the global South.” And as I sat in class with people who would end up at USAID or someplace like that, I realized I was more contemplative. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out and change the world instantly; I wanted to think about it a little first. So I ended up going to Columbia for a Ph.D. While I was at Fletcher, though, I met my first Libyan. He was a wonderful guy, and it was very exotic. He ended up getting his Ph.D. at Fletcher and returning to Libya. But we used to sit over coffee, and he would teach me basic things: “This is Tripoli. This is Benghazi.” As I thought about dissertation topics, I decided that everybody had written about Egypt. There were at least 150 years of scholarship, whereas there were probably six books in English about Libya. So if I wrote the seventh, it would be a contribution, even if it wasn’t very good. I wasn’t that self-confident at the time, but I wanted to have an impact. And the seventh book on Libya would have an impact.

What happened to your Libyan friend?

He ended up being prime minister when the United States negotiated renewed relations with Libya in the early 2000s. I saw him when I visited Libya again after a long, long time. We went out for dinner with his family; I wanted to talk politics and all he wanted to do was talk about Fletcher classmates. Unfortunately, after [Muammar al-]Qaddafi fell, he was found face-down in the Danube. It was a sad end to a fascinating career.

So at Columbia, you became a Libya specialist?

I became one of Jay Hurewitz’s students, and that was a thing to be. Not everybody achieved that. But he decided that I was worth some investment. And he was not that generous with his investments, so I was very fortunate. I didn’t know until after I defended my dissertation that he’d never been in North Africa, because he just seemed like he knew everything—very intimidating. When I said I wanted to do work in Libya, he didn’t say no. At Fletcher, there was a little sense that women couldn’t work in the Middle East. Jay never felt that way. And actually, if you look at the senior women in Middle East studies, they’re Jay’s students.

So you first went to the region for dissertation fieldwork?

I had done a bit of language work in Tunisia and Egypt.

Was it weird going to a place you thought you were an expert on and realizing you didn’t know anything about it?

It was fabulous. I mean, that was so fun. The United States had relations with Libya then, but only barely. Jay was very networked in diplomatic circles and introduced me to the Libyan ambassador to the UN, who said he would arrange to have a visa for me waiting in Tunis. I decided to do a comparative study of the two countries, and after I had done all I could in Tunisia, I went to the Libyan embassy. The officials look out their window and see this little American girl waiting at the end of a long line of Tunisian workers waiting for visas. They come out and get me, and I say, “There’s supposed to be a visa for me.” A consular official laughs when I tell my story and starts grilling me, presumably to figure out whether I’m legit. He said, “When was the first Libyan-American war?” I said, “1803.” And he wrote 1803 in the dust on the desk and went and got me a visa.

You got on the plane with no plans at all?

I didn’t know what was going to happen when I got off. As it turned out, I was taken care of by the wife of the drilling manager of Esso Libya, who knew that it was impossible to get a hotel room or rent a place—Qaddafi had closed things down. I ended up living in the maid’s quarters of a beautiful villa on the water, within walking distance of the Center for Libyan Studies. I went in and said, “I’ve been writing to you.” And they said, “We’ve been waiting for you!”

They showed me everything and introduced me to two men in their late 70s, the keepers of the archives. They had been born before the Italian invasion and had learned Ottoman Turkish as children, so they could go into the archives (cardboard boxes of old papers), find stuff, and translate it into Arabic for me. And we sat there for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, looking at tax records. It was a magical encounter. They had never in their entire lives thought something like this would happen to them. Nor had the girl from eastern Long Island. Without them, I wouldn’t have figured out nineteenth-century Libya, which turned out to be crucial to the argument I made in the dissertation.

It sounds like you discovered your vocation—what you wanted to be and do.

Totally loved it. Yup.

So then what?

I came back, finished up the dissertation, and went on the job market. I got a couple of interviews but no offers. Columbia said it would put together a couple of courses for me to teach while I tried again. And then, just around Memorial Day, Harvard advertises a position. They had a strong inside candidate but decided to talk to this woman who had just come back from Libya. I went up, got to meet all these famous people, and had a great visit. Then they offered me the job, and I ended up teaching at Harvard for five years.

What was that like?

Harvard was not really ready for women. The year I came in, the Government Department hired five junior women. The chair of the department told us we were an experiment. Dita Shklar took several of us to lunch and asked us if we thought we were ambitious. Everybody but me said no. She said, “Are you kidding? You’re all ambitious. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.” She wanted us to think about what we were doing a bit more self-consciously.

