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Lebanon: Does The American University In Crisis Deserve All This Fuss?

Ghalia Al Alwani- Syrian Journalist
May 21, 2020
In light of the country’s and AUB’s struggles as of late, all of this serves to question, if AUB doesn’t represent its student’s best interests, then who exactly does it represent?

One thing is for certain: I owe everything I retain in my skill set to what I’ve learned in the American University of Beirut. Today, I am once again in a situation that has been all too familiar for me during my years at the institution: stuck at a crossroads between appreciating the immense privilege and wealth of experience I have access to as a student at AUB, and acknowledging the gravity of the disappointment towards senior management, compounded over the mishandling and apparent negligence of its students’ and community’s best interest.

AUB made headlines last week after a grim letter was mass emailed to its thousands of students, alumni, staff, and professors, in which Dr. Fadlo Khoury, it’s 16th president, sounded the alarms that the institution was facing the worst economic crisis since its founding.

My university, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the Arab region, founded in 1866, having survived a civil war, two president assassinations and a bomb detonating in one of its buildings, was now ultimately facing its own economic collapse, and announcing that many painful amendments to its structure would be implemented to combat the situation at hand.

Where did the money go?

Setting aside concerns about- in Khuri’s words- “Lebanon and the region having no hope whatsoever if AUB cannot fulfill its mission”, the email sparked a wave of controversy amongst its students, alongside an incredulous amount of questions, summarized under the headline: where did the money go? How did AUB manage to get itself into such a dire predicament? Is this an inevitability of our context, or was this a lack of foresight on part of AUB?

“I feel that there must have been years of corruption and mismanagement of funds for a university that charges rates higher than ones charged by premium universities in Europe to go broke,” laments Marwan, a Graduate student in AUB’s Public Policy and International Affairs Program. “Their own professors, such as Charbel Nahas and Jad Chaaban, had been for years warning of an economic collapse, and instead of AUB bracing for it, it decided to expand its medical center.”

When one steps outside campus confines the environment drastically changes from the moderated community, under a manufactured cultural climate like the university’s; one then becomes conscious that AUB borders an elitist bubble.

Painfully high fiscal values were jammed into a few paragraphs in the email, a sort of miserable and belated effort of transparency that only served as an eyesore to those reading it. Khuri organized a press conference to address questions surrounding the monetary values and AUB’s future with a handful of journalists last Wednesday, oddly deciding to leave most of its students in the dark about the details of the prospects of their academic careers at the university, and the confusion remains rampant.

“If we were paying full tuition and AUB had closed its facilities earlier than everyone else, and the boldly AUB campaign had received almost 600 million dollars in donations, where did all this money get blown over?” Yorgo Bou Samra, a Computer and Communications Engineering student, asks. “Is there something else at play here? While they’re being honest about this financial situation, I feel like it shouldn’t have existed in the first place.”

It’s a frustration I resonate with, wondering why there was no emergency contingency plan that had been set in place prior to this disastrous year. Having walked among students protesting tuition increases, witnessing shiny new buildings pop up around the campus, his email took me and many others by surprise, pondering the ways this will be affecting our academic careers, and justifying recurring student concerns.

“The second I finished reading the email I started to worry about my place and future in AUB,” Bou Samra continues. “With the whole financial situation, it gets to a point where we’re thinking, if there’s any extra costs or extra tuition we don’t know if we can continue in the university anymore.”

Changes

Amidst the sea of valid criticism AUB drowns under, one thing is indubitable: there is no higher education institution that ranks anywhere close to the quality of education the American University of Beirut offers its students in the Arab region (coming in 2nd place in the Middle East, under King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals). Having been studying there for over 6 years amidst two levels of degrees, I’ve grown to understand that those who claim that AUB’s education is “overrated” are those who do not have the aspirations to take advantage of its offerings; without taking the heat away from the administration, it is worth giving the educators and course materials their due diligence, and it is this reality that makes Khuri’s letter all the more distressing.

While Khuri has offered several vague responses about the criteria they will base their new changes on, which he insists, to everyone’s relentless doubt, will be heavily focused on prioritizing academic considerations and not economic ones, the truth is we still have no real answers as to what these changes will look like. The reason for this seems to be that the administration itself is unsure what their next steps are going to be, with no assurances on whether this will be handled transparently or not.  

“The second I finished reading the email I started to worry about my place and future in AUB, with the whole financial situation, it gets to a point where we’re thinking, if there’s any extra costs or extra tuition we don’t know if we can continue in the university anymore.”

“Academic departments will be preserved, they could be made more efficient, but that requires study, for at least a year, some cases more,” Khuri tells an Arab News journalist in a recent interview. “We have reports coming in from the Provost office about our graduate programs, how viable are they? Do they serve our long-term purpose? …We have to look very critically at ourselves, what can we afford, what can we not afford, so that we’re as efficient, as viable, as focused, as possible.”

With statements like this ringing ominously of stark judgment, many students have started to wonder whether or not their academic pursuits are considered within the bracket of AUB’s viability, or whether they indeed serve AUB’s long-term purpose. An institution is only as esteemed as its educational programs and its academic constituents, and placing “efficiency” at the helm of its way forward, sets the livelihoods of numerous staff and the opportunities offered to its students in a place of dangerous uncertainty.

