A Bastion of American Values in the Arab Middle East

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As the Arab Spring uprisings transform the history and face of the Arab world, the American University of Beirut, the oldest and most prestigious private university in the Arab Middle East, is preparing to launch the most ambitious fund-raising campaign in its 145-year history.

The campaign will seek to raise more than $400 million dollars in five years – an unprecedented sum for AUB that is almost equal to its $480 million endowment. This is far beyond the reach of most other Arab higher educational institutions. At least $300 million of the money will be allocated to renovating and expanding AUB’s hospital, one of the Arab Middle East’s premier medical centers.

The fund-raising drive is being launched amid the sea-change in the Arab Middle East — a period of intense passion and hope, strife and political alarm unseen in the region since the Arab nationalist upheavals and military coups of the 1950’s.

The Wolfensohn Controversy

The campaign also comes on the heels of a bruising political battle within the university over the trustees’ decision to award an honorary degree to James D. Wolfensohn, an Australian-born American financier, former World Bank president, and former special Middle East envoy. In June, Wolfensohn declined the honor to defuse a growing controversy over his nomination. Weeks earlier, 95 members of AUB’s faculty and hundreds of students and alumni had signed a petition challenging the granting of the doctorate to him given the “policies” of the World Bank, his “pro-Zionist” positions, and alleged disregard for Palestinians.

The university’s president, Peter F. Dorman, said the petition’s allegations were not only factually inaccurate, but “insulting” to a man who has worked tirelessly for peace between Arabs and Jews, particularly on behalf of the Palestinians.

“AUB is not well served by petitions that are deliberately slanted to serve narrow interests regardless of facts,” Dorman wrote in an open letter to the AUB “community” after Wolfensohn declined the honorary doctorate and the invitation to deliver AUB’s commencement address on its magnificent campus overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut. “Such campaigns are fundamentally dishonest and diverge from our university’s commitment to the pursuit of knowledge as grounded in intellectual integrity,” Dorman declared.

The petition was particularly embarrassing, as Wolfensohn serves on the school’s international advisory council, a group of 29 prominent scholars, intellectuals, former government officials and financiers who informally advise AUB and its board of trustees on financial and political issues.

Mr. Dorman, AUB’s fifteenth president, an Egyptologist and the great great grandson of the university’s founder, said in an interview that the university had been seeking to honor Wolfensohn for several years and that he deeply regretted his advisers’ decision not to attend the commencement or receive the honorary degree last June. The university would continue trying to honor Wolfensohn “consistent with its own rules and procedures,” Dorman added.  He said he was gratified that Wolfensohn, who declined to be interviewed for this story, had remained on the advisory council. He also insisted that the controversy would neither delay nor harm the upcoming fund-raising effort.

Seeking More American Students

The petition drive, however, is but one of several challenges confronting AUB. The university, which is ranked among the 300 top universities in the world and is widely seen as a purveyor of American values, academic standards and intellectual autonomy, is having difficulty attracting American and other foreign students given the region’s political turmoil. It now also confronts growing competition from other American colleges and universities that are seeking a foothold in Arab Middle East, particularly a presence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. New York University, for one, has opened a campus in Abu Dhabi; Harvard’s John F. Kennedy’s School of Government, now offering classes in Dubai; Georgetown University’s school of foreign service has opened in Qatar.

Given the profound political upheavals that have gripped Lebanon for so long and now other states in the region, however, AUB’s endurance, its continuing academic excellence, and its relative independence are a small miracle.

“Despite everything,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, an American-educated Kuwaiti who teaches political science at the University of Kuwait and a prominent educational scholar, “the culture of AUB is one of freedom. That makes the university “precious and rare in the Arab world,” he says, even in the Gulf, where several American universities have opened programs, or branches and/or campuses. “AUB has a long history of turning out some of the Arabs’ most independent thinkers.”

Founded in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College by Daniel Bliss, an American missionary who wanted to build a “center of knowledge” in the Arab Middle East, AUB has been America’s most visible and influential educational and cultural outpost in the Arab world for over a century. Since its opening, it has awarded more than 82,000 degrees and diplomas. Its 55,000 alumni in more than 100 countries include at least 3 Arab presidents, 10 prime ministers, dozens of ambassadors and diplomats, and some of the Arab world’s most prominent intellectuals.

