An Ambitious Agenda for the American University of Beirut

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the American University of Beirut, and the university’s sixteenth president, Fadlo R. Khuri, was inaugurated in January. In his inauguration speech, he laid out an ambitious agenda for the university’s future. He took note of AUB’s responsibility to Lebanon, where it has an outsized role as the second largest employer in the country after the government, and proposed a program of national service for graduates. He also described his hopes for AUB on the international stage, including expanding its research programs and working with a consortium of universities that will extend as far as Costa Rica. Here are excerpts from the speech:

On Today’s Challenges

We have real challenges today, my friends. A full half of the population in many Arab countries is under the age of 25. Economic opportunities are limited. As a consequence, too many young lives fail to reach their potential.

Despair is real for much of our youth, because of an absence of education and employment in feudal societies, and limited opportunities for economic and political empowerment. The consequences are predictable and they are indeed awful.

Globally, higher education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for most people, worsening social cohesion and increasing economic disparity. Tuition increases have accelerated at many universities, including AUB, in recent years. All this puts us in a real danger of becoming more economically elite than we are intellectually elite which is a fundamental threat to our mission.

In higher education today, there is a danger of complacency, and even arrogance—at AUB as elsewhere. This institution must earn the right to be the first choice for undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate educations in the communities and societies it serves.

The significance of AUB in its 150th year cannot be overstated. We are learning the lessons of the past, while setting our sights on the future. One thing has not changed since Daniel Bliss founded AUB in 1866: we are determined to make an impact—on knowledge, and on society.

The question is how: How will AUB continue to inspire current and future generations of smart and ambitious students? We are the oldest, most impactful, most prestigious university in the Arab World.  We have accomplished and influential alumni, the best faculty in the region, some of the best and most innovative students, and incredibly dedicated staff. We are the second largest employer in Lebanon after the government; the largest private employer. We have a thriving liberal ethos, and are in every sense a community of scholars and truth-seekers, in a region where such discourse can be candidly dangerous. Now, more than ever, the real impact of the American University of Beirut, disseminating the very best aspects of the cultures and values of our eponymous homeland, needs to be given new life.

My Return to Lebanon and AUB

As David Benioff says in his novel, City of Thieves: “Talent must be a fanatical mistress. She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice. But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence… She is the most thrilling evening of your week, but some day she will leave you for good. One night, after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognize you.”

I want to make a difference at AUB while the fanatical mistress called Talent is still outside banging impatiently on my door! Yes, this did not strike me as a retirement job.

So where are we to date?  During my first 150 days in College Hall, we have focused on building confidence in the competence and leadership of the AUB administration, and on formulating an organic and inclusive vision of excellence—and faculty and students can listen to this—and shared governance.

We have started building a consortium of like-minded universities in Lebanon and abroad; it was my honor to visit [University of Balamand President] Dr. Elie Salem in al-Koura for the first time in years; we have started to build the momentum for major gifts, recruit a top-quality leadership team, work on empowering our best leaders, work to sustain a reasonable and strategic and sustainable budgeting process that makes sense for our mission and not just for a year. In putting together our team starting this summer, I re-read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals; it is my favorite historical book recently, particularly her stunningly detailed accounts of the ever-resilient Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th and greatest President, painstakingly piecing together a team of titans to save America from its greatest and bloodiest crisis. I determined to choose the finest servant-leaders AUB could enlist and/or recruit to help lead this next great chapter in its history.

Celebrating AUB’s milestone 150th anniversary.

As we position AUB for a bright future, we are factoring in the challenging economic prospects that make paying for an excellent liberal arts or professional education a daunting prospect for all but a  very few families and individuals in this country and elsewhere.

We have progressed in several major ways, moving for example towards our goal to restore tenure, the imprimatur of academic excellence. We have held a free and fair set of student elections, seated a new University Student Faculty Committee dedicated to equitable and representative bylaw reform, which we believe they are close to. We want to embolden and unleash our students; we want to help them find their own way in the world, not impress our way on them. As Jalal el-Din Rumi acutely advised: “Do not be satisfied with stories, how things have gone for others.  Unfold your own myth.”

We have engaged in real and transparent dialogue among students, faculty, staff, Board, alumni, and administration, as well as the Lebanese government and parliament. In doing so, we have brought in a number of new and administrative faculty leaders and we’ve reached agreement on a new and improved faculty contract template, which is a critical development in building trust in light of the impending restoration of tenure.

The President’s Vision

In the last few decades, across the globe, but acutely here, the cost of higher education has spiraled upwards. Political instability and economic recession have impacted incomes in Lebanon and across the Arab world. On this day five years ago, the Egyptian people streamed onto their streets demanding the overthrow of their incumbent leader. Five years later the so-called Arab Spring has proved to be a long winter for the spending power of the families of this region.

