What is instantly striking about the American University of Malta is the sheer lack of students hanging around on campus. Billed as the next big thing in Maltese education by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, not too many students seem to be getting the message yet.
From the outside, construction works are progressing at a fast rate on the Cospicua building, once a wharf used by the British Navy. Two floors of the so-called British Building, which is where teaching is currently taking place, have been restored, but another floor is still being built over it and the construction noises are audible. To its right, restoration work is ongoing on the Knights’ Building, while to its left lies the only completed building of the campus - the administration block.
It’s a Monday morning and the campus grounds are empty; no students lounging on the lawns or gazing at the sea, as Sadeen - the Jordanian construction company owned by Sani Halah behind the University - had depicted in its photomontages.
In their stead, an elderly Cospicua resident - sitting on a bench and whiling the time away by watching the construction works.
“I see a few students…not too many though, just a dozen or so,” he says.
The American University of Malta had originally planned to have 1,000 students in its first year
As it stands, the American University is essentially composed of two floors - with classrooms, a laboratory, a registrar’s office and a student lounge on the bottom floor and faculty offices and a seminar room on the second one. Apart from the woman at the security point by the main door and a couple of cleaners, the corridor was empty.
The student lounge is the only communal area on campus, but even this is just a small room with some ten tables and a desk adjoining the wall - not much space when you consider Sadeen had originally planned its University to cater for 1,000 students within its first year and 4,000 within four years.
Still, it was practically empty - save for a male student on his laptop and, despite there being no books in the room, an American librarian called Rex Steiner whose LinkedIn page reveals he used to work in several libraries across the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Qatar and the Czech Republic.
The student lounge at the American University of Malta
There was far more life in the adjacent administration building, with architects and some staff members walking around and a Maltese secretary called Maria Lia at a desk right opposite the entrance. Unable to give an indication as to how many students were enrolled at the University, she called in the Dean of Student Affairs.
The Dean turned out to be an American man called Joshua Moon Johnson, an LGBT+ rights activist who has written a book about Christian students in same-sex relationships and who was until recently director of the Multicultural Student Centre at the University of Wisconsin.
He was not who I had expected to meet at a University owned by a company from Jordan, a country which recently banned a Lebanese band from performing because of the sexual orientation of the lead singer.
Johnson had just returned back to Malta from Egypt, where he visited seven schools to try and recruit students for the AUM.
He said a fresh batch of students is going to join the AUM but refused to say how many students were enrolled at the University or to even confirm whether there were more students than staff.
Reminded of an earlier promise by the AUM Provost John Ryder to disclose the student numbers after the September 6 school year opening, Johnson said plans have changed and that student numbers will be revealed in a press release on an unspecified date.
Joshua Johnson - AUM's now-former Dean of Student Affairs
'We're like a family at the University'
Questions sent to the government earlier this week on whether all the ten scholarships Sadeen had granted them for Maltese students this year had been taken up remain unanswered.
However, Lovin Malta did get some information from two AUM students, one of them saying there were around 25 students in the whole University and another one estimating the actual number at 30. This tallies with the testimony of two faculty sources, who spoke to this website on condition of anonymity.
“There are only around 25 students in the first semester, since its still a new University and many students heard about it late or had trouble obtaining visas,” a female student said. “However, starting in a small group makes it more special because we get to be close with the professors and faculty, and it’s way easier to make friends here than in other universities where Maltese students seem to always stay with their groups.”
The two students both said they had no regrets about being guinea pigs in the American University of Malta’s first year of operation, describing the atmosphere on campus as “family-like”.
“I was one of the first students chosen for a really good University and I believe that will be important for me in the long run,” a male student said. “It’s a really friendly environment with good professors who help a lot with your studies, plus it’s in a great location beside the sea.
“We have after-school activities and field trips, and usually play football with our professors in the weekend. It’s a really friendly environment, we’re like a family.”
Similarly, a female student praised the helpful nature of the professors.
“The American education system is different from other universities in which if we don’t understand something, we can ask the professors and they will offer us free after-class tutoring if we have any difficulties,” she said. “The grade isn’t only focused on the final exam, but takes into account participation, attendance, homework, tests, projects and essays too. The professors and students are more like friends than anything else. They’re all kind, and will help you through anything; for example, if you do badly in a test they will give you the chance to do it again and not repeat the whole class.”
