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To stay and to expand

A discussion about the American University of Beirut

by Thomas Schellen

While the attention of economic actors, policy-makers, civil society activists, most analysts, and international advisors has been, firmly and necessarily, on the vast repercussions of the Lebanese currency crash, inflation, failure to implement state and structural reforms, and counter the rising tides of inequality, unemployment, domestic violence, hunger, and other base-level wants, the strongest and most future-proof assets of Lebanon are intangible and difficult to quantify: human and social capital. These assets, however, are tied in with factors of mental health, culture, familial, communal, and societal cohesion that are under constant pressure in the crisis of everything. Education, and specifically, tertiary education and a life-long learning culture, are critical to the preservation, new initiation, and sustainable development of human capital in Lebanon after the immediate economic and social crisis. To understand how the top tier of the education system seeks to ward off further deterioration of the human capital stock and initiate new developments in providing affordable educational excellence, Executive converses with the president of the American University of Beirut, Fadlo Khouri. 

When I walked onto campus toward College Hall, I asked a random person of student age what he would ask the president of AUB if he could ask one question. His answer was: “there is nothing that I would need to ask.” One could surmise from this that either everything at AUB is good beyond question or that students have other concerns keeping them occupied and, therefore, have nothing to ask from the university’s president. Which one is it? 

I think it is not so much that everything is good but that we are in touch with the students and our community. I had eight town halls with students, faculty, and staff over a two-week period. Today I met for an hour with third-year medical students. I think they feel that we are talking to them and that we are clear. But to say that everything is good in Lebanon – or anywhere frankly – would be an overreach, it would mean that we are in Lala-land.  

In terms of Lebanon today, do you see AUB as more of an island than it always was, an island of academic bliss beyond everything that is happening in the country? 

Yes, and no. When I gave my inauguration speech now six-and-a-half years ago, I talked about AUB not erecting barriers with the rest of the country, about being more permeable, and reaching out more. We have kept that pledge and really reached out more, and this is to the credit of the community. They have been engaged socially and have been engaged from a health perspective, intellectually, and politically. At the same time, especially after we reopened on October 1 [of 2021], we have been able to provide people with a moment of peace, reflection, and a green island of sanity in a country where people for the last three years have felt an enormous amount of pressure and very little support. 

Many people today have a big question mark about the expansion of AUB. They either worry that AUB might migrate out of Lebanon or because they worry that you might become unaffordable for Lebanese students. To the best of my knowledge, when AUB celebrated its 150th anniversary back in 2016 and launched the “Boldly AUB” fundraising campaign, there was no talk of expansion. But by mid-2019, the university had evidently developed a strategy for expansion and was discussing publicly with the city Paphos in on the west side of Cyprus about developing a campus there. What happened between 2016 and 2019 in terms of determining your strategy? Were you somehow prescient or clairvoyant about the currency crash? 

No, I wish we had more of earlier indications about the collapse of the currency. But we could see just from the increased need for financial assistance of our students, and also some of our staff who were [increasingly] needy, that the country by 2018 was deteriorating economically. This became clear to me in late 2018 when the president of Saint Joseph [University] and I [were comparing notes]. Both of us were recognizing increased requests for financial aid and support. Actually though, that [recognition of the economic deterioration] has nothing to do with the strategy for expanding abroad. The financial crisis may have accelerated it but it didn’t give us the idea and didn’t drive it. 

We talked in January 2016 about the fact that AUB’s battle was not just about being more excellent, but whether we would become more economically or intellectually elite. To be more intellectually elite, we needed to expand our horizons and reach [a larger number of] bright people who deserved an AUB education. Part of this was twin or satellite campuses abroad and more of a broad band of online activities and collaborations. And as beautiful as the campus is, it is limited in space. So as far back as late December 2016, we were already exploring sites [for expansion]; I spent between Christmas and New Year in Oman to explore that possibility. 

The reason why we become more overt in 2019 was that the board – having passed the campus master plan so that people knew that we were going to concentrate on what I call the mother ship, the campus here in Beirut – we started to [work on] a strategic plan through 2030.  One of the key goals of that was to become more diverse, not just with regard to our offerings to students from across the economic spectrum, but targeting to have one third to 40 percent of our students being international by 2030. We were planning to extend our reach in recognizing both our physical limit – for our campus we had projections to get to 12,000 students by 2030 but it was clear by 2019 when we had 9,400 students, we were jam-packed on campus – but also find ways how we could attract students and achieve greater balance. We increasingly recognized that there was a tremendous interest from students and parents in getting an AUB education, but there was a ceiling to the number of parents who were willing to send their kids to Lebanon. 

