Lebanon crisis

The American University of Beirut’s battle for survival

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The American University of Beirut's motto: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.”

Founded in 1866, The American University of Beirut today faces a huge financial crisis. It fired over 800 employees, cut salaries, and raised tuition fees.

The crisis started in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation in 2020 making it harder for the university to receive funds from international donors and alumni.

Some attribute the financial crisis to poor fiscal decisions made over the years, but prominent figures in Lebanon, and the region claim a political agenda against the university is afoot. It's said the aim is to demolish AUB’s significance, and end its historical role to promote freedom of thought, diversity, and liberalism.

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There is talk that relocating the university to Dubai, in the long run, is an option, with reports that President Fadlo Khoury discussed this with employees in an internal meeting, in the first week of December 2020.

AUB was first established as the Syrian Protestant College when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Founded by Christian missionaries, the school played an important role to join efforts led by the liberal youth, and demand independence from Turkey. It was a hub for thinkers, and fighters that believed in Arab nationalism.

A few months after the declaration of Greater Lebanon, which marks the early establishment of Lebanon itself, the college’s name became AUB.

This educational institution has survived the many crises’ that Lebanon has seen. These include: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; the societal changes from the French mandate; the battle for independence; the consequences of the Palestine occupation in 1948; the civil war; Israeli attacks and occupation, and the assassinations of Lebanese politicians.

Today, the obstacles facing AUB are tougher than ever. This university has over 640,000 alumni in 120 countries. Graduates include Lebanese and international prime ministers, presidents and internationally recognized scientists and policy makers. With a serious threat of shutting down according to its current president, Fadlo Khoury he publicly confessed that the university cannot survive if the current economic and political deadlock continues.

Political Perspective

Fouad Siniora, former Lebanese Prime Minister, AUB alumnus and part-time lecturer believes that the financial crisis that AUB faces today, is like that of the 1980s’. He stresses the collapsed political system is deepening the crisis in a university that holds the biggest number of employees after the public sector.

“Certain groups tend to ask questions and raise doubts about AUB’s agenda, role, and even academic programs; these questions come from skeptic people that aim at shaking the university’s credibility,” Seniora told me on Sunday.

According to Seniora, “The Iranian backed groups in Lebanon, mobilize the society against all what is American, and the battle that AUB faces today is a continuation to that of the 1980s’, against the same opponents that use different tactics ”.

Seniora points to AUB’s role in producing academic and intellectual elites in the Arab world. He also calls the upper management of AUB administration to issue policies and regulations that fit in the current changes and that are able to rescue the university and save it from closing.

“Mentioning that AUB might be relocated to Dubai serves the rhetoric of the opponents that try to picture the university as an American colony that should leave at a certain moment of history, while AUB, in reality, is deeply rooted in the society,” Seniora concludes.

Students’ Perspective

Jad Hani is the vice president of the student faculty committee, and the highest position for a student representative. He believes student concerns focus on the ability to continue pursuing their education at AUB. Hani explains that hundreds of AUB students had to drop out of university in spring 2021 because of the increase in the exchange rate tuition fees increased by 160%.

“Losing AUB is something very bad, but it is worth mentioning that we as students cannot share the burden, parties that are known to be opponents of AUB’s values are the ones that offered their people jobs at AUB in line with clientalism,” Hani said.

President’s Perspective

President Fadlo Khoury makes it clear that he has spoken of an existential crisis during town hall meetings in the spring semester of 2020. Although the situation deteriorated AUB took the decision to secure the institution’s continuity

“I can now state with some confidence that we are in as stable and sustainable condition as we can be under the circumstances and we shall continue advancing our role as a leading institution of higher learning not just in Lebanon but throughout the entire region,” Khoury said.

Khoury clarified that AUB is apolitical and not supported, or supporting any political bloc in Lebanon. “AUB serves the peoples of the Middle East and beyond by sharing our common values of freedom of thought and expression, tolerance, honesty, and respect for diversity and dialogue, and by providing opportunities for all of its community; There is no uniform intellectual or political direction at the university, so if an “agenda” against AUB exists it is based on a woeful misunderstanding of our role and mission,” Khoury said.

Khoury concluded through stressing upon the roots of AUB in Lebanon, and its historical ability to endure through the storms. “Under my tenure as a president, there are no plans to relocate AUB and it is unlikely in the longer run; AUB has deep roots in Beirut and Lebanon formed over more than 154 years and we have endured many crises here, nothing will change our commitment to serve this country and its people,” Khoury said.

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