BEIRUT—The American University of Beirut has managed to survive Lebanon’s continuing financial crisis because of plans put in place before the currency collapsed in 2019, its president, Fadlo Khuri, says.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Khuri said the crisis had just accelerated a plan for financial sustainability that the university had already formulated to ensure survival without compromising the quality of education.
“The crises of the past three years have been formidable, and we’ve used them to translate some of our strategic vision into reality,” said Khuri, who became the university’s president in 2015.
“We had to be prepared for a sustainable course of action, which is why we were gradually increasing the cost of tuition. … It took three years to finally shift to 60 percent dollarised fees.”
The university detected the first sign of economic and political trouble in 2017, two years before the crisis hit hard, and took pre-emptive measures.
“We then started to adjust by moving some funds abroad. The endowment was always outside the country, we had already started to benchmark our tuition in dollars, and we almost doubled our endowment,” Khuri said.
“Through (constant) communication with the board and the various constituencies of the AUB community, we were able to move gradually towards where we are today, which is economic sustainability with student numbers going up without compromising on standards for admission.”
The university is chartered by the State of New York and administered by a Board of Trustees based in New York. Its endowment was valued at $1.06 billion in 2021, according to a recent university report.
“Through (constant) communication with the board and the various constituencies of the AUB community, we were able to move gradually towards where we are today, which is economic sustainability with student numbers going up without compromising on standards for admission,” said Khuri.
Steep Financial Hits
The economic crisis that struck Lebanon in 2019 affected all sectors, including higher education. In the past three years, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value, and people’s purchasing power has plummeted sharply as banks have placed painful restrictions on depositors’ withdrawals.
The financial collapse was compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 explosion at the Beirut port which shattered large swathes of the Lebanese capital.
Some 375 students dropped out of the university, and 500 new students who were planning to enrol as freshmen and sophomores never appeared. The university closed underperforming units, laid off 600 administrative staff members and did not renew the contracts of 244 others.
The port explosion also triggered a mass exodus of faculty and staff members, including 200 doctors and 300 nurses at the university hospital.
“This was devastating for us. We lost some excellent teachers, but we were able to keep the teaching at a good level,” said Khuri, himself a physician who began his undergraduate education at the American University of Beirut and completed his studies in the United States.
He added that the university was able to find 77 new faculty members and doctors and was continuing to recruit. Some of the best faculty who had left came back after the campus re-opened in October last year, with 99.7 percent of faculty, students, staff and alumni fully vaccinated against Covid.
“We aim to attract international students, especially from the region, to the Paphos campus. For students who might be reluctant to come to Lebanon in its current state, we are able to give them an AUB quality education in Paphos.”
“Sixty-five physicians, including six of our top medics, who had departed came back or cut short their leave,” Khuri said. “Stability in the country would help us regain the lost faculty, but we’ve been very clear that whoever is not back by September 1, 2023, will be replaced and the door will be closed for them permanently.”
Diversifying revenue sources through the establishment of satellite campuses like the American University of Beirut–Mediterraneo in Paphos, Cyprus, and the launch of AUB Online, was part of the university’s strategic plan for sustainability.
“We were very determined from before my administration to be more diverse socio-economically. There has never been consideration of moving the whole (Beirut) campus. I don’t think AUB could have been AUB anywhere but in Beirut,” Khuri said.
“We aim to attract international students, especially from the region, to the Paphos campus. For students who might be reluctant to come to Lebanon in its current state, we are able to give them an AUB quality education in Paphos. … Our goal is to have 40 to 50 percent international students between the different campuses by 2035.”
AUB Online, which is expected to be fully launched in the summer of 2023, will offer something different. It will target all ages of learners, including older adults who want to have life-long education.
“To globalise the university, we have to strengthen our online education,” Khuri stressed. “We want to stay affordable in the long run but at the same time expand our audience who can take advantage of AUB education. The idea is that within five years of its full launch we will have some 25,000 distance learners that we will serve.”
Increasing Student Financial Aid
Khuri pointed out that since the onset of the economic crisis, the number of students seeking financial aid has increased significantly. Almost 63 percent are getting an average of 55 percent financial aid, up from 40 percent getting an average of 20 to 25 percent financial aid, he said. The number of students getting a full scholarship also rose, from 450 to 1,800 students in all majors.
“We continue to support needy students. This is one thing that I did not want to compromise on. … We do not want to be more economically elite than we are intellectually elite.”
“We continue to support needy students. This is one thing that I did not want to compromise on. … We do not want to be more economically elite than we are intellectually elite,” Khuri stressed.
The university’s education was recently acclaimed when three of its graduates including faculty members, were awarded the prestigious Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAS) Prize for 2021. Ramzi Baalbaki, Fouad Abd-el-Khalek and Ali Taher won the prizes for arts and humanities, social sciences and economics, and applied sciences, respectively.
Asked if he regrets being the head of the university during such a time of crisis, Khuri was adamant: “Not at all. I am actually glad I was able to serve now because I think it takes knowledge of certain nuances, not just of AUB, but of Lebanese and American culture to help us preserve the university in these difficult times.”
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