Was there a regional politics component to AUB’s impression that there already pre-2018 was a reticence of parents in some Arab countries to send their children to Beirut?

No question. A reticence of not just some Arab countries that had long relied on AUB to educate its leaders, but if we are candid, also reticence among Americans, some European countries, such that, even though we had students from 96 different countries at the beginning of 2019, we were seeing that we hit a plateau. We were reaching out and people were excited to come here but there was always the question: is Lebanon safe? We believe to this day that this concern is somewhat exaggerated. However, that impression that it is not safe and not stable enough, exists, if we are honest, among parents, even among the Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Iraqi diaspora and this is an impediment to our bringing in enough students to the university system.

Revising growth targets

You mentioned a target of 12,000 students for 2030. How much was your annual rate of growth on the historic trajectory of the last 20 or 30 years? 

By the end of the civil war, AUB had downsized to 3,500 – 4,000 students, which some would argue was just below the natural capacity of this campus. The campus can probably handle five to six thousand comfortably. The previous administration, of President Peter Dorman, increased [student numbers] at a rate between 2008 and 2015 that was far more assertive than what we did [afterwards]. We slowed down the growth [in the number of] undergraduates and lowered the annual tuition increase to the lowest it had been in more than a decade, at three percent. We also tried to be deliberate in the graduate programs and the professional programs, so we were slowly growing the undergraduate program over the four years before the things started to deteriorate here in the country. In total numbers, we grew at less than one thousand students over those four years, and much of that growth was in the Masters and PhD Programs. We slightly increased the medical program by about 10 students per year – between five and ten on average. And we slowly added to selective undergraduate programs, like industrial engineering, which is our most in-demand undergraduate program, psychology, and other areas. Now, given the number of people who left especially as a consequence of August 4 [2020 Beirut Port explosion], we are about at the same size, students and staff that we were at in 2011. We are down to about 8,000 students. Faculty and staff have similarly receded. [This reflects] how people started to leave Lebanon in 2019 in a move that was accelerating in 2020 and now continues, with no obvious political and economic solution in sight.

So, after you had been managing your growth strategically over decades, 2020 and 2021 were both regressive in terms of AUB’s total numbers? 

Summer and fall 2020 was by far the worst. Remember the explosion happened one month before we bring students in, so in addition to a dramatic decline in the number of incoming students, by almost 900, we lost almost 400 continuing students. 2021 was a much better year for us. We lost very few continuing students. The number of students who came in, without any drop in [admission] standards, rose by almost 500. So, we made up half the difference of what we lost [in the previous year]. Also, this year looks like a very good crop. We will know for sure in August and September, once people will know what they want to do, [and] what they can pay, but more importantly what shape the country is in. 

If we take the strategic growth component of the plan until 2030, including the future expansions in Paphos and another location, what total number in your student body do you aim at and how many of them would be Lebanese and study on the Beirut parent campus? 

Our target [to launch everything] may have shifted closer to 2033, since we are now building a physical campus in Cyprus. Ideally, by 2033, we [are projecting] to have 7,500 to no more than 8,000 students here, at least 2,000 students in Cyprus and potentially 2,000 or more students at a third location, whether Dubai or elsewhere. Plus, one of our key goals now is to substantially increase our online learners where the hope is that by 2033 we will have two to three times as many online learners as we do resident students. With this, we could have another 25 to 30 thousand that are exclusively online. These are not all degrees, they are diplomas, certificates, micro-credentials, there may be seniors or teens who are taking courses – and some of them for free – who are learning from AUB or joining the AUB community. 

Did the pandemic experience boost your strategy component of expanding AUB’s online presence? 

It did. From our perspective, we were already seeing signs, shortly after I arrived, that the concept that you go to school and attend three or two intensive lectures a week and your output is exams only, does not play to the broad strength that we have, [which is] that our student body and faculty go out and make a difference in Lebanon and beyond. We want to integrate experiential learning, online learning, and didactic classroom learning into a more evolved form of what we are offering. 

A call to excellence in academics, teaching, and service 

Certainly, the question over the future of education in Lebanon is more than the question how things will develop after the current crisis and how much AUB will be charging in tuition in years to come. In your view of AUB as hub of education and center of excellence in the Middle East, will you still hope to educate all the elites, the corporate heads, and the leaders from all over the region, or where will your main impact be? 

