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Lebanese American University’s Unique Perch in New York

NEW YORK—Many universities in the United States and Europe are falling over themselves to expand their presence in the Middle East. Whether that’s through fully-fledged campuses, strategic partnerships or alumni centers, they’ve never been keener to invest.

This internationalization has largely flowed in one direction, from West to East. But somewhat quietly, the Lebanese American University (LAU) has started bucking this trend with its academic center in New York.

Nestled in the heart of Manhattan’s hectic Midtown, the academic center— with its uniformed doorman and manicured entrance—looks perfectly at home among the area’s many hotels and embassies.

The university, headquartered in Beirut, was first founded as a girls’ elementary school by a wealthy American missionary called Sarah Smith who had traveled from Connecticut to Lebanon in the 1830s. Through education, she sought to build bridges and traverse cultural differences. Eventually, through a series of evolutions and expansions, the small girls’ school grew to become a co-ed university.

“The president of LAU has said that we’ll give back to the United States what Sarah Smith gave to Lebanon,” says Lina Beydoun, the center’s Academic Executive Director. “That’s why this academic center was established, and we try to stay true to this mission of building bridges between East and West.”

The center has expanded from what was previously a fundraising and alumni office. It now offers credit-bearing courses for both American students from other universities and LAU students studying abroad. Subjects have included Arabic, marketing, management and finance. The tuition is $450 per credit and the number of credits per course varies but is usually around 3 or 4.

The facility stretches across three floors with a library, study areas, and a number of lecture rooms furnished with smart whiteboards. Eventually the library will house 5,000 books. The librarian comes from Beirut twice a year with suitcases full of books and resources to stock the shelves. “It’s still cheaper for her to do that,” explains Beydoun. “Many of the books are also donated in Lebanon.”

The university purchased the building for $10 million. “Considering it’s 30,000 square feet, it was a steal,” says Paige Kollock, the director of communications and media at the center. With its sought-after location, it’s not hard to believe Kollock. After the university bought the place, it cost an additional $7 million to renovate.

LAU sometimes shares the center with other Arab universities that still only have an alumni office in the city. For example, they have collaborated with the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the American University in Cairo (AUC) on lecture series and events.

“I have to admit AUC and AUB envy us here in this space,” brags Beydoun. “But at the same time there’s a collegial feeling. I myself am an AUB alum.”

The Lebanese American University’s library in New York City, photo by Benjamin Plackett.

AUB, for its part, isn’t yet eager to follow in Beydoun’s footsteps. For the time being they seem content to keep their presence in New York to a minimum. The university’s activities in the city are focused on alumni, although they do occasionally organize their own events for visiting academics.

“There are longer-range plans for some remote lectures from the campus to our offices here,” explains Eva Kilmas, the director of alumni relations for AUB in New York, “but those plans are still very much in formulation.”

The American University in Cairo’s New York office currently exists to help with fundraising, alumni relations and marketing for its publishing arm, AUC Press. But its director, Jennifer Bayne, says her office shares Lina’s vision for more cultural exchange in the direction of East to West.

“While the trend in higher education is expanding American universities in the Middle East,” she says, “bridge-building in the U.S. falls into the larger scope of the purpose of education by stimulating cross-cultural discussion, developing international partnerships, and of course building support and appreciation for the university’s work.”

Because of this, Bayne says her university is also expanding its reach in the Americas, though not with academic and classroom activities just yet. “We do plan to expand our presence in other ways,” she says.

AUC is setting up alumni chapters in other cities across the United States and Canada and increasing the number of events it holds in New York to engage alumni, donors and those interested in Egypt. AUC Press also just unveiled its first fiction venture in the U.S. market, which translates Middle Eastern fiction into English.

Beydoun suspects that the other Arab universities in town may be waiting to see if her academic center is judged to be a success before taking a similar plunge. “It is financially costly and risky to take such a step,” she says.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing since the center was launched nearly 3 years ago. In fact, Beydoun says that it has recently become difficult for students back in Lebanon to get the visas they need to come to the United States and study at the center. Many who were due to arrive in New York this summer were refused a visa by the U.S. State Department.

“Prior to the visa complications, my hope was to bring Lebanese students and American students together for an exchange,” she says.

The more stringent immigration rules have forced her to put this on hold for the time being. “We’re not there yet but we still hope to be,” she explains.

The center is still growing into its space, and while Beydoun says the center will stop short of becoming a branch campus, but it’s yet to fully understand its own identity and purpose.

The center is essentially at an experimental stage, through which Beydoun is trying to find the sweet spot of how many courses the center should offer and in what subjects. She says they’re also thinking about offering continuing education for professionals.

The center is blessed with patience from the head office in Beirut to explore like this because the president understands the potential of such an asset, says Beydoun. “I don’t see us going anywhere because the space here in Manhattan represents a huge opportunity.”
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