As I write this article, eight years have passed since I committed to return to Lebanon as the 16th president of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Over the last three years, I have been frequently asked whether I regret leaving my academic career and surrendering two endowed chairs at Emory University in the United States, where I led a thriving department of hematology and medical oncology that was among the finest of its kind anywhere and planned the long-term research and sustainability strategies of both the US National Cancer Institute designated Winship Cancer Institute and top tier Emory University School of Medicine. My answer has been consistently the same. I have no regrets other than missing our son’s college years at Emory, and I am more confident in the future of AUB than I have ever been. In fact, I see more clearly the path forward for the development of a sustainable economy for AUB’s host nation, Lebanon, in whom we have deep and permanent roots, than at any time over the last five decades. I will outline below the reasons that have brought me to these conclusions.
First, some perspective. I have long been optimistic about the university’s future having been a firsthand witness to the talent that this research intensive, liberal arts university consistently educates, year-on-year. I have witnessed this as a young man, as a college student, as a colleague and as a senior leader in academia, medicine and health. On the other hand, I consider the strategy of consistently expelling Lebanon’s most precious resources, its young people—a strategy that has its roots dating back to the expansion of its seaside ports in the 19th century—tantamount to economic hubris and perhaps even suicide. How can one reverse this long-standing trend and create opportunities for the Lebanese to live dignified lives, while spending the bulk of their productive years in their home country? If successful, how can one extend this experience to citizens of the Global South? In particular, the Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, among others, who continue to count our university as their home.
Five years ago, we agreed to edit a single large issue of Annahar newspaper to highlight the need for diversifying the economy of Lebanon, an issue that was released in September 2018 as “A manifesto for the salvation of Lebanon” to outline the economic and cultural opportunities Lebanon needed to seize. Our arguments in recruiting experts from across the nation and its diaspora were that continued overreliance on money, banking and tourism created a vulnerability which was likely to manifest itself sooner than later. We did not predict the eminent collapse that started in the summer of 2019, nor did we foresee its severity. But we had developed a long-term strategic plan for the university and started to diversify our own offerings well before the collapse, and that development was accelerated more than it was hindered by the concatenation of crises that followed.
To strengthen and grow
Our ‘VITAL’ strategic plan focuses on five pillars: the emphasis and sharing of our liberal and inclusive values, enhancing and translating our capacity for innovation, transforming the university experience, advancing our research excellence and lifting the quality of life and health across the region. This admittedly ambitious proposal engaged hundreds of stakeholders from the university community, including students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and trustees. It was approved unanimously by our board in June 2020 and is in the process of being implemented.
To date, the plan involves the launch of our first twin campus in Pafos, Cyprus in September 2023, enhancing the on-campus university experience including vaccinating 99.7 percent of our community to restart in-person education, adding more experiential learning, launching AUB Online, diversifying and refining our health offerings, and expanding our research funding and focus, as well as enhancing our scholarship programs.
The university has dramatically expanded financial aid through a number of generous partnerships, the largest of which have come from the Mastercard Foundation, United States Agency for International Development, Middle East Partnership Initiative, Qatar Scholarships—Education Above All, and Unite Lebanon Youth Project. This has allowed us to move from having 45 percent of our students receiving financial aid at an average support level of under 30 percent a decade ago, to now having 65 percent of our students receiving financial aid at an average of 55 percent. We have also leveraged our enhanced endowment to help bridge the severe drop in the value of the Lebanese pound, whereby by 2025 we expect to have restored the full buying power of our outstanding faculty and staff while protecting the unique benefits that AUB offers, including housing and health subsidies, generous retirement match and unequaled dependent child educational support.
The devastating August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion, coupled with Lebanon’s economic and political collapse, led directly to the university losing almost 1,000 continuing and newly enrolling students, over 210 faculty, and close to 500 staff. Despite this, and even though the Lebanese economy is still in tatters, we have reshaped the university to continue as the largest private sector employer in the country while maintaining student diversity at approximately 20 percent international, with citizens of more than 80 countries currently enrolled or working at AUB.
What is clear to anyone visiting our campus is the community’s sense of engagement and confidence in a better tomorrow. AUB’s values and its principles are powerfully held by its community. The famous words on our main gate declare, drawn as they are from John 10:10 in the New Testament of the Bible: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Moving forward, the “they” in that famous phrase must increasingly stand not only for individuals but for societies. By diversifying our offerings as a university, we can better prepare tomorrow’s citizen leaders for the challenges they will inevitably face in under-resourced, nascent nation states. These individuals will be better armed to help broaden national economic bases, to include, for example, sustainable growth in the health, higher education, sustainability and environment, the arts and humanities, technology and the service sectors while developing a modern industry. AUB, which has recruited more than 80 new faculty members, more than 100 staff and seen more than 40 of its departed faculty return, has recently welcomed one of our largest and most academically excellent student cohorts in years. We must lead by modernizing its curriculum, expanding academic offerings, and extending our reach, all to empower and develop citizen leaders on its main campus, twin campuses, and among online students. The principles of belonging and accountability for all, particularly those less fortunate, must take hold if Lebanon and the other countries of the region are to become socially and economically inclusive, sustainable nation states.
As we endeavor to make AUB a more powerful, durable engine for social transformation, we continue to fulfill a pledge that I made to myself in the 1980s, when I left this country to study and hone my medical practice in the US for 33 years. Surveying the wreckage of this singular country halfway through its vicious civil war, I saw many acts of courage and kindness that reinforced my conviction that the people of Lebanon and the region are not children of a lesser God. They are fully capable of upholding the responsibilities of citizenship that build great nations. Lebanon, like AUB, must be built on pillars of belonging and accountability. When I again noticed those twin pillars of AUB start to be obscured, I was determined to help in re-enforcing them, but to do so armed with a clear strategy and a sense of ownership.
Over the last eight years, I believe we have accomplished much of what we intended despite severe crises. While much has been completed, the next 10 to 15 years will require further planning, execution, hard work, sacrifice and adjustments. For myself and our colleagues among the students, faculty, staff, alumni and trustees, we can think of no cause more worthy than the ‘VITAL’ alignment of the American University of Beirut: to lead the development of modern, diversified, inclusive and sustainable nations, where citizenship, ownership, belonging and accountability lead to a more abundant life for all.