One thing I am very proud of is that over the last seven years we have almost quadrupled the number of people who come to AUB and have a fully free education, including some support for room and board. We were less than 450 [fully supported students] and are up to close to 1,800. We always want to educate people, support people to come here, and transform into future leaders. But higher education is more than four years of college or medical school or a masters at university or five years of PhD. It is also about the fact that most of us are now interested in being life-long learners, whether online or in person. 

If we are talking about leaders, leaders are born and made. Some come here early in life and others may join a program that will culminate in an intensive experience on campus or [by] interacting with others. So, if you are asking me if AUB will continue to educate the leaders of the region, I certainly hope so. I do hope we play a role in lifting the quality of higher education across Lebanon and the region. 

Do I understand from this that you would reject the notion that the university would have a few students as fig leaves of need while actually practicing a paradigm of meritocracy in the sense of philosopher and political ethicist Michael Sandel and his critique of universities creating a “tyranny of merit” in the top-heavy society of new entitlements of the powerful and rich? 

It is not what we are seeking. One of the things that you can argue that AUB has been too successful at, is creating wealth. That great universities do very well in creating wealth [but] does that wealth reduce disparities and lead to more societal balance? So far, the answer is no. I am a scientist and have to talk about what I observe. I am not against the creation of wealth, far from it, but in the region, not just Lebanon but Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine – what are the countries that can say they are better off than they were 20 or 30 years ago? It is very hard to make that case for the countries of the Levant and much of the region over the last three, four decades. 

The fact that we as AUB provide such a disproportionate amount of Lebanon’s high-impact publications and citations speaks to an imbalance not just in society but in higher education. There are two ways of looking at this. From a selfish perspective, I could say it is good that we are that much better than the others, but in the long term this is bad, because it means that the education sector as a whole is unbalanced and unstable. Competition is good for individuals and for universities, and that is why we cooperate very closely especially with Saint Joseph, LAU, and others, increasingly with Beirut Arab University and Lebanese University, to try to lift up the sector. The sector needs to be focused not just on the individual but also on society. 

If I take this issue to the level of what choices academics, whose reputation and standing in life increasingly depends on being peer reviewed and published, have and how they are chosen as faculty members by universities, would you seek to steer against being more ivory tower and research than teaching and interacting with students and society? If you were, for example, the governor of world education in an Orwellian sense, would you say that faculty members of universities should be chosen not on basis of citations and peer reviewed studies that they churn out on annual terms but on how much society benefits from them? 

First, I have to thank you for this idea for my next job. Governor of global higher education for the world could be an attractive job. The bottom line is that we reinstituted tenure because we wanted to be clear with the faculty and the board and the community that it is not about the number of papers or how many medals you get but if you are asking beneficial questions to science, to mankind. The question is: does excellence in scholarship come at the detriment of teaching and service? In my opinion, it should not. 

Does it?

I think we are doing a good job in preventing this. To be promoted [at AUB] with or without tenure, your scholarship is one of the ifs, not the most important leg of the tripod, but if your teaching and service are deficient, you will not be tenured, you will not be promoted. 

You have to be a gifted and generous teacher, I have seen faculty over the years, here and at my previous institutions, who are gifted but ungenerous teachers. They will not take on graduate students unless it is to their own benefit. They give the course, but nothing more. Or they don’t serve the community. The message has to be very clear from all of us in leadership, and from the board, that we expect excellence in scholarship but not at the cost of teaching or service. 

[Under increasing pressure of commercializing research such as advanced gene editing,] ethics are under-emphasized. This is one reason why under the provost leadership we finally revised our general education curriculum, which everyone has to take. There is an ethics component right upfront now. We want the students to understand the implications of their actions.  

Does this focus on ethical components also include the increased teaching of ESG standards?

Ethical components such as environmental, social, and governance standards are likely to be more manifest in the professional schools, business, and engineering. There is an ethics component [to the general education curriculum] but that is not quite ESG. But yes, those components will be added in the professional schools. And they are going to be more necessary because the questions are harder. Ethical choices that seemed more straight forward 15 or 25 years ago, are more complex now. 

The cost of it all

At this point I need to ask you about tuition and what the future is for those families that stay and include students that are right now enrolled or who still want to enroll their children at AUB and wonder how they can pay. The perception is that from next year there will be more hard currency payment that is required and that will put people under stress. How do you manage this scenario? 