A hodgepodge of lecturers
American University of Malta Provost John Ryder
The professors and lecturers are a diverse bunch of people, headed by American Provost and philosophy lecturer John Ryder - who was until recently Rector of the private Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan and whose annual salary, according to our sources, is over €200,000.
The AUM’s executive vice-president is Khaled El Zayyat, a Jordanian who used to be the vice-president for global initiatives at the DePaul University in Chicago - the same University which had drafted the AUM’s curricula.
Three of the lecturers - business professor Lincoln Pettaway, religion professor Richard Gauvain and English professor Larry Griffin - were all poached from the American University of Ras al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates, which - despite the name - has no connection to the AUM.
The head of the AUM’s business department is Mark Neal, who has lectured across the world - most recently at the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and the SOAS University of London.
Other lecturers - English lecturer Marlen Elliot Harrison, history lecturer Jana Byars, and mathematics professors Jim Bozeman, Lenny Tevlin and Stephen Wassell relocated to Malta from the United States - while physics lecturer Rami Akhram Zureikat used to lecture at the University of Jordan and computer science lecturer Cevat Ikibas used to work at Turkish telecommunications company Turk Telecoms.
The AUM has one Maltese lecturer - biology lecturer Edward Mifsud, who used to lecture at the Junior College, and one half-Maltese lecturer - English lecturer Dawn Adrienne Saliba, who relocated to Malta from New York.
Edward Mifsud is the only Maltese lecturer at the American University of Malta
But there is another side to the American University of Malta...
Getting an AUM academic or staff member to speak about life at the American University on the record is likely to prove incredibly challenging, as their contract forbids them to disclose such details even after they have left their jobs.
However, Lovin Malta met up with a faculty source, who - on condition of anonymity - gave a very different version of events.
“The University is shoddily built. The classrooms echo, which is a nuisance to lecturers, while the paint fumes in the seminar room were once so bad that students ended up with teary eyes,” the source said. “Once it rained heavily and, because there was no protection on the roof, the water just poured through the air vents, flooding the staff room and destroying the computers.”
The source added that some students are receiving English lessons on the side after having lied about their proficiency in the language on their applications.
“Sadeen are so desperate for students that they once ordered a student to be admitted despite him not meeting the minimum entry standards,” he said.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Sadeen owner Hani Salah. Photo: MaltaToday
Asked by Lovin Malta whether the AUM is satisfied that all its students are proficient in English, its assistant director of admissions Jordan Aird simply referred us to the admission requirements on the AUM’s website.
More worryingly, the source said the AUM had reported a student to the Central Visa Unit after he vanished from the grid after having received his student visa. Questions sent to the Central Visa Unit at the start of the week remain unanswered at the time of writing.
Purge of academics and staff at AUM
Moreover, no fewer than ten University staff and faculty members have been sacked or have resigned since May, most within their six-month probationary period.
First to go was Italian project manager Eduardo Pagani in May, who was swiftly replaced with Jordanian engineer Raied Ebaid. Pagani has since filed a judicial protest, arguing Sadeen had fired him on the strength of fabricated allegations.
Two other Italian employees were then fired in August - namely the vice president for administrative affairs Andrea Giummara and the director of admissions Chiara Battistelli, the latter of whom has also sued Sadeen on charges of unfair dismissal.
One of Sadeen's photomontages of the American University of Malta
Next in line for the sack were Julie Miller-Steiner (the director of public relations and the wife of librarian Rex Steiner) and IT systems administrator David Aquilina. Soon after, Salema Ahmed resigned as admissions counsellor and Suzanne Borg quit as webmaster.
In September, two weeks into the AUM’s first scholastic year, the axe fell on finance professor Bernard Gauci - a Maltese professor who was until recently deputy chairperson of the National Commission for Further and Higher Education. Faculty sources told Lovin Malta that the unofficial reason behind Gauci’s sudden sacking was his old age and frailty - induced by Parkinson’s disease.
Philosophy professor and director of human resources Shane Ralston also got sacked last month, while Joshua Johnson - the Christian gay rights activist - resigned as Dean of Student Affairs earlier this week. Johnson told Lovin Malta he resigned to pursue a new opportunity back in the USA, but did not answer when faced with internal rumours his resignation was partially due to a disagreement with AUM executive vice-president Khaled El Zayyat.
“The morale amongst the faculty is very low and many of them are starting to get the sense that this is not a real university,” the faculty source said.