I had a lot of fun. What was then CFIA [the Center for International Affairs], now the Weatherhead Center, ran some summer research money for undergraduates. John Odell had administered it, and he asked me whether I wanted to do it next, and I said yes because it came with a secretary. At the time, all I wanted was somebody to type for me, because I can’t type. But it meant that I sat on the Executive Committee of CFIA, with Joe Nye and Sam Huntington and Jorge Domínguez and Stanley Hoffmann. I was the only woman and the only junior person. There were about a dozen people on the committee, and almost all were left-handed. I always thought, “That’s how I got it: I’m a lefty.”

Did you feel nervous?

Not really. I tried to be collegial, and did what I thought I was supposed to do, and focused on that. By then, I had been married for a long time, and my husband was in New York, and I was commuting between New York and Cambridge. That was technically not allowed. So I got up there Monday morning, left Thursday night, and was in my office more than anybody who lived in Cambridge. I had some distance from the place and the people. I loved the time I was there, and the department was very generous with me. When I left for a position at Columbia, everybody knew it was because I wanted to join my husband in New York. I was pregnant, and neither school had maternity leave. So Bob Putnam did the most wonderful thing, giving me a semester’s leave, even though he knew I had effectively resigned from Harvard and wasn’t coming back.

What was it like coming back to Columbia as a big shot?

Most of my colleagues couldn’t remember that I’d left. That’s a common story: when people come back to where they did their Ph.D.’s, their advisers and others think, “Have you been away for a while?”

I was told you should go someplace different for your first job, because otherwise you’ll always be seen as a student.

Definitely. People should go away. There’s a style to a place. If you go to college and graduate school at the same place and then become a professor there, you’ll read the same things many, many times.

How was Columbia different the second time around?

I increasingly did more administration. I was the director of the Middle East Institute, and then I was asked to chair the department. I did a whole revamping, with a strategic plan. My predecessor joked in one of the early meetings that he was beginning to feel like Herbert Hoover. Clearly, I like to boss people around. I enjoy administration and management, and I’m effective at it. It’s different from teaching and scholarship, and many people hate it. I think it’s important that the ones who don’t hate it do it, so it gets done well. Academics aren’t big on teamwork. They don’t like hierarchy. So if somebody is good at herding cats, they should do it.

What is the secret to academic administration?

People would ask me, “Why are you willing to be department chair when your kids are so young?” And I would reply, “It’s perfect, because I’m used to tying other people’s shoes.” You have to do things that others really ought to be able to do by now but can’t. You need patience and the ability to appreciate people for what they can do. A lot of people get angry or frustrated by what others can’t do, as opposed to enjoying and building on what they can. And just as with small children, telling people point-blank what they can’t do is not going to work well.

Did this path lead you naturally to becoming a dean?

Pretty much. I was department chair when they were doing the search for the dean of SIPA [the School of International and Public Affairs], and I remember talking about it with a colleague in the elevator. She said, “Who would ever want that job?” And I thought, “Well, I would.” So yes, then I became dean.

How was being in charge of a policy school different from running a regular academic department?

It was much more fun. I had gone to Fletcher and, from the beginning, had sort of one foot out of the academy. Even at places like Harvard and Columbia, the pure social scientists in the academic departments are somewhat removed from the real world, whether they think it or not. And I liked teaching the students at a policy school.

How are the students different?

They’re less disciplined, in all senses of the word. If you teach graduate-level economics at a policy school, the students are going to drive you nuts, because they don’t care much about academic economics—they want to know how the world works. I like the polymathic character of policy school students. We in academia can be overdisciplined, to the point where what we’re doing is only of interest to a handful of other people in our field. These kids want to make a difference and will go out there and try, even if they’re not ready. Sometimes I worry that some of the Ph.D. students are just building a résumé for some future purpose they haven’t figured out yet.

How did you get to Egypt?

I was deaning and loving it. I learned a lot about the rest of the world. I joined the Board of Trustees of the American University in Cairo, where I had once studied Arabic, and that was a lot of fun. Then they did a search for provost. The search consultant asked if I’d be a candidate, and I said no. Then later the university president called and asked if I would reconsider, and I said yes. It was the same week my younger son got accepted to college. My husband says I went to Cairo to preempt empty nest syndrome. I think that’s unfair, but it’s probably correct.

What was Cairo like?

I enjoyed being provost—

That’s the first time I’ve heard somebody say they enjoyed being provost.

I like working with faculty. My definition of a good day is if I’ve learned something. I used to tell my secretaries that if they got me to learn something by ten o’clock in the morning, we could knock off for the rest of the day. Dealing with faculty is a constant education. I would talk to people in the humanities, then to the mechanical engineers.… It’s so much fun! Trying to figure out ways to help them do what they want to do more easily or more effectively—that’s just a neat job. And that’s what a provost does.

What was it like trying to get a major university to work in Cairo?