It is a fair question and everyone asks it. In the bottom line, it starts with the basic tenet that we are extremely motivated for students to come here and [complete their education], once they are here. In the university, much of the way in which we retain our self-respect and get up in the morning with enthusiasm to do good, is by taking in students, inculcating them in the unique experience of this particular university, and graduating them better off than where they were when they started.

[Being] by some measure the premiere university in this particular region, we have a very diverse student population. Some are students of whom both parents, whether they are Lebanese, Palestinian, or Syrian, are earning their revenues here and have no access to their income. We are not asking those people to go and knock off a bank, and it would be useless anyway because I suspect that the banks are mostly empty. Yet, we estimate that between 50 and 60 percent of our students have parents or guardians who are abroad and earning hard currency, and have for the last few years have been paying a fee that is not closely appropriate to the quality of education that they get. 

We lost $134.4 million in the two last years, and we are not a wealthy university. We can’t keep burning cash. We reconcile it by saying that over the next two to three years we will [need to gradually achieve] 100 percent dollar-based tuition. To continue, we need those who can pay, pay in full. And yet, if people are from this society and their parents or guardians have net income under $100,000 and live and work here, then they will have a subsidy for the next two years and more and more financial aid. Our goal is to increase financial aid so that we are more inclusive but to put more responsibility on those who earn their revenues abroad. Because this is only fair and just. 

You were saying that you estimate 50 to 60 percent of the student population to benefit from income that is generated outside of Lebanon. How did you assess this? 

We have this based on a number of data, travel, revenues, and statements. What we have asked our students, and we have been very transparent, but insisted on transparency in return, was ‘will you be eligible for more support? We will help you to finish but you have to tell us the truth. Not telling the truth now will have consequences. If you misrepresent the data when you apply for this financial aid, 40 to 100 percent, that could come at a cost of not just finishing and getting your degree but even having a transcript released to transfer.’ 

In a country that has zero transparency and accountability in government circles, we have to be transparent and accountable. And we have to be precise. We believe in our community and believe that the vast majority of people will tell the truth and not risk their education [by giving false statements about their financial situation]. Even if more people will need more financial aid, we are willing to go further into the red. But, and this is what our students also asked for overwhelmingly, [our decision is] to not provide financial support across the board but give it to the people who really need it. We even had people step up and say ‘we are not going to apply for financial aid. I am going to explain to my parents why they should pay in full.’ 

Will the existence of a twin university structure between Paphos and Beirut make it possible for students to switch between campuses at the same price or will there be a price differential? 

The idea is that by 2025 we will have a common price across all the campuses. We don’t want there to be AUB A and AUB A Prime. We hope that, at that point, students will be able to rotate, preferably not alone but as groups. We are optimistic that working with the mayor of Paphos and the government of Cyprus [will facilitate the establishment of links between] the airports in Paphos and here in Beirut and there will be able to have low-cost direct flights. 

There is further an understated opportunity that we will be a fully European university within a year or two, and we can apply for EU grants and do exchange of scholars not just here with ourselves but with top European universities as well as top American universities. I believe this is very important for Lebanon and not just for AUB, because I have long said that Lebanon is a vital interest for Europe not just for the refugee issue. As Tunisia is back in trouble, Lebanon, for all its chaos, is the only inclusive democracy in the region. Israel is not an inclusive democracy. It is inclusive if you are a certain religion or ethnicity. In this, there is a vested interest for Europe in the success of the Lebanese project. 

It has historically not always been easy to attract top qualified faculty to AUB because of competition by cash-rich universities elsewhere and because of the exaggerated risk perception of living in Beirut that you mentioned earlier in this conversation. In addition to such barriers, there has been a brain drain of faculty in the crisis. Will it be easier to find and attract rare academic talent to AUB after the expansion to Cyprus? Would that mean that Cyprus will be one tier above in terms of quality of faculty? 

As difficult as things are here, we have retained the overwhelming majority of the top tier of the faculty. Between those who stayed and those who have gone and come back from their leaves and decided to stay, I would say we have retained between 80 and 83 percent of our academic superstars and stars. That is not to say that we haven’t lost excellent people but we continue to attract people to stay because of AUB. And the quality of faculty, their ability to publish to a higher per-faculty impact than any other university in the region with a fraction of the resources they would get in the Gulf or in Turkey or elsewhere, is remarkable. 

