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Why the American University of Beirut?

Why the American University of Beirut?

Monday, 18 May, 2020 - 09:30

When news broke that the American University of Beirut is struggling financially, the consciousness of many Lebanese took a shocking blow after their hopes had been dealt one. This is because that university, for many reasons, some grounded in reality and others imagined, seemed immune to crises.

Last Wednesday, AUB President Fadlo Khuri held a meeting to which several Lebanese journalists were invited. The purpose was to explain the financial situation the university is currently struggling with and reassure public opinion, through the journalists, that it will go on for "another 153 years." For rumors had been circulating here and there, some innocent and others tendentious, that the university would shut its doors.

Khuri did indeed succeed in his mission to reassure. However, this does not negate the persistence of some of the most extreme apprehensions regarding AUB's future. Four of these apprehensions stand out strongly:

First, it is an American university at a time when, for a multitude of reasons, the tide of anti-Americanism is rising. True, a replication of the 1980s is not likely, but remembering them may be useful for understanding the nature of this phase. At the time, the emergence of the armed and triumphalist faction that boasted about its expulsion of the multinational forces from Lebanon was accompanied by the attacks on the American university and the killing or kidnapping of some of its professors (who recalls the assassination of Malcolm Kerr in early 1984?).

Last Wednesday, as Khuri and the journalists were gathered together, the Hezbollah Secretary General was giving a speech from a place likely no more than two kilometers away.

Second, it is a private university that generally draws well-off students, while we are experiencing a period of economic collapse and the impoverishment of a growing number of victims, and the effects of which the university itself is not insulated from. Thus, the populism that is thriving and is likely to thrive further is eying it.

And thirdly, it is a source for the spread of values (free thinking, individualism...) that, unfortunately, are no longer welcome in the region. All kinds of fanaticism are taking over today. To remind ourselves of the size of the gap let us read an excerpt from the speech of the former President of the University Daniel Bliss, at the inauguration of College Hall in 1871: “This College is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man white, black, or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four, or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or no God.”

Finally, AUB was the second bridge, alongside the Suez Canal, linking the region to the world early on: The Canal whose construction began in 1859 and was inaugurated in 1869, while the university opened its doors (when its name had been the Syrian Protestant College) in 1866. On the other hand, the region is making a strong turn inward and away from the outside world today (to say nothing of the possible reinforcement of these isolationist trends by the coronavirus epidemic).

It could be said the university had never separated from its surroundings nor were its surroundings separated from it, as it is today. We could perhaps go further and say that the current financial crisis facing the university is in a sense an acute manifestation of the problem referred to above. How long will this green island persevere amid the potentially worsening turbulence in Lebanon and the Arab world?

My colleague Youssef Bazzi framed the challenge as follows: “The concession demanded of the university is to almost abandon its identity, for example to stop being a melting-pot of multinational students, and to lose its appeal as a space that promotes individual and public freedoms, becoming isolated from the city, an exclusive club.

This contrasts with the university's apparent inclination to interact with the conditions of Lebanon and the region, especially with the reinvigoration of its student body and the revival of public discussion in its halls and even outside its walls. This inclination was emphasized with the October 2019 uprising, which confirmed the efficacy of the renowned American and Jesuit universities in shaping a general mood and an alternative political rhetoric and in arousing this legitimate ambition for a better Lebanon or a better Arab Levant.”

Inquisitors could ask: Why is the future of AUB important? The answer is simple: Because it transferred a series of new values to the region and produced an array of capable cadres spread across the globe, especially the Arab world. However, beyond that, and first and foremost, because it contributed, more than anything else, to transforming Beirut into a cosmopolitan city, and to making the neighborhood of Ras Beirut the first in the Middle East not to be formed by ties of kinship: The buildings of this neighborhood, where the university is located, is where Indians, British, Bahrainis, Palestinians, Sudanese, Americans and Iraqis took up residence alongside one another, Beirutis and those who had come down to Beirut from the countryside as individuals, rather than clans and tribes.

Indeed, Lebanon’s recovery and that of the university are one and the same. So, being apprehensive is legitimate, if not a duty. Treating it is treating the ills of Lebanon, if not the region as a whole.

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