AUB Lebanon’s Savior? Debatable..

For years I, along with others like me, have found ourselves questioning whether or not AUB actually displays efforts of sustaining and validating its reputation as a crucial actor in the Lebanese political environment- a reputation Khuri alludes to when posing the consequences of AUB’s administrative shifts as a threat to the region’s prosperity as a whole. 

This year more than ever these questions were put to the ultimate test, with Lebanon’s October 17th uprising, a miraculous unveiling of a glimmer of hope for Lebanon’s future; to my and many other student’s dismay, AUB’s stance was confused, and obstructionist. Students participating in the protests found themselves at the mercy of the political leanings and personal opinions that each of their professors held, in order to gauge whether they would be encouraged or punished for not showing up to the classes AUB had insisted on resuming. There seems to be a sort of dissonance when the institution’s political science course materials span, in detail, years of historical revolutions and resistance movements (many born within the university), as well as tediously and pessimistically explore Lebanon’s doomed political situation, and yet on more than one occasion makes it tremendously arduous for students to take part in the country’s demonstrations. It is worth questioning just how invested AUB is in enabling what it cultivates in its students on campus to be expressed beyond its confines, and questioning how invested it is in its proposed role as a critical proponent in Lebanon’s political environment at all.

This disconnect between AUB and what lies beyond campus has also presented me with a different dilemma, one with some semblance to imposter syndrome. Life within the AUB environment resembles a utopian safe space where it’s students are enabled to interact and behave with relative free will, devoid of many of the socially induced burdens one might encounter off campus, much thanks to the imposed policies promoting anti-discriminatory, and secular ideals. However, when one steps outside campus confines the environment drastically changes from the moderated community, under a manufactured cultural climate like the university’s. One becomes conscious that AUB borders an elitist bubble, one only those of privilege get to experience, far from the realities of the country in itself. 

This bubble doesn’t extend itself merely to the student’s daily lives and activities, but also follows them after graduation. For an institution that claims itself to be Lebanon’s only hope, there is a truly obscure and barely quantifiable impact it has actually had on its development as a country as of recent. Throughout my freshman year, discussions about the places my Lebanese classmates would be migrating to after our graduation were constant and casual, with an understanding that leaving the country was the norm for AUB students.

It would almost be a waste of an education to not do so, to pay the costs and unlock the opportunities AUB gives its students as an accredited American university, to not leave Lebanon behind for a better future outside. While this concept of the “brain drain” of course doesn’t limit itself to problems with AUB but with the country as a whole, it is difficult to say that AUB does much to attempt to amend the issue, to push its students to become contributing actors at any capacity in the region, much less altering the Lebanese political structure in the future. In a devastatingly relevant expression of this, many political science students have complained over the years that their programs all too often held a defeatist rather than a proactive tone when it came to education surrounding Lebanon’s political realities (or even Palestine’s, for that matter). This is all the more blatant when one takes a closer look at AUB’s esteemed “Public Administration” program for example; one you’d assume would be graduating the next pioneers in reshaping Lebanon’s tired, corrupt, and convoluted public sector.

“I don’t know anyone who ended up working in the public sector after they graduated with me, at least not that I know of, I mean maybe there’s one or two students, but it’s unheard of,” explains an AUB Public Administrations graduate who preferred to remain anonymous. “Most of them get into PA to do something else in masters afterwards, or end up working in the UNDP, NGOS, or in the private sector.”

To leave or not to leave?

Unfortunately, there is a reputation that most AUB political science or public administration graduates that do remain in Lebanon, end up as employees in AUB itself, either slaving in HR departments or scripting policy briefs at AUB’s cherished Issam Fares Institute, that are recycled amongst academic circles and effectively lead nowhere. In light of the country’s and AUB’s struggles as of late, all of this serves to question, if AUB doesn’t represent its student’s best interests, and has also seemingly proven to be disconnected from Lebanon’s best interest, then who exactly does it represent? Sometimes it is difficult to refute that all it’s truly been representing as of late is nothing more than a high ranking on an academic chart.

Of course, this is not to deny AUB’s historical legacy in the Middle East, but rather to merely illuminate the contemplations and doubts of a student that sees less and less how her university is truly contributing to catalyzing positive change in the region today. I often find these thoughts bleeding into feelings of guilt and shame towards my fear for the future of this institution, knowing that realistically those who are unable to afford the luxury of AUB will continue to live their lives unaffected by this news, both directly and indirectly.

As my concern compounds writing the words to this article, I think about how I would not have been capable of realizing AUB’s faults, nor expressing them in this format, had it not been for the professors within its halls whose incomparable efforts have shaped the core of any skills I hold today. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether the weight we’ve given this institution, and the distress we have for what it might transform into after these changes are put into effect, are truly worth the fuss. While I hold endless appreciation for this institution, I cannot say with full confidence that it’s downfall would affect a region that has been stumbling backwards, purposely shoved away from its periphery, for a very long time, and seems to continue to do so, whether or not AUB loses a few notches in its excellence belt.

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