I arrived just as the university moved to its new campus, so it was complete chaos. The campus wasn’t ready, of course. The faculty were furious about having to move from their familiar, cozy digs to this half-built thing in the desert. It’s a fabulous campus now, really beautiful. But it wasn’t very appealing at that time. It was in the middle of nowhere, parts didn’t have electricity, and so forth. It was a very chaotic semester—which was perfect for me, because nobody noticed that I didn’t know what I was doing. By the end of the year, I had gotten my bearings. I knew who people were, where they were, what they wanted, and what we needed to do to improve processes.

What’s the difference between running a university in Egypt as opposed to the United States?

As provost, not much. AUC is accredited in the United States, has American tenure, and runs like an American university. You recruit faculty a bit differently, but not as much as people think. If you’re recruiting to Columbia, you have to think about the anxieties that attend coming to a big city: Can I live in an apartment? What are the schools like? Etc. You recruit somebody to Cairo, and they think about the same things.

Is it different teaching about Middle Eastern politics in the Middle East?

My experience in Cairo was just before and after the revolution. I was provost under [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, and it was less freewheeling. General education policy in the Mubarak era was described to me as “no politics, no religion,” but AUC could do anything it wanted within its classes. We had a somewhat special status. Before I got there, there had been some occasional disputes about books assigned and that kind of thing. But my experience was that the regime knew what we did, we knew what they did, and everybody knew what the rules were, so it was pretty relaxed. Of course, when the revolution broke out, there weren’t any rules anymore.

Did you see the revolution coming?

Absolutely not. And anybody who tells you they did didn’t.

You’ve been studying North African politics your entire life, at the best institutions the world has to offer; you’re running a major university in the country; and a revolution breaks out under your nose that you didn’t predict. What does that say about the field of political science or area expertise in general?

If this was physics, we would have been able to predict it. I do think there’s a complacency in a lot of political analysis. We had gotten so accustomed to the resilience of authoritarianism that we thought it would go on forever. The moment when I really worried about our ability to add value was less the outbreak of the revolution than when [Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi came to power. There was a lot of debate about whether it was a coup, and academic experts were saying, “We’ll know in six months.” I thought to myself, “It’s right in front of us. Why can’t we tell now?” Then I thought, “Even the physicists don’t know whether something’s a wave or a particle until they actually describe it.”

Why couldn’t you tell whether it was a coup or not?

In retrospect, you could say, “The defense minister comes and tells the president he can’t be president anymore and jails him, and that seems pretty coup-like.” But there were widespread and apparently genuinely popular demonstrations against the Morsi government at that point. And the cabinet that Sisi appointed at the outset was full of Egypt’s most liberal leaders. It seemed like a democratic transition. There wasn’t any way of knowing what Sisi was going to end up doing.

So if Sisi had chosen to use his newfound power to reestablish a more liberal or democratic system, that would have made it not a coup but something of a democratic restoration after Morsi’s illiberal rule?

Yes. It really is quantum politics. When we label something, it becomes that.

What was it like to live through a revolution?

From the beginning to the last day I was there, I thought, “Lucky me. This is amazing.” I had moved up from provost to president just a couple of weeks earlier. One of the things I enjoyed most was the day-to-day challenge of figuring out how to keep the university running. For example, early on, our IT people got an indication that the government might pull the plug on the Internet. We realized that we were going to have to communicate with each other via landline but didn’t have a list of phone numbers because nobody had used landlines in years. I told the university cabinet, “Look, if we can’t contact you, everybody has to be at the president’s house at noon on Saturday.” And fortunately, everybody got there. That was the beginning of what turned into the Emergency Management Team. There hadn’t been one, because there hadn’t been an emergency to manage in decades.

The end of January was approaching, and people got paid at the end of the month. But the banks were closed; everything was closed. We knew many of our staff, including security staff, lived from paycheck to paycheck. What was going to happen to them, and then to us? Our downtown campus is on Tahrir Square. Who was going to throw the Molotov cocktails out of the campus? We ended up literally gathering and handing out all the cash we could find, against handwritten IOUs.

At one point, there was a battle on our campus between the security forces and the protesters. Our security people, really quite wonderful in many ways but all straight out of the Ministry of Interior, said, “It didn’t last long, and there wasn’t much fighting.” Then rumors started that there had been snipers on the roof of our building shooting into the protesters. Our security people said, “Absolutely not. That never happened.” Then an employee came in and showed me on his phone the people on the roof shooting. So whom do I trust? Who’s telling me the right story? Those questions did not come up at Columbia.

Presumably, a lot of your students were taking part in the protests. And presumably, the state was trying to crack down on them. How did you manage that situation? Did you treat the university as a sanctuary, like a church, where the police couldn’t come?

No. We said, “The campuses are closed, and nobody can come onto the campuses except the security people.” That was a matter of contention with the downtown campus, because the protesters, many of whom were our students and faculty, wanted to use it for a field hospital and stuff like that. And we would say, “No. I’m sorry.”