For AUB, if we are honest we will admit—and we will be honest—that it has become significantly more difficult to provide a world-class education for the very best and very brightest, irrespective of their ability to pay. Previous administrations made a major effort and succeeded in increasing financial aid by more than threefold over the last decade. But these gains were accompanied by an increase in the cost of undergraduate education that has now made university unaffordable for many Lebanese and Arabs.

We must address this problem, which strikes at the core of who we are, a not-for-profit difference-maker in the domain of higher education, an institution that goes about transforming the lives of all those it touches, to give them more abundant, more meaningful, more purposeful lives. Despite these challenging circumstances, we know we can help lead the region in world-class education and enhanced accountability.

AUB must help provide new opportunities for our outstanding young leaders to make a difference in Lebanon, in the region, and in the world.  I propose to pilot a national service and teaching model coupled with a debt-forgiveness approach in collaboration with the government of Lebanon, to stem the nefarious brain drain that plagues the Middle East, driving our remarkable graduates to emigrate in pursuit of better lives. We can help transform education in Lebanon, in collaboration with our sister and brother universities, by having outstanding graduates go out into the community and teach in public and private schools while defraying their loans completely. This would ensure they could provide at least three years of valuable service in areas of the country that badly need outstanding educators.

To prepare our students optimally to find work in the competitive global job market, it is incumbent upon us to increase internship opportunities within regional industries, and expand and enhance our job fairs and career services. We also must enhance our counseling services and our mental health support and to do more to encourage students to engage in healthy pursuits and to learn the admirable teamwork offered by our spectacular sports facilities and coaching staff. Life, my friends, is a team sport, and we get through it better, as you can see me getting through it better, with a little help from my friends. Our students today feel a real pressure to always to be switched “on— we didn’t have this when we were younger—in an era when electronic and social media are a 24/7 occupation. And they are still expected to know more and perform at a higher level than their predecessors – they have more pressure than we do. So we need to understand our students’ goals, and not assume them, reach out and reach into their aspirations, comprehend their fears and doubts, without judgment. We must enable them to launch themselves, feeling fully embraced and supported.

To serve the underprivileged and empower educators, we need to strengthen our partnerships with remarkable institutions around the  globe such as Earth University in Costa Rica, which embodies these ideas and whose founding president is our own trustee and graduate Dr. José Zaglul.

This philosophy—that we learn in order to serve—has found its object in the many turbulent periods of the past 150 years. There have always been people who need our help. Today it is imperative to take the lead in helping growing numbers of refugees who have come to this country seeking our aid. Our great neighbor Syria, when it emerges from its terrible civil war, will need to be restored: its cities rebuilt, its civil society repaired; its children educated, its people given medical treatment. AUB is the best-equipped institution in the region to provide the complex, multidisciplinary expertise needed to be of real help, thanks to our exceptional faculty.

While turning substantial amounts of our attention to one of the great human disasters of the last 25 years, we cannot avert our eyes to the needs of other refugees and underprivileged peoples: we want to help the best and brightest Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and the economically disadvantaged Lebanese.  We have to remain the aspirational university for all of the best and the brightest, regardless of race, creed, origin, nationality, gender, economic circumstance or political persuasion.

We have to prepare our students for making a difference in the community, we propose developing the service and leadership aspects of our curriculum, and imbedding them in the basic teaching of our undergraduate and graduate students. These must become mandatory components of an AUB education, as the great Dr. Makhlouf Haddadin told me, swimming was a mandatory component of his AUB education. We want our kids to swim in leadership and in service; and we want them to be leaders in pedagogy. To build educational foundations for students everywhere, we will set out a series of foundation programs under the leadership of our Regional External Programs and with our faculties that will help kids who are not yet prepared to be competitive and to learn in an AUB environment, to raise them to the standard that will make coming to AUB seem natural for them.  And we also have to look at the other end of the spectrum; we have to expand, engage, and enhance our   University for Seniors so that we can be a great target for lifelong learners age 16 to 95. (And then when you get to 95 you are on your own!)

We are examining efforts across our university to better prepare tomorrow’s scholars to be drivers, change agents and leaders.

For example, the Medical School’s Curriculum—the so-called Impact Curriculum—focuses the same emphasis on character and values that it does on mastery of medical science. It has to become our ethos; character, my friends, matters every bit as much as talent.

These goals will not be easy to attain. But looking back at the history of the university and everything that Daniel Bliss and the other leaders of this university did, nothing meaningful has ever come easily. Can we do it? Yes, I believe we can, we should, and we must.

Expanding the University’s Research Mission

Celebrating AUB’s milestone 150th anniversary.

