“Quite unintentionally, AUB taught revolution.”
Those were the words of World War I Colonel T. E. Lawrence—better known to the West as Lawrence of Arabia—when speaking about the prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) in his memoir. He did not say what kind of revolution AUB taught its students, although he was obviously referring to revolutionary Arab nationalism that was born out of AUB’s campus during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Many of the university’s brightest students and faculty had perished in Ottoman jails for demanding freedom and democracy. Others were executed in the main squares of Beirut and nearby Damascus. Those who survived went on to become future leaders of the modern Middle East.
And it’s with that same revolutionary spirit that AUB’s students took to Bliss Street –named after the university’s American founder Daniel Bliss – last December protesting a 160 percent hike in tuition. They raised a slogan “We Won’t Pay,” triggering a rough response from Lebanese riot police. Tear gas was used against unarmed, and very harmless students. Others were beaten with sticks in a city once celebrated for its democratic culture and coined the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Painful yet Necessary
The doubling of AUB’s tuition was a painful yet necessary step taken by the university administration to guarantee long-term survival, in light of the collapsing local currency, which in one year, had lost around 80 percent of its original value. In American dollars, the tuition remained fixed at around US$24,000 but in Lebanese pounds this now means nearly 100 million LP*, up from just 36 million in 2019.
That’s a huge amount for the majority of Lebanese, who can no longer afford sending their children to Lebanon’s top university. Even before the tuition increase, 250 out of AUB’s 9,400 students had halted their studies, claiming that they could no longer afford to pay. Last June, AUB also laid off 1,500 workers, adding to the country’s already high unemployment rate, which recently crossed the 30 percent benchmark. According to a statement by the Lebanese government 30,000-35,000 young men and women graduate from university annually, but only 5,000 of them find jobs.
To compensate for the tuition hike, AUB announced that it would be providing scholarships to 1,000 students by 2025, up from 700 presently. Just five years ago, that number stood at 450. Of the amount pledged in financial aid, more than US$90 million would be provided to students enrolled in the 2020-21 academic year.
A Smear Campaign Against AUB
Interestingly, anti-Western Lebanese media outlets, especially those affiliated with Hezbollah, have led a systematic campaign to distort both AUB’s image and legacy. The fact that the university had been founded by American missionaries and had a main office in New York made the university an easy target for anti-imperialists in the Arab World, ignoring the fact that many young men and women from their own constituency were studying at AUB, simply because it was the finest in the Middle East.
The fact that the university had been founded by American missionaries and had a main office in New York made the university an easy target for anti-imperialists in the Arab World.
One target was obviously AUB’s secularism, which doesn’t play well in a region plagued by religious fundamentalism. Although originally a missionary school, it quickly morphed into a secular institution, with its founding President, Reverend Bliss, famously saying: “A man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan, or heathen may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution, and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God.”
Bliss had “enormous faith” said Fadlo R. Khuri, AUB’s current President, who weathered much of the storm that recently swept through the university. Speaking to Inside Arabia, Khuri added that had Reverend Bliss been around during the recent troubles, he would have “noted the challenges, acknowledged the mistakes, learned from them, and redoubled his purpose.”
“We will strive with every fiber in our beings to prove worthy of his awe-inspiring legacy,” Khuri affirmed.
Over the past year, anti-imperialists and religious zealots have spread one rumor after another, aimed at discrediting the institution. One of those rumors alleged that AUB was planning to close its Beirut premises and relocate to Dubai. It went viral on social media networks and was even picked up by leading outlets like the Saudi Al-Arabiya channel. AUB replied with an official statement, titled “Deeply rooted and staying in Beirut,” vigorously denying that it had any plans to abandon its commitment to Lebanon.
AUB has never, ever, considered relocation, outliving two world wars, a local famine, a civil war, the Arab Spring, and now, potentially, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since its founding by American missionaries back in 1866, AUB has never, ever, considered relocation, outliving two world wars, a local famine, a civil war, the Arab Spring, and now, potentially, the Covid-19 pandemic. It even famously refused to close during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut, when then-President Malcolm Kerr confronted Israeli soldiers at the gates of the university, denying them entry. When he was told that they were an occupying force, he grumbled that this was American territory, abruptly shutting the university’s large black doors in their face. Less than two years later, Kerr was assassinated at AUB’s campus in January 1984.
An Incubator of Leaders
AUB takes great pride in its long list of prominent alumni, which includes former Lebanese Prime Ministers such as Saeb Salam, Salim al-Hoss, and Fouad al-Siniora. The current premier, Hassan Diab, was a former Vice-President of AUB, while Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri sits on the AUB’s Board of Trustees. Other notable alumni include seven Jordanian premiers, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, President of the Iraqi Interim Government Adnan al-Pachachi, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Syrian Prime Minister Fares al-Khoury, Syrian President Nazem al-Qudsi, along with the current President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani. Finally, 19 AUB graduates were among the statesmen who founded the United Nations in 1945.
With such a remarkable history to build upon, the American University of Beirut simply cannot afford to end its mission to Lebanon and the greater Arab World. Against all odds, it insists that it is here to stay, forever.
*Author’s note: The official rate is useless as nobody goes by it except for some banks and the government itself. Everything is now fixed at the black-market rate, which changes daily.