The American journalist David Ignatius penned an op-ed last summer entitled: “The American University of Beirut deserves our aid.”
His plea to help AUB, came on the heels of an unprecedented drop in revenue due to, among other things, the collapse of the local currency.
The Lebanese economy is in a shambles with rampant corruption. Led by a failing political class that has been in power for decades, governance is seeped in cronyism and sectarianism at its core.
Nationwide, anti-government protests continue, and the fragile situation in education is palpable.
Students, who traditionally were able to pay their fees in Lebanese pounds or US dollars saw tuition costs rise at AUB, exacerbated by a national shortage of the greenback, and an almost 80 percent devaluation of the local currency.
This, in turn, led to a dramatic drop in revenues at AUB, from both tuition fees and patients visiting the university’s hospital, the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC).
AUB President Fadlo Khuri pressed ahead with efforts to increase funding for the university, despite several media campaigns set out to tarnish the school’s longstanding reputation.
Most recently, reports suggested that Khuri met with regional officials with the view to move the university to Dubai. In a recent interview with Al Arabiya English, Khuri vehemently denied this and said there was “really no basis, in fact, for this rumor.”
No meeting took place between the president and senior officials in the region, and after asking the Board of Trustees about such a meeting, Khuri said there hadn’t been any discussions about moving the university “ever.”
“So, I can't be more categoric than that. You know, AUB is deeply rooted in Beirut, in Lebanon. And there would be no sense relocating such a massive enterprise … to Dubai, or anywhere else. Beirut provides a wonderful environment,” he said.
Khuri was quick to point out that AUB is an American university, and not a Lebanese one. Established by the American Protestant Mission to Lebanon in 1866, AUB is not tied to any religious body.
It has consistently been ranked as one of the top universities in the region and, according to Khuri, has students from 96 different countries.
“So we’re naturally interested in reaching well beyond Beirut to a global audience,” he said, adding that there have been, and continue to be, discussions about collaborations on-site, and virtually, with universities across the world.
“I’m not going to forestall opportunities for meaningful collaborations outside of Beirut, it’s just that the campus won’t be relocated, and it will remain our base,” Khuri said.
AUB will remain affordable: the level of teaching will not change
Asked how he would assure current, and potential students that the university will remain affordable, with the financial, political and socioeconomic obstacles facing the local population, Khuri said there was no secret to retaining and recruiting the best students.
“It's through careful strategic planning, fiscal prudence, and by working hard to provide the very highest quality of education in a wide array of subjects by employing top quality teaching and research faculty,” Khuri said.
Merit-based and financial scholarship programs will remain accessible to many students. In the 2015-2016 academic year, AUB raised around $51 million in financial assistance for students. Projections show numbers will almost double to more than $90 million this year.
Khuri said he would work to make sure that underrepresented students from all over the world are within the reach of AUB. He noted that the BBC ranked the school as one of the twelve most impactful universities in the world.
“I promised … in my inaugural address that AUB would be more intellectually elite, and less economically elite,” Khuri told Al Arabiya English.
Khuri said the “careful” control of tuition increases over a five-year period, proper management of the operating budget, and donations from alumni, had allowed it to recruit more students from modest financial backgrounds.
“So yes, it's more acute now in Lebanon, but the support of our students, including poor and working class Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and financially disadvantaged, but intellectually gifted students from even poorer countries like Afghanistan and Yemen, and more than 16 African countries,” is something AUB continues to strive for.
Khuri also hit back at hearsay alleging AUB was not helping its students complete their degrees. “The 89 percent on-time graduation rate is comparable to the best in the world,” he said.
Regarding the teaching quality of professors, Khuri revealed that he proposed to the Board of Trustees the need for $50 million for a faculty support program. It was granted. The tuition increase makes sure that the professors live with the financial security “they deserve,” he said.
Bipartisan US support for AUB
When Khuri took over at AUB, there was a little over $12 million annually in US-government aid between The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and other agencies.
That number has risen to over $19 million per year, and is increasing, according to Khuri, who was in the US at the time of the interview.
Although support for AUB has increased, Khuri said that despite US leaders prioritizing domestic needs, the university needs more.
“I have to say I’m confident that both Democrats and Republicans recognize more than they have in decades, the singular importance of AUB and I’m confident more support will be sought.”
Khuri voiced his belief that there was increasing recognition from both the Trump and Biden administrations that AUB was “the greatest American education asset, and values-driven higher-education institution beyond the US.”
COVID and Lebanon’s dilemma
After being one of the few countries commended for the way it dealt with the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, Lebanon has found itself now, as one of the worst in the world for managing the outbreak.
Seen daily, record numbers of positive cases and coronavirus-related deaths spread rapidly, while the country has yet to distribute any vaccines to its citizens.
A recent deal struck between the Lebanese government and Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca will see shipments of their vaccines transported to the country.
AUB will be one of the key sites for vaccinations, Khuri revealed, and added that its allocation is 8 percent of the national supply, he said, and added that the university, and its hospital will train others with the skills to properly vaccinate.
The university will look to obtain more vaccines out with the government, but with its full support. The university cannot oversee grants, disburse medicines, vaccines or food.
“We can advise … but the granting agencies themselves have to insist on monitoring, given the long and troubling track record of waste and mismanagement in many serial Lebanese governments.”
In spite of the difficult situation AUB is facing, Khuri remains positive for the future, and hopes his call for Lebanon and AUB is heard.
“We're optimistic that over time this will stabilize, but we cannot compensate for the economic, and social meltdown of Lebanon, our host nation.”