We have to enhance and empower our research mission. I love the line that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his predecessor John Adams: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” We are a great research university. It has been a central part of our ethos since the 1950s.

I am convinced, and the faculty will prove me right or wrong, that we have one of the most talented and productive faculty in AUB’s history. Despite the far greater financial resources at a number of other universities in the Middle East, AUB is the single greatest individual driver of self-initiated, highly impactful, influential research, indicating that our faculty are not only prolific, but genuinely bold and groundbreaking.

So we are amongst a small handful of genuinely excellent universities in Lebanon and the Arab world, that not only aspire to excellence but here is the charge: we are capable of achieving and maintaining excellence.  And we know we can be better and even more impactful.

We even compete in the high tech, high fiscal support areas due to the excellence and entrepreneurial nature of our faculty.  But we need to get modern resources in their hands. As Philip Khoury has so eloquently stated to me on a number of occasions and I am stating it again to the faculty: You are our permanent army. We will show our trust in you, which is why we moved so quickly to convince the Board to restore tenure. Tenure has to be implemented in a manner that is fiscally responsible for the university, and empowering to the faculty. And we have to have the resources to safeguard the university’s future.

So we are going to work with the Board, the faculty, alumni and community to realize all the goals of our Capital Campaign, with which we will reinvigorate research and infrastructure on campus and build a world-class AUB Medical Center. We will strive over the next decade to increase our endowment from what it is today, $550 million, I am going to challenge our friends, and our Board, and myself, to get it to an endowment of $1.2 billion in the next decade, which will support our schools and our research mission. 

While we increase our endowment, we also must build on the current spirit of collegiality and citizenship among our faculty, which is one of the most fundamental talents of AUB. And we have to put an end to any internal strife that has dogged many departments for many years. I am not talking about debate! Debate is great, but strife needs to go away because our faculty members are leaders; and they are leaders by example, and the students, and the staff, and the whole of the Middle East looks up to them.

We have to build infrastructure in our facilities; the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS) has not had any infrastructure growth in Agriculture since 1952. We have to pledge to do this strategically and smartly, because agriculture is a fundamental tenet of Lebanese society. We remain something of an agrarian society. And we do have to take risks. We should start in the Bekaa where we have AREC (Advancing Research, Enabling Communities Center), our wonderful AUB farm that I grew up visiting. Lebanon needs to embrace some real change in the agricultural sphere; we need to take risks.

We have the finest Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) and School of Nursing in the Arab world. Both use their knowledge in health to transform and empower people in the region’s most troubled societies. I am proud to announce the leadership of FHS has helped secure the largest grant in AUB’s history, a $26 million, 10-year grant from the MasterCard Foundation. But what is this grant being used for? It’s being used to educate students from underprivileged communities. This is a theme that you’ll be hearing. Students from sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, Palestine, and the most economically struggling areas of Lebanon will come to AUB for a transformative education and take our secular and egalitarian values—I’m going to say that again and again—our secular and egalitarian values, and knowledge, and know-how back with them not to the capitals of the West and the Arab world but to the communities that need them most, here in Lebanon and in the Arab world and in Africa and in Asia.

On the subject of important institutional commitments, we are fortunate to enjoy remarkable support from the USAID Program, which seized on the remarkably collaborative relationship between AUB and the Lebanese American University to give us three further cohorts of 55 students per year each, further enhancing the remarkable diversity on this campus and the linkages between these two sister universities. We also have tremendous support from our Middle East Partnership Initiative for Excellence program or MEPI, which is a US State Department funded program, which provides full support for students from the Arab World to study at this university. Twenty-one per cent of our students are international. This would be impossible without the support of our partners and for that we thank you (although we are going to request an additional cohort, Mr. Ambassador).

At AUBMC, our pioneering nurses and physicians not only care for and heal the region’s most ill and disadvantaged patients, but they are innovative and highly-cited researchers; they are genuine pioneers in the Arab world. And as we build a state-of-the-art AUBMC for tomorrow, I’m proposing an initiative that will take us beyond being the region’s Medical Center to being the region’s first legitimate Health Sciences Center, combining Medicine, Health Sciences, Food Sciences, Business, Engineering, Nursing, and so on, to develop a sustainable global health sciences initiative that can be the pride of Lebanon and of the Arab world.

In the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (FEA), our faculty have been among the most innovative thinkers and professionals in the Arab World, they’ve developed novel styles and sustainable approaches from Beirut and Amman to Kuwait City to several cities in North Africa.  These approaches include developing retractable schools for Syrian refugees, innovative green approaches to societal conundrums, new approaches for schools and other projects in Lebanese villages, and mechanistic studies of the aerosol delivery of compounds.