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A private, non-sectarian college in a country of feuding and often warring religious and ethnic sects, AUB introduced American-style education to the Arab Middle East: small classes, high-faculty to student ratios (one professor for every 12 students) and modern teaching methods that emphasize independent thought and individual autonomy. The college that began with 16 undergraduates now has an enrollment of 7,828 students from 67 countries – most of them Lebanese, half of whom are women.

Without doubt, its nadir was Lebanon’s devastating civil war of 1975 to 1991. In 1982, its then president David Dodge, an American, was kidnapped and held in Iran for more than a year before being released. Two years later, its widely respected American president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in his office by two unknown gunmen. A score of AUB faculty, staff and students were also killed, including two former deans, Ray Goshn and Robert Najemy. Another 30 faculty and administrators were kidnapped during the war, some of whose exact fates still remain unknown. A dean of agriculture was abducted in 1985 and not released until November, 1991. Virtually of all AUB’s American staff and students went home, as did other foreigners. AUB’s president and senior administration had to run the university out of its modest offices in mid-town Manhattan. Board meetings were sometimes held in Cyprus.

Given the 15-year war and now the region’s ongoing political upheavals, fewer and fewer AUB students or faculty are American, one of the trends that president Dorman is seeking to reverse. While between 50 and 60 percent of the student body was Lebanese in the 1960’s and ’70’s, roughly 75 percent of today’s students come from Lebanon. Less than 12 percent are American, and they are mostly of Lebanese heritage. “We treasure our legacy students,” said Dorman, “but we would also love to bring back the diversity. We want a few more of those blond, blue-eyed kids back.”

If low tuition for quality education is a draw, AUB has an edge. Undergraduate tuition in 2010 ranged from $12,342 to $14,730, depending on a student’s year and major. During the past five years, AUB has doubled its financial aid awards. More than 80 percent of financial aid applicants received financial assistance last year.

Tuition Is Up, But Still Reasonable

But financial pressures affecting all universities have now forced AUB to raise tuition. Members of this year’s entering class are paying an average tuition of some $18,500 a year, a substantial increase over last academic year’s rates, “but still a relatively terrific deal,” Mr. Dorman says.

The university, which accepts about 55 percent of its applicants, is also seeking to offer shorter-term study programs for students who may hesitate to commit to a full four-year bachelor’s degree program in a region whose political trajectory is so uncertain. Mr. Dorman is exploring “study abroad” programs for a semester, or a summer, to attract such a clientele.

The U.S. State Department has complicated the university’s recruitment challenge. While the U.S. no long effectively bans Americans from traveling to or studying in Beirut, as Washington advised during Lebanon’s bloody civil war, its strongly worded travel advisory warns American citizens that traveling to, or living in Lebanon poses obvious risks. After U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last February, the department issued an even tougher advisory for Lebanon and most other Arab countries. While AUB hoped that the advisory would gradually be softened, AUB’s senior administrators were dismayed when the department warned Americans in October “to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns.”

The advisory also warns Americans that several “extremist groups like Hezbollah,” which Washington has designated as a terrorist group, continue operating in Lebanon, and that American citizens “have been the target of numerous terrorist attacks.”

William Hoffman, who has headed AUB’s Washington office for the past 30 years, complained that the advisory clearly “scares parents if not more adventurous students away.” The advisory also “discourages American universities and colleges from entering into formal exchange programs with us,” he said.

Paradoxically, he added, AUB was now among the safest American educational outposts in the Middle East. The university had actually picked up a few of the American and foreign students who were studying at its “sister” institution in Egypt, the American University of Cairo, which was forced to evacuate some 350 exchange students when the Arab Spring protests erupted last winter. Some students who wanted to remain and witness this historic moment in Arab history came to AUB, Hoffman said. AUB has not sent students home since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, he added, as Lebanon has remained largely peaceful. AUB’s last evacuation of students occurred in 2006 during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. AUB and AUC are separate, unaffiliated institutions, despite their common emphasis on American-style higher education and similar names.

Although AUB remains a quintessentially American institution that operates under a charter from New York State’s Department of Education and is fully accredited by American educational boards, it is vitally important to Lebanon. In addition to having produced many of Lebanon’s and the region’s most eminent leaders and dissenters, AUB is the country’s largest private employer – and second only to the government in terms of overall employment.  “It is a unique institution in the Middle East,” says Makram Rabah, a Lebanese “AUBite” who now lives in Washington, and the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975.”

