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Schooled in success

A class on expansion, revenue growth and more affordable tuition

by Sami Halabi

There was a time during the civil war when the Lebanese American University (LAU) did not know if it would have enough money to pay its staff at the end of every month, according to its president Joseph Jabbra. That is hardly the case today.

For the past several years the university has been increasing its revenue base by some five to six percent every year (see table) and has not had a deficit for the past eight years, according to Jabbra. According to its president, the university’s assets are valued at $602 million between its Beirut and Byblos campuses.

Since LAU is a non-profit institution it spends exactly what it brings in. Thus in any given year, tuition makes up anywhere from 70 to 80 percent of the university’s revenues. However, unlike many other schools, tuition hikes have tailed behind increases in the university’s turnover (see table). The result is that LAU, traditionally seen as Lebanon’s most expensive university, now actually charges less on average than its main competitor, the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The difference, according to Jabbra, has come from a strategic decision to steer revenue growth away from higher fees and to concentrate on the fundraising element, something the university has had some success with. In 2005 the university set out to raise $40 million in five years. “People said you could not raise any money,” said Jabbra. Over a period of four years LAU had managed to raise some $67.1 million and is now in the “quiet phase” of their next five-year funding spree, which aims to raise another $50 million to support capital spending plans of $240 million over the same period, according to Jabbra. The president’s target for the university’s endowment in the next four years is $500 million. What is also worthy of note is that this increase in revenue comes at a time when the university is also expanding its operations and programs.

Acquiring a medical program

In 2009 the university started its medical program after acquiring the Rizk Hospital, something that took a considerable amount of back and forth between the board and the president’s office.

“When we wanted to establish the medical school the board said ‘you will not have a hospital.’ They didn't want the hospital to become an albatross on the neck of the institution,” said Jabbra. Eventually, he says, the board acquiesced after affiliation agreements with other hospitals fell through and on condition that they would have control over the finances. Jabbra revealed to Executive that the university acquired the hospital, now called University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital, for a previously undisclosed amount of $47.5 million through Medical Care Holding, in which LAU has a controlling stake. He also revealed that the university is planning to put up another $47.5 million to meet its expansion plans for the hospital after it completes a restructuring of the facilities.

“The hospital was controlled by one person and was French-based,” says Jabbra. “First we had to make it controlled by systems, and second, make sure that the doctors, nurses and staff were introduced to English, so taught them free of charge.” Plans include a new radiology center and a new operating theatre.


Gaining recognition

Another program that has recently reached fruition is having the university accredited by an American education board, something that cost them almost $1.5 million.

“The raison d’etre was not: because AUB has it we have to have it,” he says. “If it makes us a better competitor to AUB then so be it. But you can’t improve unless you have someone telling you what you are doing here is wrong, or what you are doing is absolutely terrific.”    

Even with accreditation now in tow, LAU has not yet reached the research capacity of its main competitor, which claims it produces more research in terms of publications and papers than any other institution in the Arab world. Jabbra acknowledges that LAU has a ways to go but explains the reason behind it is somewhat historical. “For a long time we were a college. The main function of a college was to teach,” he says. LAU changed from a college to a university in 1994 when it started offering graduate degrees. Before that decision LAU was known as the Beirut University College.

To address this the university started to transition its teaching load for assistant professors and above in 2005, from four courses per semester to three courses per semester. “Doing research takes time, training faculty takes time. It costs money as you need to give faculty release time,” Jabbra says.

Higher education shortfalls

Another area where LAU falls behind its main competitor is number of graduate students they maintain. At present 9.3 percent of LAU’s student body is comprised of graduate students, while AUB’s comes in at 24.4 percent. Jabbra says that he advises most parents to tell their children to get their undergrad in Lebanon and go abroad for a graduate degree. “Not everyone can travel, because it costs a lot of money,” Jabbra says. He also denies that the university is ignoring its graduate program, insisting that it focuses on a selected few areas such as its doctorate program in pharmacy, the only such program outside the United States that is accredited by the Chicago-based Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.

LAU’s recent rise has not been without indecent however. In the past several years, two physical altercations caused by political and sectarian tensions have occurred, with the latest in the last academic year as tensions in the country rose over the ongoing unrest in Syria. LAU’s response was to provide counseling to the students instead of showing them the door, and 18 out of 19 students were eventually re-admitted. “It happened again and we did the same thing. We said to the Shia students, we are going to place you with Sunni communities, and we said to the Sunnis we will put you with Shia communities,” Jabbra says. 

Looking ahead

Next year, Jabbra estimates that the university’s budget will hit $138 million, a rise of some 23 percent. That would be more than double the trend in recent years; this ambitious target could well be achieved, as long as Lebanon can coast through the conflict next door.

However, whether he expects incidents on LAU campus to occur with more frequency as the situation in Syria escalates, Jabbra gives an answer that seems to be on the lips of most businesses in Lebanon today: “I don't know.”

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Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is the director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, a development, policy, and media consulting firm. He is also the former managing editor of Executive Magazine.

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