BEIRUT—A pioneer of non-invasive techniques that revolutionized brain surgery worldwide, Michel Mawad started his tenure as president of the Lebanese American University last year at the height of the economic crisis in Lebanon which, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, entailed formidable challenges to higher education.
“We are trying seriously to extend our footprint outside Lebanon to bring in some fresh income to supplement the local revenues of the university, which have dropped dramatically,” Mawad said in a recent interview in his office.
Mawad returned to his home country in 2017 after spending more than 40 years in the United States. He served as the dean of the Lebanese American University’s medical school for nearly four years before being appointed the university’s president less than a year ago.
His approach to his new challenges is based on leadership skills that served him as a doctor and dean.
“It is the same principle in the sense of looking at the problem, finding the root cause of the problem, fixing it and moving on,” Mawad said. “This is the way physicians work, and this is how I am running this place.”
Pioneering Work in a New Field
Since completing medical school at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut, Mawad has dedicated his life to medicine, working with prominent physicians on innovating and improving the procedures of treating brain disorders without resorting to open surgery.
“When I graduated in 1976, civil war was raging in Lebanon,” Mawad recalls. “So I took the boat to Cyprus (the airport was closed) and went to New York, where I did my residency and fellowship at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in a new field at the time called interventional neurosurgery, which is a noninvasive treatment of vascular problems in the brain.”
“We are trying seriously to extend our footprint outside Lebanon to bring in some fresh income to supplement the local revenues of the university, which have dropped dramatically.”Michel Mawad
“In the beginning, people doubted the procedure. They would say,How can you treat brain malformations without opening the skull?” he said. “But I persisted and kept working on that technique with some colleagues, and today it is the standard treatment all over the world.”
Mawad’s career in academia stretched over 10 years at Columbia University Hospitals in New York City and 30 years at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. He held key positions at Baylor in the departments of neuroradiology, neurosurgery, neurology and ophthalmology, and continued work on the technology for the new cerebral procedure.
He collaborated with top international companies such as Siemens, Philips and General Electric to improve the technology and has many inventions and patents in his name. He later established the first two comprehensive stroke centers in the United States and was listed among the top 2 percent of the most-cited scientists worldwide in his field in a study published in PLoS Biology.
Achievements and Plans at LAU
In his tenure as dean of LAU’s medical school, Mawad enhanced the curriculum, promoted clinical research and clinical practice, initiated new fellowship programs and established a stroke center at the LAU Medical Center–Rizk Hospital. He recently led the university’s effort to acquire the Saint John’s Hospital in Jounieh, northeast of Beirut, as part of an integrated strategic plan for the School of Medicine.
“With the School of Nursing and a School of Pharmacy in place, LAU’s university hospital has become the main training ground for these three health-science-related disciplines in Lebanon,” Mawad said. “This would extend our ability to train our students and residents. It is also an opportunity to prove, as a university, that we can provide an integrated health system.”
“With the School of Nursing and a School of Pharmacy in place, LAU’s university hospital has become the main training ground for these three health-science-related disciplines in Lebanon.”Michel Mawad
Elements of his vision for LAU’s future include reinventing the entire curriculum in the School of Arts and Sciences, setting up a new building for the School of Architecture and Design, and opening a new laboratory for the School of Engineering.
Mawad’s plans also include the creation of a school for public policy and an industrial hub on campus to bridge academia and talents produced by the university with local industries.
“Our aim is to apply our knowledge and academics to improve the society. It is part of our civil engagement as a university,” Mawad said.
Coping With a Financial Crisis
However, at a time of unprecedented economic and financial crisis in Lebanon, challenges facing higher education are tremendous. With the devaluation of the Lebanese currency, universities across Lebanon have struggled to sustain their operations. (See two related articles, “Crisis Puts Lebanon’s University Hospitals at Risk of Forced Shutdowns” and “For Many Universities in Lebanon, Survival May Be at Stake.”)
“Sustaining the university hospitals, retaining our faculty members and still providing high-quality education is a huge challenge.”Michel Mawad
“Sustaining the university hospitals, retaining our faculty members and still providing high-quality education is a huge challenge,” he added. “Revenues from tuition, which represent 90 percent of our revenues, are almost nil, and specialized professors, including 10 to 12 medical doctors, are departing. Brain drain is a big threat for the university.” (See a related article, “Most Arab-World Researchers Want to Leave, a New Survey Finds.”)
Mawad’s medical career includes service on more than a dozen academic and professional committees, as well as membership in nine medical societies and organizations, and in 1991 he was elected president of the World Federation of Interventional and Therapeutic Neuroradiology. His achievements in the medical profession have earned him numerous honors and awards.
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His research has concentrated over the years on the prevention, rapid detection and treatment of cerebrovascular disease, resulting in more than 107 publications in prestigious medical and scientific journals, six book chapters, 24 scientific exhibits, and 211 scientific papers presented at national and international meetings.