Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
The best and worst of times
Nineteen days ago anti-government demonstrations broke out across Lebanon over the announcement of a new $6-a-month tax on WhatsApp. Just prior to the protests, devastating forest fires scorched the mountains south of Beirut. Before the fires, there was panic buying at petroleum stations and persistent fears over the banking system. Charles Dickens' description in A Tale of Two Cities of the period before the French Revolution of 1789 could well be applied to Lebanon in October 2019. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…"
The American University of Beirut has done everything possible to meet the high expectations of our community in upholding our values and fulfilling our mission during these best and worst of times. Since October 17, our approach has been informed by three overarching objectives, keeping our community safe, preserving unity amid a wide diversity of viewpoints, and not straying from our essential purpose—to equip young women and men of a high quality education and character with the means to advance themselves and their societies. As our distinguished board chair, Dr. Philip S. Khoury, wrote to the community last week, “AUB has experienced more than its fair share of challenges during its 153-year existence, and it has always prevailed, endured, and even shone. The institution has indeed grown stronger through such trials, through focusing on its core goals while adapting to new realities that present themselves."
We only have to look at the track record of our Medical Center, which truly shone in the Civil War years for faithfully and impartially treating all comers, regardless of creed or affiliation. Despite the current road closures and instability, our medical staff have not flinched from doing their utmost to continue providing world-class direct patient care, filling in for stranded colleagues and providing zero-cost emergency treatment for cases arising from the civil protests. Meanwhile, our dedicated staff have kept the university campus open—including libraries, the registrar, and counselling services—while at the same time we have made it clear that the university leadership supports our community's right to make their voices heard in support of a better future for this country and the region.
As I have articulated on many occasions, from the studios of CNN, to open-air town halls, to dozens of anxious emails that I reply to daily, to my article in The Atlantic, AUB does not have a political stance in this turbulent time. Our community is a complex one, with international students from 94 different countries, local party supporters, civil society activists, some who support a secular and non-confessional Lebanon, and others for whom political life is not a priority. It is a genuinely big tent, and it must always have room for diverse viewpoints and mutual respect. Our only interest lies in promoting the interests of our students, our faculty, our staff, and our communities. This has been our sole preoccupation in times of stability, and it demands even more attention from us in times of national or international instability.
We know AUBites are not fooled by the malign actors who seek to misrepresent the University's leadership and service orientation as a Machiavellian force pursuing external interests. We are happy to debate those with sincerely held views that differ from ours but there is no way to engage the anonymous online troll without fueling their toxic message. Fortunately, AUB has been here long enough for the community around us not to be misled by inflammatory hashtags mendaciously serving undeclared agendas. But I cannot think of a recent time when we have needed to be more alert to the dangers of “tribal epistemology"—which I referred to in my 2018 commencement address citing an article by the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland—where information is evaluated not on evidence, but on whether it supports your world view, or whether it has been uttered by one's own leaders or the leaders of one's enemies.
The way forward
Nobody knows what the future holds for Lebanon in the coming days or months. What we have seen is an impressive popular mobilization against corruption, confessionalism, and the lack of a coherent and sustainable vision for the future of Lebanon. The protests have brought different groups together long separated by sectarian or political divisions, which no doubt has created a rare aspirational moment in a country suffering agonizing stagnation despite the vibrancy and dynamism of its people. But back to Dickens, “it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us."
Certainly, we shall not be deterred from speaking up for the values of this university (and seeking to provide a counter-example to some of the negative phenomena that this crisis has spawned). The unprecedented joint statement issued by Salim Daccache, rector of USJ, and myself on Friday, October 25, resulted in a very positive meeting with the President of the Republic the following Monday, one which served to emphasize the universities' impartial role in helping the country find solutions. It was also important to emphasize that this country is witnessing an authentic national call to create new foundations upon which to build a sustainable and inclusive nation, as well as to charge the authorities with heeding calls for freedom, equality, and justice, and to protect the right of peaceful protest.
Whatever the future does hold, our focus always turns towards our community, in the knowledge after 150 years of history that what is best for AUB is best for the country. The university is the germinator of a better kind of visionary leader in Lebanon and the Arab world—not just in politics, but in commerce, art and culture, the professions, and so on. As the saying goes, the day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit. Our role therefore must be to think strategically about how we first deliver the course content of the current term, how we hold credible exams to graduate students, and how we overcome possible further disruptions which the current situation in Lebanon heralds. That is why we have tried our best to open the university for classes whenever the situation allows.
Upon deciding to resume teaching on October 31, we were well aware that some disruption would continue and not all students would be able to attend every class. For that reason, professors have been requested by their deans to exercise discretion and charity, and to make sure all class materials are captured for the benefit of those not present. As one professor stated, faculty and students need to reconnect as a community in order to process what has happened and understand where we stand now. While doing this, we continue to prepare for all scenarios that could present themselves, ranging from a return to steady state in which we can make up time without extending this term to a more disrupted one where at least we will have optimized the time available for teaching. This is the reasonable and prudent path to take, and we thank all those who have shouldered the burden of keeping AUB on track.
One of AUB's great servant-leaders, Dr. Philippe Issa, founding chair of radiation oncology, wrote on the death of my father, “Great nations are built by citizens like Raja." For its small size and multi-confessional population, Lebanon deserves to be a great nation, and we are starting to see the emergence of a new breed of citizen seeking to build it founded on the very values of tolerance, integrity, and equity that we exemplify at AUB. During these exciting and challenging times, I sincerely wish all our community to remain safe and engaged, to avoid schism and aggravation, and to play a positive role in national salvation.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD