Beirut university chief says firing of 850 staff should have been managed better

Videos went viral of security forces around building as staff were told to leave

The American University of Beirut should have better managed the firing of 850 staff members last Friday, the president of Lebanon’s most prestigious university said in a letter to staff and students.

Private security and members of the Lebanese military were posted around the AUB Medical Centre as the staff were given letters ending their employment and escorted out, many of them in tears.

Now, the institution’s president, Fadlo Khuri, has said the “exceptionally difficult” week could have been better managed.

“The reality is that letting this many people go from the AUB family was never going to be easy,” Mr Khuri wrote.

“The manner of departures, especially at AUBMC, could and should have been better handled, and some confusion and pain could have been avoided.”

Employees organised a protest outside the medical centre on Monday afternoon.

Pictures on social media showed protesters holding banners that read “I won’t leave” and “I will not accept this humiliation”.

Protesters read out the annual salaries of Mr Khuri and other top AUB officials, which they said added up to nearly $1 million a year, while visibly upset former employees broke down in tears.

On Friday, interviews with the former employees went viral on Lebanese social media.

“My mother has cancer. My brother died," a sobbing woman said.  "I had nothing but this institution. What will I do now?”

The layoffs took place amid large numbers of army and riot police, causing outrage on social media.

Some Twitter users called the university's management "cowards".
Mr Khuri said the security presence "was made necessary after external threats were received earlier in the week".

He said the economic crisis was a major factor behind the move but he understood it would make it harder for those laid off.

"We fully understand the dire impact of the layoffs given the disastrous state of Lebanon’s economy," Mr Khuri said.

"But it was precisely those circumstances that made it impossible for AUB to avoid this severe measure.

“Every avenue was explored to cut costs and increase efficiency on campus and at the medical centre, including the closure of underperforming university units."

Mr Khuri said he took a 25 per cent pay cut in mid-November.

"Those in top leadership positions and some higher-paid faculty and staff members have been giving back 10 to 20 per cent of their salary for months," he said.

But Mr Khuri also hinted that bad management at the medical centre was a reason for the dismissals.

"It did not maximise accrual of adequate reserves over the past decade and mobilised slowly to sufficiently control costs once the Lebanese financial crisis began to accelerate in 2019,” he wrote.

The centre also had “a substantial overstaffing problem in many units, which is unsustainable and needs to be urgently addressed".

Laid-off staff will receive between 6 and 24 months of severance pay and health benefits.

Their children’s education at AUB will be covered until their graduation, Mr Khuri said.

In early June, local newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour  reported Mr Khuri had told Lebanese President Michel Aoun that he would have to lay off up to 25 per cent of AUB's staff.

He announced at the time that job cuts would mostly affect administrative posts, and that the AUB and AUBMC would be hit.

Mr Khuri went public with the university's financial difficulties in a memo on May 5, describing the situation as the “greatest crisis since the university’s foundation in 1866".

Late June, the US announced that it would donate $20 million (Dh7.34m) to support the education of hundreds of university students in Lebanon, including some at AUB.

Lebanon is experiencing an economic meltdown since last summer, with soaring unemployment and a rapid devaluation of its currency.

Sworn in last January after months of nationwide protest, the government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab has been unable to implement much-needed reforms, and negotiations for a bailout with the IMF have hit a brick wall.