The venerable American University of Beirut (AUB) is preparing for a new spring of engendering broad leadership of civil societies in the countries of the Middle East. A recently announced institute is to be a core conduit for this ambitious challenge. Executive explored this in an exclusive interview with AUB President Peter Dorman.
In the first announcement of the Asfari Institute, you said that it will bring together experts for dialogue, conduct research, and propose innovative ways forward. That sounded like a three-partite structure of conferencing, research and advocacy.
Is this the essence of the plan and what other components does AUB hope to include in the project?
Absolutely, and in addition to those three, we would ultimately like to put an emphasis on education. We would work this out in the years to come, but it is certainly part of our thinking to develop a master’s program that will relate to some aspect of citizenship or civil society. It could be a very exciting master’s [degree] because of the interdisciplinary nature of the institute.
You have a $10 million grant from the Asfari Foundation. Is that going to be an endowment or an operational grant and seed money to start the institute?
We have an initial amount of seed money to begin operations. There is a promise of additional funding up to $10 million and I think they are looking at the possibility of a much larger endowment that would go toward the permanence of this particular institute.
How long will $10 million last you for operating the institute?
The initial operation plan is for five years and we hope the expectation is for longer than that.
Will AUB use any of its own financial resources or seek to find additional funds during the five years?
Absolutely. Part of the expectation for AUB is that we will be going to do this sort of fundraising and bring additional support and government support to the center and magnify the effectiveness of its activity.
In terms of structure, will it be like a department of AUB or incorporated independently?
It is situated very firmly within the university as a research institute and it has two governance bodies that can provide advice and counsel. The internal steering committee will be made up of the institute’s director and the provost of AUB, plus a series of faculty members. An external advisory board will include two representatives of the Asfari Foundation and a number of other people drawn from universities, from NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and from perhaps even the European Union.
Between conferencing, research, and advocacy, how would you see the distribution of activities — in equal thirds?
I suspect it will in the beginning be less on advocacy. Advocacy will depend ultimately on what kind of research, what kind of interactions with NGOs, what kind of network we can achieve. Advocacy is I think at the forefront of the ultimate result but the purpose of the institute is to allow faculty to explore the ways in which civil societies develop.
You are surrounded by countries with state-aligned universities. In context of the Asfari Institute’s specificity, would you seek to invite representatives from regional universities that are not under the American umbrella?
We would love to develop as wide a regional partnership as we can for this initiative. We are also keenly aware that the notion of open liberal democratic societies is not going to be instantly embraced by every country in this region. Citizenship as the way in which the individual behaves in society is a relatively new idea here in Arab societies whose populations have been living under autocratic regimes for decades.
Was AUB the only horse in the race for being the host of the Asfari Institute or was there a competition between you and other potential host universities?
It is a more complex relationship. Ayman Asfari is one of our trustees and he has been wonderful and generous in supporting scholarships. [As we are approaching the 150th anniversary of AUB] it is very exciting for us in the moment of the ‘Arab Spring’ to think how our graduates in the next 10 or 20 years will eventually impact the societies they will go back to. All of the trustees are looking at ways in which they can contribute to the impact and Mr. Asfari brought this idea to us.
So he was the originator of the concept of the Asfari Institute?
He really was. He was thinking very carefully about how AUB could affect the dialogue in Arab countries in ways that would substantially enhance the chance for the development of open societies there.
What got you, as AUB, excited about it and say this is what we like?
Oh, a number of things. This kind of institute matches precisely both the mission and the values of the university, the mission being to serve the peoples of the region but also develop individuals who think responsibly and behave responsibly in society and make an impact in the communities they live in. Our location also made perfect sense. It is a perfect place to build the bridges of dialogue between east and west.
These strengths are inherent in the AUB role. What about the opportunities that the institute brings to the university for heightening its influence or even economic performance?
The point is that [civil society and citizenship] is the kind of topic that we could pursue but we would not do it nearly as well without this kind of support.
This brings up the ‘non olet’ question of grant money where in this case you are dealing with oil money. Does oil money not smell from a perspective of the Arab civil society and can you fully approve of the funding link based on having scrutinized all the resources involved?
When we look at large gifts, we always consider the source and do due diligence. In this particular case, Ayman is a very distinguished member of our board of trustees. When we select trustees we are always very careful to consider the connections and who they know and what kind of value they bring, but also the personal integrity they maintain. We clearly have no issues involving the Asfari Foundation.
Mr. Asfari has been active with AUB but apparently has maintained a low profile in relating to the public. What can you tell us about him from your personal encounters?
He is a great participant in our board meetings and he always bores down on issues of policy and transparency. He speaks authoritatively and yet with total honesty. But he doesn’t come with pre-conceived opinions.
In looking for the director of the institute, wouldn’t it be necessary to have someone of Arab identity run it?
It would make perfect sense if we can do that.
So why are you looking worldwide?
Because many Arabs live and work worldwide, the search has to be international but we certainly hope to bring someone who is native to the culture and who speaks Arabic.
Who would be vetting the potential partner NGOs and what will be your criteria in selecting and qualifying civil society leadership initiatives?
In essence these proposals will be vetted by the director of the institute. The first director will play a very critical role because she or he will set up the initial directions and specific areas that will be focused on.
How many candidates are on your shortlist?
We have only just sent out the advertisement but we have about five or six names that come to mind and they all look very good in different ways.
If governments from the region said they want to be involved with the institute, what would be your approach to that?
We would certainly include them if they wanted to engage in the kind of conferencing that we have and it is very enlightening to us to listen to the experience and the outlook governments have in dealing with the problems of the ‘Arab Spring’. However, governments do tend to come with their own agenda, don’t they?
What is Peter Dorman’s vision for Arabia 2030, meaning the state of Arab citizenship and society by the year 2030?
I think by 2030 you will see several democratic states in the Arab world and a number of other states that are presently under monarchic regimes will have moved to some kind of enlightened constitutional monarchies. This is inevitable I think and there is a lot to be said for benevolent monarchies. Centralized decision making is terrific under certain circumstances.