It is time for this exceptional faculty, a universally excellent faculty, to play an even greater role. We want to challenge our engineers and architects to commit to taking this region and this university to an even more sustainable level and in turn we will commit to providing the resources and the infrastructure so you can persuade, cajole, educate and mentor the next generation of giants who will build and rebuild a new Arab world.

Towards this end we have created many compacts at this university and one of them is a compact with society that we will be a leader in ethical business innovation.  We have to continue to work with private businesses, with the government of Lebanon, with society, in a collegial way, and to generate new micro economies. We will launch an innovation park that will take the transformative ideas of our faculty, capitalize them and enhance them so they can be useful assets for the community.

But we will not shy away from conflict. We have to understand the roots and the impact of conflict since certainly this country and this society is not short on conflict. My father once said: ‘If you have an abundance of something, you should probably study it’. And we certainly have an abundance of conflict. So we have to build on the great work that’s being carried out by the Fares and Asfari Institutes, and we will found three new centers in the next two years: a Center for the Study of Conflict and its Resolution in Society, a Center for Ethics, and a center studying historically the impact of Islamic sciences on the region and around the world. These three centers will be collaborative; they won’t replace the faculties, they will help link the faculties, because we believe in transdisciplinary research and collaboration.

Finally, we have grand plans for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), our oldest and in many ways our core faculty. For most of its 150 years it has led and championed the cause of liberal education in the Arab world. I want to focus much of our administration’s energies on empowering, resourcing and furthering Arts and Sciences because we have strayed far too long and far too deeply on the utilitarian and the professional path. While we are going to provide infrastructure in the natural physical sciences and in the arts and sciences, the humanities sit at the core of what AUB stands for and what AUB must always stand for. So we are going to launch major new initiatives in music, in theater, and in fine arts. We will ensure we don’t only subsidize a liberal arts education, but help create new job opportunities for our scholars such that the young person who graduates with a degree in history or philosophy is not economically disadvantaged compared with somebody who graduates as a physician and an engineer.

A Better Workplace

But to do this all well we have to look inward. We have to model a better, fairer, more economically and environmentally and ethically sustainable workplace.

As I mentioned, we are the second largest employer in Lebanon after the government, the largest private employer. With that privilege comes real responsibility.  We are straining our resources to ensure we do everything we can for our community and this year, we are negotiating with our Syndicate of Workers a new contract, which, while constrained by fiscal realities, will be better than the previous contract and will make real progress towards fairness and accountability, because I am troubled by some of the things that I see in this society and some of the things that I see at AUB.

We continue to employ people at wages where they cannot have a more abundant life and we have to do something about that in Lebanon, at AUB, and in the Arab world. I am not talking about a significant workforce expansion, but with some of the finest educators in the world at this university I think we can train, repurpose, energize and empower our non-academic staff to have true careers here, instead of jobs.

I believe we can do all of these things in the context of a real and realistic three and five-year strategic budget that the Board will hold me accountable to and that our team can deliver. And we can also deliver on a reinvigoration of this neighborhood. Many people have noted that the Lebanese Civil War in many ways spared Ras Beirut in terms of partisanship, and Ain El Mreiseh. And it is not a coincidence that Ras Beirut and Ain El Mreiseh are AUB’s neighborhoods. But these wonderful and vital Lebanese neighborhoods have deteriorated and I want to work with the communities to rebuild those neighborhoods so they are not only beautiful like our Downtown, but they are affordable for people who are working class or middle class. 

An Alma Mater for the 21st Century

We cannot do this alone. We need our board, we need our faculty, our staff, our students, we need our partners in the universities in Lebanon and the Gulf, we need our entrepreneurial businesses, the government, and we need our remarkably influential 61,000-strong alumni who occupy some of the most powerful, prestigious and impactful positions in the Arab world.

But our alumni have asked for a different sort of compact, a different relationship, one that’s more bidirectional, one where I don’t just show up, hat in hand, and ask them to deposit their checks. (Or even worse for them, their kids and their checks!) We will engage our alumni transparently, honestly, continuously, and ethically.  And we will admit when we err, and when we wind up in the newspapers for the wrong reasons we will own our mistakes. But if we are in the newspapers for the wrong reasons and we haven’t made a mistake, we will respond vigorously with the truth.

I think our goals are achievable. They have to be ambitious and they will take work and they’ll take partnership and they’ll take all the support that my friends and colleagues on the Board have asked you for. We have to make AUB a sustainable example of the great 21st Century University, a standard bearer of Arab Liberal Thought, a graduator of university presidents and NGO founders, and changers of businesses, peoples and nation-states and genres.  We have to develop new micro-economies in the Arab world, and in Lebanon we have to focus on all of our constituencies equally, irrespective of their ability to pay. If we can accomplish what we have set out to do, I think we can have, I know we can have, a transformative effect on Lebanon, on higher education and in the Arab world.


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