A Moroccan Commencement

President Knapp speaks to Al Akhawayn University’s class of 2010.

Steven Knapp speaking to students from podium at Al Akhawayn University
June 17, 2010

Separated by about 4,000 miles, GW and Al Akhawayn University (AUI) in Ifrane, Morocco, could not be more different in many ways. GW is 189 years old, while Al Akhawayn recently turned 15; nearly 25,000 students study at GW compared with about 1,500 at AUI; and Foggy Bottom’s mountains hardly rival those in Ifrane, a ski resort.

Still, the two institutions have much in common, as President Steven Knapp explained in his commencement address to Al Akhawayn’s class of 2010 “A Shared Vision, A Unique Opportunity.”

“Each was created with a purpose in mind, reflecting a very clear vision of what a university might be and what role it might play in the life of an emerging nation. That is not true of many of the world’s universities, including many of the most famous,” said Dr. Knapp in the June 12 address, which was attended by the ambassadors to Morocco from Indonesia and the United Kingdom and nine-time world kick-boxing champion Mustapha Lakhsem, who trains at Al Akhawayn.

In 1999, the universities entered into a formal partnership, which has featured a two-way stream of exchange students, GW students participating in Al Akhawayn’s summer intensive Arabic program and GW’s librarians helping develop Al Akhawayn’s library. Engineering and law professors at GW are also working with colleagues at AUI on a cyber security program to train Moroccan executives.

Dr. Knapp called the Moroccan university “young, vibrant and boldly innovative” and read from its founding statement, which states that the university, while rooted in “noble Arab and Mediterranean humanist tradition,” is also “dynamically adapted to modern times.”

“Note the precision with which the university’s position has been defined in this sentence: its location at the fertile intersection of deep tradition and present relevance; its commitment right from the start to the most urgently needed values in the world today, the ‘values of human solidarity and tolerance,’ but also the values of ongoing intellectual and cultural curiosity,” Dr. Knapp said.

Both universities value serving the international community, Dr. Knapp noted. When President George Washington called for the establishment of GW in his last will and testament, his explicit purpose was for the university to help bring the colonies together to “free themselves” from their “local prejudices and habitual jealousies.”

“In short, the students he envisioned would together forge a national identity and become the citizen-leaders of the newly founded United States,” Dr. Knapp said. “Much has changed since then. We now educate the daughters as well as the sons of the nation’s no longer 13, but now 50 states. We also draw students from 130 countries, and we no longer train citizens of our country alone but citizens of the world; in fact, the truly global nature of our vision is one of the most important features our two universities share.”

Dr. Knapp also discussed First Lady Michelle Obama’s service challenge to GW and quoted the first lady’s remarks about the importance of participating in a global community.

“It’s almost as if Mrs. Obama had read your university’s founding statement, with its emphasis on ‘human solidarity and tolerance’ and service both to the nation and to the international community,” Dr. Knapp said.

Beyond their shared values and visions, GW and Al Akhawayn are linked by “an even broader heritage” of being heirs to the three “religions of the book,” according to Dr. Knapp. The “divinity of knowledge and the blessedness of peace” are messages that are common to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, he said, and are “nowhere stated more powerfully than in the words of the Holy Quran, and nowhere developed more fully than in Muslim halls of learning.”

Dr. Knapp also cited President Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University and its focus on the debts the West owes to Islam for everything from algebra to the compass, and calligraphy to architecture.

“We share a debt, then, to the great civilization of Islam, to which we at George Washington were indirectly linked at our founding through the culture of modern Europe, while you at Al Akhawayn have the privilege of being direct and immediate heirs,” Dr. Knapp said.

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