Is it correct that in terms of research grants, you will have access to EU pots after the expansion to Cyprus, funding pools that are not accessible from the outside of the EU?

We will. And we are also looking at mobility. We want some of these faculty to find where is the best location for them to have their base but still teach [in Beirut]. If you can argue that it takes you two-and-a-half hours to commute between Beirut and Tripoli, and I have faculty who live in Tripoli, ideally, without too much security taking a couple of extra hours, we can talk about going twice a week from the campus in Beirut to Paphos in also two-and-a-half or three hours. We are hiring all the faculty out of the mothership. Some faculty will eventually migrate the epicenter of their research, teaching and service to Paphos, with the majority here, and some will go to the Gulf. But it will be one university system and it will be stronger because it is one university system. And some of the research that we have has its particular focus here but the relevance is global. 

How much does AUB contribute to the Lebanese economy, and what do you see as the role of higher education in Lebanon today and five years from now? 

In 2019, the total of Lebanese expenses and revenues was in the $40 plus billion and AUB’s all-in income was about $600 million – that is about 1.5 percent of the entire revenues and expenses in the country. For one small university, that is a lot. Revenues between the university and the hospital, were $610 million, [counting in] all physician fees. This [total income] is now down 70 percent to [less than] $200 million. But Lebanon’s delta spend is down to $10 to 11 billion, and our economic role is still proportionally as important as before. We also still keep hiring people, and we provide certainty. So, our economic footprint is much more than 1.5 percent [of the economic output]. [In terms of producing employment], just as with scientific and cultural impact, our impact is disproportionate. Think of the number of CEOs and vice-presidents and drivers of economy and innovators whose background is here. 

Think, also, of the cultural impact. There are some things that are hard to calculate but when an AUB graduate, Ali Cherri (a Lebanon-born, forty-something years old artist who was awarded as promising young participant in the ongoing 2022 exhibition The Milk of Dreams, ed.) wins the silver lion at the Venice Biennale, [and] when President Biden appoints a two-time AUB graduate, Bechara Choucair, as head of the US vaccine distribution network (serving in the capacity of the White House vaccination coordinator for one year between 2020 and 21, ed.) that tells you of the impact of the university and also reflects positively on Lebanon. I would argue that this university in particular, and Saint Joseph, are the reason why Lebanon stays on people’s minds. Our economic and cultural impact, our ability to provide some certainty in an extremely unstable environment: that keeps people here. 

To verify the academic offerings of AUB Mediteraneo in Paphos, is it true that there will be two Masters and seven BA programs? 

The plan is to launch seven bachelors and a few masters and general education within two years. We are probably going to launch five of the seven bachelors in the first year and then add a couple more, these bachelors are in three colleges, arts and sciences, engineering, and architecture and business. There is discussion of a health and medicine component, which would follow. These are the initial projections. 

To correlate this number of programs in percentage terms, how many bachelors and master’s programs do you have in Beirut?

I can’t even begin to count. I estimate that we have more than 60 Masters Programs that are currently active, one MD Program, 13 currently enrolled PhD Programs, and for undergraduates, I estimate that we have close to 40, talking about the minors and the majors, so between 30 and 40.  

And the budget for the initial construction of the Paphos campus is 29 million euros on 10,000 square meters? 

29 million euros is right in the first phase. The total project is about 43 million euros [investment] over five to six years by 2027/28, and the total [of area to be built upon] in Paphos is about 16,000 square meters in the two phases. In the first phase it will be between nine and 10 [thousand square meters] and in the second phase is on an additional 7,000 square meters. There will be significant financial aid budgets and, of course, the vast majority of the financial aid will have to be dedicated to this far more challenged population here, but with time, we see that equilibrating. 

Statement in commemoration of Shireen Abu Akleh 

Executive Magazine, joining the sad duty of global and regional media of acknowledging the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on May 11, 2022, by a bullet in Jenin, Palestine, applauds the initiative of the American University of Beirut and the Yafa Foundation to create the Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Scholarship. Whereas journalists in all countries bear countless daily risks in pursuit of accurate and unbiased reporting, the slaying of Abu Akleh stands out as a possible war crime that highlights the urgency of violence against journalists. The ceaseless struggles for dominance and long absence of peace in our region make it an issue of highest priority to equip the region’s rising generation of reporters with the mental and professional fortitude of world-class journalism. Executive affirms its readiness to support the Shireen Abu Akleh Memorial Scholarship by offering internships, workshops and lecture contributions. 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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