No stranger to hardship, the American University of Beirut endures

One of the Middle East's most respected universities is suffering the fallout of the pandemic, but it will continue to lead, as it always has

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The global Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent recession have scrambled conventions, atomised assumptions and forced serious reconsideration of short and long-term strategies. It has become evident that universities and healthcare systems have been particularly affected.

Only relevant and resilient institutions will survive the forced adaptation, and some of the world’s finest universities have already cut salaries, slashed retirement funds, halted construction projects and started layoffs. How we navigate these momentous times will define us for decades to come.

Like any great institution, the American University of Beirut (AUB) is a child of its times. Forged in the aftermath of two civil wars, one in Mount Lebanon (1860-1864) and one in the US (1861-65), the university grew out of the missionary zeal of Daniel Bliss and his Presbyterian brethren. They came to Lebanon to right not one but two historical wrongs.

One was the flaw in the American constitution that enabled the compromise leading to slavery. The other was the lack of emancipation and self-determination of the peoples of the world. Initially a Presbyterian missionary school, the future AUB, or Syrian Protestant College (SPC) as it was christened in 1866, took a radical turn towards secular humanism in the last decades of the 19th century following the “Lewis Affair”.

A devout Presbyterian professor, Edwin Lewis, espoused Darwin’s theory of evolution and was forced out of the faculty by Bliss himself and the board of trustees. This led consequently and rapidly to the departure in solidarity of the entirety of the occidental faculty of SPC, all of whom were fluent in Arabic.

After nine months of supporting our community as fully as possible, there is no choice now but to lay off non-academic staff

As the curriculum switched to English under the incoming professoriate, so too did the course of AUB’s history. Rather than Christian evangelisation, the transformation to secular humanism and modern liberal arts education became complete under Howard Bliss, Daniel Bliss’s son and the second university president. He went to the Conference of Versailles to advocate for the right of self-determination of the Arab peoples, and it was he who changed the name of the institution to the American University of Beirut.

Thus was born AUB’s true mission: the empowerment of citizens to determine their own destiny. That is evident in the inscription on the walls of the Main Gate: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.”

The university, which includes a cutting-edge medical centre, has been through many crises, but none quite like today’s. It has stood the test of time and lived through the fires. In the First World War, it sought to protect all Lebanese – or Syrians as they were then known – from war, famine and the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, playing an outsize role from its campus in Ras Beirut.

A picture taken on March 14, 2014, in the Lebanese capital Beirut shows the entrance of the American University of Beirut Medical Center. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who led the regime's negotiating team at failed peace talks this year, has been admitted to hospital in neighbouring Lebanon, a medical source said. AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Following the catastrophe of the Second World War, AUB contributed almost half of the founding authors of the UN Charter – more of its alumni than any other university in the world. AUB has educated and empowered more political, business, health, humanist and research leaders from the Arab world than any other university.

During the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war, AUB became a safe haven for all, as its medical centre treated the most gravely injured and ill patients, irrespective of political affiliation or religious background. The same was true for the teaching mission of the institution, which survived the deeply partisan and violent civil war.

Since 1990, AUB has taken a leading role in the intellectual and social rehabilitation and physical reconstruction of Lebanon and the region by educating the best and brightest from all backgrounds. It has fostered innovation and civic engagement in the most vulnerable and underrepresented communities. AUB produces more high impact research per faculty member than any other university in the Arab world. The university is the only one in the region to consistently rank among the top 50 universities globally in terms of the employability of our students and their ability to be accepted into top graduate, medical and professional programmes abroad.

Today’s economic breakdown has deeply wounded the university and will cause us to lose many of our community members. In addition to the global pandemic and deepening of the region’s economic crisis, AUB must survive Lebanon’s perfect storm, a complete economic collapse and confluence of severe social, financial, structural and political crises.

After nine months of supporting our community as fully as possible, there is no choice now but to lay off non-academic staff. The exact number of departures has yet to be determined, but it could affect 20-25 per cent of the workforce – painful but necessary in order to ensure the university's sustainability, its long-term relevance and its excellence in teaching and healthcare.

Those who depart will remain closely tied to the university’s family through a carefully crafted safety net in the absence of adequate protection from the state. This safety net includes a sliding scale of generous severance packages totalling up to 24 months’ salary for those who served AUB for 25 years, expanded access to our healthcare system, continued education of our departing members’ children currently enrolled at the university and the creation of an AUB talent pool for the future. Meanwhile, AUB must find the resources to continue to invest in research and recruit the best and brightest students from all over the world, irrespective of their ability to finance their tuition.

epa08483622 Lebanese anti-government protesters with black dresses perform a symbolic funeral for the Lebanese citizens and their country during protests in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 13 June 2020. Anti-government protesters continue gathering as they block the roads during a protest against the economic condition, the collapsing Lebanese pound currency, and increasing prices.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

The American University of Beirut is a resilient, enduring and impactful institution. Born in the aftermath of two civil wars, it survived two world wars and sustained the city of Beirut and its region through the most damaging and enduring Lebanese civil war. Despite Lebanon’s accelerating deterioration over the last decade, AUB continues to rise in all relevant college rankings, producing the lion’s share of high-quality research in Lebanon and attracting some of the very best students and scholars to the Arab world.

By holding true to its mission and values, AUB will surely survive this period of collapse and help lead Lebanon and the Arab world once more to far firmer ground, and to a more inclusive, fair and just future.

Fadlo R Khuri is the president of American University of Beirut