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University Professors Feel the Pain of Lebanon’s Worsening Crisis

TRIPOLI, Lebanon—The American University of Beirut’s recent decision to lay off about 650 employees and lose 200 additional jobs through attrition and non-renewal of contracts has again raised concerns about the status of academic institutions and the future of education in a country experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades.

The financial crisis is also expected to result in the layoffs of many faculty members working on part-time contracts at other universities, including the Lebanese University, the country’s only public higher-education institution, and Notre Dame University–Louaize, a private Catholic institution in Zouk Mosbeh, just north of Beirut. 

And the universities themselves are banding together to call on the government to emphasize the importance of keeping education strong and to push banks to let universities more easily access their own money and take foreign cash transfers. (Banks have sharply restricted the access of Lebanese citizens and institutions to their own cash, especially when the money is denominated in dollars.)

On July 17, the American University of Beirut informed 650 employees of its medical center and campus of its decision to lay them off. It trimmed another 200 jobs by not renewing contracts or leaving vacant the positions of people who are retiring. 

The job cuts, most of which were at the medical center, came after discussions that involved the Ministry of Labor and the university’s staff union. They amount to about 14 percent of the university’s work force, listed as about 5,800 employees in March.  

“This past week was an exceptionally difficult one as we were forced to lose 850 members of our community,” Fadlo Khuri, president of the university, said in a statement dated July 20. 

He said the university had built “an expanded social safety net”  that would pay six to 24 months of severance, depending on years of service, and that the university would continue to pay for the education of the departing employees’ children already enrolled in undergraduate programs until they graduated. Khuri had warned in June that the university would announce layoffs soon in order to cut costs. Still, the implementation of the decision caused anger among university staff and students, some of whom described it as a “massacre.”

Professors were shocked, said Ali Chalak, president of the faculty union and an associate professor of agriculture.

“The current crisis the university is going through has revealed many problems that were not clear before, the most prominent of which is the collapse of the economic situation of professors,” said Chalak. 

“The current crisis the university is going through has revealed many problems that were not clear before, the most prominent of which is the collapse of the economic situation of professors.”

Ali Chalak  
president of the faculty union and an associate professor of agriculture

Politics and Unemployment

Makram Rabah, a lecturer of modern history at the university since 2016, believes that Lebanon’s political situation has negatively affected the university’s economic situation. 

Wealthy Gulf states are hesitant to invest in Lebanon now because they’ve lost confidence in the government’s ability to promote stability, Rabah said. 

“They were pumping money to the university through their students’ tuition installments,” he said, “but the students themselves no longer came from there as a result of the bad political relationship.”

Meanwhile, he added, many Lebanese students are no longer able to pay their own tuition.

“The university needed to cut 40 percent of its budget,” said Rabah. “The main problem was at the university’s teaching hospital because the investments in it throughout its history were based on political and sectarian quotas.” (See a related article, “A Financial Crisis, Then Coronavirus. Lebanese Universities Could Still Thrive.”)

Since the beginning of the year, tens of thousands of Lebanese have lost their jobs or part of their salaries. In conjunction with a shortage of U.S. dollars, the Lebanese pound has lost more than half of its value, which has caused inflation to soar and put nearly half of the population at risk of falling below the poverty line. 

According to official statistics, the unemployment rate has risen to more than 35 percent. Shutdowns meant to halt the spread of Covid-19 have made the situation worse.

Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people have taken to the streets since last October in protests against the performance of the political class, whom they accuse of corruption and failure to manage successive crises.  (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Universities Have Emptied Out Into the Streets.”)

Concern for the Future of Education

Lebanon has 48 private universities and educational institutes, according to figures from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education—a relatively large number for a small country of only six million people. (See a related article, “Lebanese Universities: A Battle of  Quality and Quantity.”)

The proliferation of degree-granting institutions, problems that have built over the years, and concerns about how the current economic, political and health crises are affecting higher education in Lebanon prompted a group of 11 leading private universities to hold a general conference and call on the government to take urgent action to preserve and protect the sector.

“There is a great deal of weakening for the contracted professors at the Lebanese University, we live with constant inescapable anxiety.”

Susan Kahhaleh  
a part-time professor of psychology and education who works under contract at Notre Dame University–Louaize

In a statement released after their July 22 gathering, the 11 institutions’ presidents and rectors urged the government to respect the universities’ mission and role and to include them in decisions affecting the higher-education sector.  

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The leaders also called for banks to lift their restrictions on university deposits and to allow transfers in foreign currencies so universities can cover their operating expenses and the purchases required for laboratories, scientific research centers and other facilities.    

The statement also acknowledged the “essential and extremely important role” the Lebanese University plays in higher education in Lebanon and called on the government to provide it “the utmost care and support in the challenges it is facing and reinforce its presence in all regions” of the country. 

Shrinking University Staffs

The American University of Beirut is not alone in resorting to staff cuts. 

Susan Kahhaleh, a part-time professor of psychology and education who works under contract at Notre Dame University–Louaize, said the university had told her it did not intend to renew her contract next year. This has happened with most part-time lecturers at private universities whose classes are being absorbed by full-time professors, said Kahhaleh, who also teaches the Lebanese University.

The universities argue that student numbers are not sufficient to “open a class for them,” Kahhaleh explained.

Professors of the Lebanese University also worry about their economic security, especially the lecturers who work on short-term, part-time contracts and are paid by the hour. (See a related article, “Professors’ Strike at Lebanon’s Only Public University Reveals Social and Economic Gaps.”)

“There is a great deal of weakening for the contracted professors at the Lebanese University,” said Kahhaleh. “We live with constant inescapable anxiety.”

Kahhaleh believes the problem will become clearer with the beginning of the new academic year, especially with the expectation that thousands of cash-strapped students will move from expensive private universities to the Lebanese University. “At that time, it will become evident that it is unable to absorb them, given the great shortage of its academic staff,” she said.

Many believe that the problems of Lebanese professors today were exacerbated due to the lack of legal frameworks protecting teachers’ contracts with universities. Most of Lebanon’s universities often resort to short-term contracts with professors, meaning they can be terminated without legal restrictions.

“After 10 years in university education, I find that pervasive unemployment is spreading widely in universities,” said Haytham Chammas, a part-time professor of directing and photography at the Beirut Arab University and the American University of Science and Technology. 

“Amid the lack of any kind of educational policy, professors dearly pay the price in their livelihood. Some universities resorted to transferring our financial dues from the U.S. dollar to the Lebanese pound, so the value of our teaching hours has become no more than $8.”  

Today, many academics are considering leaving Lebanon, as many of the country’s professionals already have.

“I am seriously thinking of emigration,” says Kahhaleh. “The unemployment of academics here has become a reality that is increasing day after day, both in the private and the public sectors.”


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