By Bassam Helwani
In the early 1980s, the talk among the Muslim community was Chicago’s newly established American Islamic College (AIC). Founded in 1981, the College’s goal was providing four-year college leading to Bachelor of Arts degrees with an Islamic perspective in subjects like Education and Social Studies, as well as Islamic and Arabic Studies.
The dream was to serve the Muslim and non-Muslim communities with sound academic programs and active community involvement. The location was certainly conducive to those aims, with facilities built on landmark real estate that afforded both a beautiful campus and good access to other services and universities – and just steps away from beautiful Lake Michigan.
"Bittersweet Place" is the road that brings one to the entrance of the College’s 640 W. Irving Park address, and bittersweet exemplifies the story of the American Islamic College. In the late 1990s, AIC hit a point of stagnation and its accreditation was rescinded.
But just like the proverbial Phoenix, the American Islamic College is rising again - with new blood, renovated facilities and a new outlook.
To begin the dream of reopening, the Interim Executive Council dug in and began rebuilding the institution they so believed in. Their first obstacle was the facilities themselves. Part of the building has been rented out to a French school and Parkview Montessori School.
Other parts of the facilites that had not been rented out were left in disrepair for many years. Roofs were leaking, floors were damaged, equipment was ruined. In its rebirth, AIC spent $600,000 renovating the dorms alone.
Once they had the facilities in shape, they turned to rebuilding the academic programs that would be the real heart of the College and getting the accreditation to put them in operation. The Interim Executive Council appointed Chicagoans to the Board of Trustees.
These prominent community members brought many years of academic experience to the AIC and provided the accountability and accessibility that makes for a successful governing body.
Receiving accreditation for a College is not a one-step operation. The AIC has applied through the Illinois Board of Higher Education for Operating Authority. This authority, which will allow AIC to offer for-credit courses, is well expected to come through in the next few months.
Degree-granting authorization takes a bit longer and the application is in full swing. The College hopes to be offering for-credit courses in the fall of 2012 and degrees within the next one to two years. The first degree offerings will include Bachelor’s and Master’s in Islamic Studies and Imam Training.
Later degrees in economics, media, political science and other subjects will be available.
But the American Islamic College is not just sitting back waiting for all those things to happen. In the meantime, the staff and board are working to overcome the largest obstacle of all. Those who lived through the past three decades and witnessed AIC’s first incarnation were left with little faith in the institution.
The new management has a long-range plan for earning back their confidence, and it includes the College, the Islamic communities in the U.S., and the community-at-large. They’ve begun with a free lecture series featuring prominent academians, politicians and writers.
The series is open to the public and has had an enthusiastic response. Interfaith activities are helping AIC renew its relationships with adherents of other faiths as well. An interfaith garden, an open arms attitude toward visitors and a Sounds of Faith program are among the projects that are revitalizing its interfaith ties.
In addition, AIC has hosted two “Islam and Muslims in America” conferences that brought together Muslim scholars and national politicians.
While they are awaiting full accreditation, AIC also is offering non-credit courses in subjects like Islamic Studies, Arabic Studies, Sufism, Classical Arabic Music and Turkish Ebru (the art of paper marbling with oil paint on water). These courses are being attended by students from neighboring universities.
With a local Board of Trustees and Interim Executive Council in place, a curriculum developed by experienced professors, a league of qualified, prominent instructors and a beautiful facility with a sparkling new library, auditorium, lab, cafeteria and dorm, the American Islamic College will be ready to receive students from overseas, from Americans across the U.S. and from Chicago itself.
AIC is ready to become the home of future scholars, economists, media professionals and politicians. It has regrouped, restructured and rebounded. “We have the preparation, the planning and the finances in place,” an AIC spokesman said.
“What we need now is du’a from all the community members. We need their support to become the first-rate institution we envision.”