The American University of Beirut (AUB), one of the MENA region’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education, will be opening a branch in the Cypriot city of Paphos in 2023. Paphos Mayor Phedonas Phedonas announced the move in early April, predicting that construction will start this summer, at a cost of 29 million euros. The satellite university will house three departments: computer science, economics, and a school of civil engineering. Student enrollment will start in September 2023.

AUB’s branching out to Cyprus follows the steady collapse of Lebanon’s economy and the meltdown in the country’s banking sector, which has affected student enrollment, faculty salaries, and the university’s Medical Center (AUBMC).

AUBMC, formerly known as the American University Hospital (AUH), is a prominent university hospital that caters to patients from throughout the Middle East. The Lebanese state is owes the university hospital more than $150 million USD in arrears, money that it has been unable to pay due to its chronic shortage of American dollars.

The Lebanese state is owes the American University Hospital more than $150 million USD in arrears.

Lebanon had already defaulted on its foreign debt in March 2020 and earlier in April, its Deputy Prime Minister Saadeh al-Shami announced bankruptcy of the state and its central bank.

Ripple Effects of Lebanon’s Economic Crisis

Last summer, AUB came out with an official statement saying that it would be turning off its central air conditioning due to Lebanon’s ongoing electricity and fuel shortages.  Only labs would continue to receive 24-hour electricity, it said.  The university warned of what it described as “imminent disaster” resulting from chronic fuel shortages, meaning that ventilators and other lifesaving equipment would cease to operate. This puts their patients reliant on respirators – 40 adults and 15 children – in immediate danger of death. Another 180 patients suffering from renal failure will die without dialysis, AUB warned, and so would its cancer patients.

Lebanon’s banking sector crashed in October 2019, forcing banks to lock depositor accounts in American dollars, sending thousands into financial ruin. As dollars disappeared from the market, their value skyrocketed, plunging the value of the Lebanese pound (LP). The exchange rate stood at 1,500 LP to the American dollar in 2019, but now it’s trading at 22,000-24,000 LP to one American dollar. Like other Lebanon-based international institutions, AUB had inked many of its contracts in dollars and the crisis is now dealing a heavy blow to the university’s coffers.

AUB increased its tuition by 160 percent in December 2020.

In response to the deteriorating currency, AUB increased its tuition by 160 percent in December 2020. An average yearly tuition at AUB previously stood at approximately $24,000 USD, which before the 2019 crisis, equated to 36 million LP. At today’s exchange rate, tuition stands at a whopping 552 million Lebanese Pounds — far higher than any amount an ordinary Lebanese family can afford to pay. Even before the tuition hike, 250 of the university’s 9,400 students had halted their studies, while 600 new students had frozen enrollment, mainly due to economic hardships.

Another factor behind the move to Cyprus is the chronic brain drain that has gripped Lebanon in recent years. Many of the country’s brightest minds, including AUB’s doctors, professors, and lecturers, have left Lebanon, seeking better work opportunities in the United Arab Emirates, Europe, and the US.

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A History of Crises

This is not AUB’s first crisis, but it’s certainly the most severe and threatening to the university’s foundations and very existence, exceeding the two world wars and the Lebanese civil war that erupted in 1975 and lasted until 1990.

This is not AUB’s first crisis, but it’s certainly the most severe.

Originally chartered in 1866 by American missionaries as the Syrian Protestant College, AUB was renamed in 1920. In 1882, it suffered its first major challenge when chemistry professor Edwin Lewis cited Charles Darwin at a university graduation ceremony, raising the ire of AUB’s founder and first president, Reverend Daniel Bliss. Both Islam and Christianity frowned on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, prompting Bliss to pressure Lewis into resigning. Students demonstrated in support of freedom of speech. Thirteen of them were expelled from AUB.

The Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II saw the 1882 crisis as a blessing-in-disguise. He sought to use it as a pretext to shut down the entire university. The sultan considered AUB a breeding ground for dissent and for encouraging anti-Ottoman nationalism among Arab and Armenian students.

In 1954, a similar incident occurred when students demonstrated against the Baghdad Pact, a US-led initiative to contain communism during the Cold War. Lebanese authorities responded with force, killing one demonstrator at the gates of the Faculty of Medicine. Security forces then stormed the premises, arresting 51 students from the campus and greatly damaging AUB’s reputation as a beacon for democracy and free speech in the Arab world.

During the 1982 invasion of Beirut by the Israeli Defense Forces, AUB closed its doors, refusing to allow Israeli troops on campus, citing its premises as US territory. AUB President Malcolm H. Kerr was gunned down and shot at the door of his office on  January 18, 1984.

In November 1991, AUB’s College Hall was targeted by an explosive.

Seven years later, in November 1991, AUB’s College Hall was targeted by an explosive, being the first on-campus casualty of the Civil War. A hallmark of the university and the first of its 64 buildings to be completed, College Hall had to be demolished and rebuilt. The building re-opened at a ceremony attended by former Lebanese President Elias Hrawi in 1999.

Hall of Fame

AUB is among the world’s top 300 universities, and boasts a long list of famous alumni, including world-acclaimed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, former Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani – who was ousted by the Taliban last year – six Jordanian prime ministers, 2 Iraqi premiers, 1 Syrian president, 1 Syrian premier, and four Lebanese prime ministers (including incumbent premier Najib Mikati), as well as prominent Lebanese politicians such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Maronite leader Samir Gagegea.

While the university’s new branch in Cyprus reflects a desperate need to generate new sources of income to keep AUB’s legacy afloat, it also signals a fresh new start for AUB in new fields of education.