So you prevented yourself from becoming politicized?

Exactly. We said over and over again that we did not have a dog in this fight.

Did you really feel that way?

Actually, during the 18 days [of the protests], we did. We were an American institution; we had to be very careful not to be seen to be involved in anything political. We closed. We evacuated all of our foreign students, at the request of their embassies. We knew that most of our students and many of our faculty were in Tahrir Square, and that was fine. We were concerned about their safety. And we were concerned about the safety of people in our facilities and dorms. That’s what we worried about. We didn’t worry about whether Mubarak was going to fall or not. That was not ours to decide.

What was the rest of your time in Egypt like?

It got really interesting. The first year had the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] and the presidential election. We decided to let student groups ask candidates to speak on campus, as they would on an American campus. Some accepted, and it was great. I used to say, “It’s the first time a presidential candidate has spoken at a university in Egypt in 7,000 years.” I think it made a difference, even though now it won’t happen again for a long time. A university is more than just what happens in class, and extracurriculars are not just folklore troupes and rugby teams. Those are important, but so is having a place to have open political debate.

After the revolution, we had to come up with a campus speech policy. We had a wonderful debate about what it should be, and eventually, we wrote one based on Carnegie Mellon’s. The next edition of the student newspaper had a bunch of expletives. Other kids were unhappy about that. And the discussions went on and on. It was a great teaching opportunity, and I think that generation of students will live with that experience forever. They learned things neither their predecessors nor successors had the chance to.

When did you come back to the States?

My term finished at the end of 2015. There were differences between me and the trustees.

You were too liberal?

Yeah. It was partly political and partly conventional debates about how a university should run—how budgets should be allocated, that sort of stuff.

After Egypt, I spent a semester at NYU Abu Dhabi, because I wanted to see what a branch campus was like. I’m on the board of the Aga Khan University, and they’re about to start a Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Karachi. I’ve been doing some writing on the university and the liberal arts in a globalized world, which is a very contentious and complicated question.

You’re one of a handful of American Libya experts. The United States recently fought a war in Libya. Was there a lot of regional expertise involved in that operation?

No. And if you look at the people who have subsequently written about the intervention in Libya, it’s amazing how little, to this day, Libya itself matters. The debates were all about bureaucratic politics in Washington.

What should the United States have done when Qaddafi’s regime went into crisis?

I wasn’t consulted about it, but had I been, I would have agreed with the analysis that Qaddafi would slaughter his opponents if he survived. But what are you going to do about it? That’s the problem. It was the Obama version of Iraq: “We’re going to take out the tyrant, and everything will be fine.” That’s what Bush did in Iraq, and that’s what Obama did with Qaddafi.

So should we just leave the dictators in place?

If we’re prepared to live with the slaughter, as it appears is happening in Syria. If you want to go in and change the regime, then have a day-after plan that is not just waiting, as I believe Colin Powell said, for a country of Thomas Jeffersons to appear.

You’ve studied Middle Eastern politics for decades. Do you know more now than you did at the beginning? Can you predict it, or are you constantly surprised?

I know more in the sense that I feel constructively chastened. There have been times when I really thought I knew what was happening and I was wrong, in interesting ways. One example I often use in class involves Tunisia. When [Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali turned out [President Habib] Bourguiba in 1987, there was a period when he had a national pact and he seemed very liberal. Then Ben Ali turned out to be a dreadful kleptocrat. I had been optimistic, calling it a case of a transition to democracy. It wasn’t just me: his cabinet was optimistic, too. But it made ask, “Why was I so wrong? What should I have been looking at instead?” One answer was not to be swept up in the views of your sources. Ben Ali’s cabinet wanted the new system to work and believed it would work. It took him a while to consolidate his kleptocracy.

Ben Ali turned out worse than expected. Rached Ghannouchi turned out better.

Exactly. People change. Sometimes they learn. You don’t know beforehand. We should still try to analyze things as best we can. But we need to be much more modest about what we expect our analysis to achieve.

What are you proudest of in your career?

I’ve had a great career, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot—and that’s something to be proud of in itself. Keeping AUC not just afloat but thriving through that whole period was difficult, and it was not a foregone conclusion that it could be done. Not everybody could have done it. I did, and I’m proud of that.

And your greatest regrets?

I would have liked to stay longer in Cairo. But I don’t regret the positions I took that differed from those of the trustees, so that’s not really a regret. I’ve been pretty lucky. I don’t have a lot to regret.

Any advice for those starting out?

Keep doing what makes your heart sing until somebody says you can’t.  Surprisingly often they don’t, and you can just keep doing what you love.

This interview has been edited and condensed.