“It’s a pluralistic institution with high academic standards that has one campus where all of the region’s different sects, religions, and nationalities intermingle and debate.” Calling it a “hybrid” — an “American institution with Arab values,” a “small island of academic freedom and excellence in a troubled sea,” Rabah says that Lebanon would be “immeasurably poorer without it.”

American University of Beirut students.jpgAUB’s medical center is Lebanon’s crown jewel, attracting patients from throughout the region. Because it is also a major source of revenue for the university, the medical center is also the centerpiece of the upcoming fund-raising campaign. At least $300 million of the $400 million AUB will seek to raise is to be allocated to the medical center to renovate and expand its 420-bed teaching hospital, labs and classrooms to maintain its preeminence in the region. Throughout the bloody civil war, the hospital remained open to all, a haven of sorts that helped shield the university from the worst of the bloody war’s most egregious excesses.

Dorman anticipates that most donors will be wealthy Arab donors, some of whom were treated, or had relatives who were treated at AUB’s hospital. But individual philanthropy remains yet another challenge. “Arabs are very generous, as generous as Americans,” he said. “But they have a different concept of philanthropy.” In Arab society, gifts are made “based on those who are closest to you – family, tribe, community and sect. There is little tradition of giving to private, non-profit institutions that enhance society in general.”

Moreover, the Lebanese government does not offer automatic deductions or other tax breaks or incentives. For many years, in fact, Lebanon taxed large gifts.

A Drive to Attract More Faculty

American-style fund-raising campaigns are relatively new to the region. AUB’s first large campaign, launched under its former president, John Waterbury, a scholar from Princeton, after the country’s devastating civil war in 2003, raised $170 million in five years — $30 million above its targeted $140 million, a million for each of what was then AUB’s years of existence. Since then, Dorman said, AUB has raised between $20-$30 million, “not much,” he concedes, by American standards.

American government contributions to AUB have also steadily declined as a percentage of overall operating costs, administrators say. Whereas the U.S. Agency for International Development once provided $8.7 million in grants and contracts back in 1975 – over 40 percent of AUB’s operating budget, excluding the medical center, in 1975 – it has given an average of $6.9 million a year for the last five fiscal years, Hoffman says.

Dorman is also pushing hard to recruit top-tier faculty and administrators from the United States. Towards this end, he is exploring reinstating tenure for faculty at a time when American universities are abandoning that system. “Creating a permanent community of scholars and guarantees of their ability to do independent research would help us a lot,” Dorman said, noting that he gave up a tenured post at the University of Chicago, where he chaired the university’s department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, to accept the president’s post at AUB. The university suspended tenure in 1984 when the civil war made it impossible to guarantee independent academic reviews of faculty members.

Another obstacle is the university’s struggle to remain aloof from the internal Lebanese ethnic, religious, and sectarian struggles and the growing influence of Hezbollah. Some scholars and analysts said that the petition campaign against Wolfensohn last June was actively promoted by Hezbollah, the “Party of God,” a powerful political player in Lebanon well represented in the Lebanese parliament and Cabinet. To be sure, al-Akhbar, a daily Arabic-language newspaper, and other media outlets sympathetic to the militant Islamists actively supported the anti-Wolfensohn campaign. But so did former Prime Minister Salim Hoss and other Lebanese political luminaries. Because Israel is such an emotional, “hot-button” issue – Lebanon and Israel are still technically at war and AUB students, faculty and administrators are forbidden from traveling to Israel or participating in international forums with Israeli citizens – Wolfensohn’s connections and ties there were bound to be controversial.

Sources close to AUB’s administration said that while Dorman considered side-stepping the Wolfensohn controversy by honoring him at a special ceremony in New York, the school’s rules and traditions require that recipients of honorary degrees collect their degree on campus, as were this year’s other honorees – composer Marcel Khalife, journalist Anthony Shadid, science historian Owen Gingerich, cancer researcher Mostafa El-Sayed, and Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who was also UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In her commencement remarks, Ms. Robinson chided AUB by expressing regret that her “friend, Jim Wolfensohn” was “not here to share his thoughts.”

The rest of the commencement ceremonies were unremarkable, according to several who attended the gathering. But Dorman knows that the challenge posed by the anti-Wolfensohn protestors will remain dicey, as faculty members opposed to various university stances and practices are likely to have been emboldened by Wolfensohn’s withdrawal.

Judith Miller

Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.

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