Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
Protecting vulnerable AUBites
Over the last week we have held meetings at the highest levels, our most well-attended town halls yet, and—yesterday—a refashioned Founders Day, to share and consult on plans that will see our community safely through these unstable times. Charity begins at home and our priority is to ensure no one at AUB falls by the wayside for financial, psychological, or other reasons beyond their control. That means focusing on the most vulnerable members of the AUB family—students and non-managerial staff, followed by faculty and above-grade staff. And we are charging those most able to ride out any economic challenge ahead to share the burden of those less fortunate.
With the support of our distinguished Board of Trustees, we have started building an emergency fund to help alleviate the impact of Lebanon's economic and political crisis. We have also established two solidarity funds to give additional support to needy students and patients respectively. If there is a devaluation of the Lebanese lira, we are particularly concerned for our Grade 1-12 employees and students whose families live in Lebanon, both of whose incomes and savings are at risk unless the economy stabilizes.
The emergency fund enables us to offer help to employees struggling to pay their bills owing to the economic situation. In the event of a devaluation, we would establish a two-track tuition payment, analogous to the in-state/out-of-state rates at public universities in the US. Lebanon residents whose income and savings are in Lebanese lira (equivalent to “in-state" payers) would continue to be able to pay tuition in lira at or near the base US dollar exchange rate of LL1,515 if the currency is devalued. All other students will be considered “out-of-state" and must continue to clear their accounts in US dollars or in Lebanese lira at the new devalued rate. We shall continue implementing this system for as long as we have the funds to do so, ensuring that families in Lebanon will be able to pay the sum they budgeted for, so their children may continue to receive an outstanding education at AUB.
The discounted “in-state" rate will be offered to undergraduates currently receiving financial aid, who constitute 40% of the undergraduate population. Master's and PhD students already receive higher levels of financial support and support for those programs will continue. Any student or family falling into financial difficulty can apply for support through the financial aid program. Our message to families in Lebanon and outside that are able to continue paying from their reserves of dollars or in Lebanese lira at the new rate is this: Please do not ask for support for your convenience that others need from necessity. The manner in which we will be able to afford this will be assessed, and to ensure AUB's financial viability and our ability to stay within budget, a newly appointed Council of Economic Advisors representing both expert economists and representatives of all stakeholders will be announced to the community in the next week.
Those least vulnerable to a possible devaluation of the lira are AUB employees whose salaries are, and will continue to be, paid in US dollars. As this very small group—26 employees out of 6,000, including senior administrators and a group of faculty members—would see their purchasing power increase in Lebanon post-devaluation, we have been discussing how they can demonstrate their commitment to AUB's mission over and above the excellent work they already do. For this we are introducing a voluntary scheme to forego the delta of their increased purchasing power and donate it to the emergency fund. A number have already agreed to do this and we shall encourage all of those who can afford it to join them.
A House of Many Mansions
This was the theme of my “State of the University Address" delivered at the Founders Day ceremony to mark our 153rd anniversary. In 1988, the eminent AUB historian and graduate Kamal Salibi published A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered in which he addresses the notion that the Lebanese civil war was in a fundamental way a war to determine the true history of this country. Was Lebanon “Arab," “Christian," “Islamic," “Druze," “Phoenician?" Each side in the war had its own particular viewpoint, reflected in the different battle lines drawn in the course of 15 and a half years of hideous conflict.
As Salibi had already published a definitive history of Lebanon in 1965, this later work served as a critical study of the different historical viewpoints as a way of helping arrive at a consensus on a common vision. He saw this as a prerequisite for the Lebanese to live as a nation in peace and cooperation. Ironically, we can say in hindsight that the 1975-1990 war did lend a kind of binding national identity to Lebanon, albeit one you would not wish on your worst enemy. Salibi wrote: “Disgraced and abandoned by the world, it is possible the Lebanese are finally beginning to discover themselves."
Threatened with closure owing to the flight of students, faculty, and staff, AUB struggled through the war. But it survived and in many ways shone more than ever before, thanks to the self-sacrifice of those who put their lives and financial security on the line to keep our classrooms, dorms, offices, and libraries open. Our hospital fought to save the life of every injured patient regardless of status or affiliation—as long as they left their gun at the door. Our annual student festival Outdoors has its origins in those most difficult of times, as does our Office of Regional External Programs. At AUH, as it then was, physicians, including my father, deferred their salaries to ensure they could continue treating patients.
While our current hardships are not in the same league as those wrought by the last civil war, there is no doubt the people of Lebanon have been simmering in a political and economic pressure cooker for months, if not years. But we are all aware that the situation may get worse before it gets better, and it has the potential to get much worse. It is incumbent upon all of us to do everything in our power to ensure we do not return to a state of being “disgraced and abandoned by the world."
Salibi kept faith with a country that deserved to be held together despite its many differences and disagreements. His vision is realized in the streets and squares across Lebanon, where we have seen the emergence of an authentic national movement which is the largest and most unified since independence in 1943. But it is not for AUB, nor its president, to play a political role in this uprising. Anyone who has got that impression has not been listening to what we are saying. As I made clear in my article in The Atlantic, on CNN, and elsewhere, AUB's role is to be an essential incubator for a better kind of leader in the Arab world, and we shall keep striving to perform that role as we have always done, without fear or favor.
At AUB, we shall be judged by the world on how we weather this Lebanese crisis, and whether we emerge as a stronger, better institution, or as a battered and bruised one. If past experience is anything to go by, we could end up bruised, but stronger, battered, but better.
Remembering our common humanity
My Founders Day address concluded with an appeal to our community not to turn inwards on Lebanese problems or be preoccupied by Lebanese solutions to the exclusion of other challenges. This country is still home to the greatest number of refugees per capita of population in the world, and we continue to lend our service to them in education, healthcare, and helping empower their communities. This university is also home to nearly one-in-four students who are international, including a significant number of Arab and African students on our outstanding scholarship programs.
One of these students, Ubah Ali, from Somaliland, who is studying political science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has emerged in the past year as an authoritative and authentic progressive voice on the social media platform Twitter. But Ubah stopped us all in our tracks recently when she reposted a tweet by Addis Ababa-based journalist Zecharias Zelalem that said:
“Tuesday Nov 5 at 8 am, a @flyethiopian plane jetted into Bole International Airport from Beirut, Lebanon. Its cargo? Seven dead bodies of Ethiopian domestic workers. Hundreds of family members, some from as far as Wolaita were at the airport in what became a mass mourning procession."
Ubah's comment from Beirut showed that our students can say more in under 280 characters than their president can sometimes manage in 30 minutes.
“The dead bodies of these Ethiopian domestic workers do not even make the headlines of the Lebanese media. I am one of these woman and if you respect me because I am an 'AUB student' shame on you! Please do not give a fake smile while walking around #AUB."
Thank you Ubah for reminding us of the respect that is owed to all our fellow women and men. Thank you for reminding us that we in AUB, Lebanon, and the world are a house of many mansions, bound together by our common humanity and our duty to the most vulnerable, wherever they come from.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD