A Conversation with the LAU President: Education and Lebanon’s Future

Increasingly, Lebanese university students and graduates are emigrating as they face a broken economy, high rates of unemployment and an uncertain political situation.

Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Lebanon’s economy has stagnated. Average gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk over the long term and the unemployment rate hovers around 13 percent. Lebanon’s 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees are affecting the country’s economic situation, as government services are stretched thin.

Students and university graduates are emigrating to countries like Germany, Saudi Arabia and France for work and educational opportunities. Over 600,000 of Lebanon’s roughly 3.7 million citizens live abroad, and more plan to join them: a 2009 United Nations Development Programme report stated that over a quarter of surveyed youth want to leave their country to pursue work and more a stable political environment.

Lebanese American University, a private U.S.-accredited institution, is trying to thrive in the middle of this difficult situation. The university, with more than 8,000 students at locations in Beirut, Byblos and New York, educates students in the humanities, science, architecture, design, business, engineering and medical fields.

The school’s president, Joseph Jabbra, stresses education as a way to help students give back to civil society. Jabbra, who studied law at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, returned to Lebanon as president of Lebanese American University in 2004 after spending almost a quarter century as vice president of St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He was interviewed at the university’s center in Manhattan.

– What can you offer university students that no one else in the region can?

Students come to us from all walks of life. We need to make sure these students can learn together, sitting on the same bench and relegating their differences to a back burner—except when those differences, in terms of diversity, are used to enrich our education system. We are focused on producing leaders in and for a diverse world.

– What else could you tell me about the importance of your school for Lebanon and the region?

LAU is a place where society ought to do its thinking. We’re there to provide not only the opportunity for young men and women to get an education, but, at the same time, we are involved in outreach and civic engagement.

We have a unique series of programs. Every year, we gather on campus about 3,000 high school students involved in the Model United Nations. We established, in the south of Lebanon, the Model Arab League. We have about 60 schools [involved].

We’ve worked on Model UN for 10 years. Our students come to New York twice a year to teach international students about the United Nations.

Above that, we feel society needs leaders. We established the Outreach & Leadership Academy, where university students teach young men and women from high school and middle school about the United Nations: how to solve disagreements via peaceful means, control one’s anger, accept someone who may think differently from you and engage in the art of diplomacy.

– How do you make Lebanese American University accessible to these students?

We believe in providing every qualified student with the opportunity to come to LAU. In our operating budget, we set aside 25 million dollars to provide financial support [for students]. Above that budget, we get a lot of money from donors.

We felt that the public-school system in Lebanon is abandoned. There are a lot of qualified students, but they don’t have the means to come to LAU. We went to USAID to compete for scholarship grants for qualified students from public high schools. We already got about $32 million to offer students tuition, room and board, computers, books, and pocket money.

We have about 260 students (on this program). We applied for a seventh grant for $18 million for the next three years.

– What are the hardest challenges you and LAU have faced this year, and how have they changed since the beginning of your presidency?

The first challenge is the fluid political situation in the area. We don’t know what’s going to happen. The second challenge is how can we as an institution, given the bad economic situation, continue to provide opportunity to those who are qualified but don’t have the means to come. This is a major challenge, and we are committed to raising enough funds to provide that opportunity.

– Where do you hope to take the university in the future?

Excellence is something we are dedicated to: not only academic excellence, but excellence in everything we do. We need to continue striving.

Excellence is like a mirage, and I’m glad it is. It’s not something you grab, and you have it forever. It’s something you need to be running after all the time.

The second goal we have is to continue to serve society in better ways. We need to make sure LAU continues to be a beacon of hope for men and women who have their own aspirations and dreams.

The world is changing at a rapid pace. We need to be continuously innovative in terms of providing the latest for our students. We do not want to graduate students who cannot land on their own feet. They need to be up to snuff in their fields.

– So many Lebanese are living outside the country. A lot of the students are leaving. How do you convince your students to stay and engage in nation-building?

Lebanon, from its beginning, graduated students who looked at the sea and said, “We want to venture.” This has been in the psyche of the Lebanese. They’re on the waves. Lebanese have been contributing to nation-building all over: in the Gulf area, in the United States, in Latin America, in Europe. They’re everywhere.

There is one issue I feel strongly about, and that is the failure of the government to provide young people with major projects. Why can’t the government establish major projects, and provide opportunity for young men and women to stay in Lebanon? It is a very small country, and, unless the government provides those projects, students and graduates will leave.

But, for graduates, going outside of Lebanon is not sinful. Their money goes back to Lebanon to support their families, to buy a pied à terre for them in Lebanon.

– What is Lebanese American University doing to create jobs for your graduates?

We bring big companies on campus and have them interview our students. There is another channel, and that is our alumni, who are scattered everywhere. Every time there is a job available, it’s announced to a powerful network, to provide students with the ability to land a position anywhere.

– What are your plans, on a personal level, for the future?

My plans will continue to be to serve the institution until it’s time for me to do something else. When that time comes, I will feel a tear, and I’ll make a decision. As long as I have the vitality and strength, I will continue to serve.

 This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.


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