We will have a very busy five weeks ahead, having already started the consultative process on the budget and restructuring process with the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees on May 4, and the first of two Board of Deans (BOD) meetings dedicated to setting a budget to avoid incurring unsurvivable financial losses because of the dire economic situation. On Friday May 8, the Financial Planning Committee—a body which contains two representatives each from the students (University Student Faculty Committee), staff (Syndicate of Non-Academic Workers), and faculty (Senate)—met on this occasion, during these unprecedented times, for representatives from all impacted parties to not only inspect the full budgetary data but contribute meaningfully to the frank and ongoing discussions. These meetings will only intensify over the coming days, with each of us focused on one thing, protecting and preserving our university and its community. This week, the BOD will spend two days aligning their budgetary decisions with the VITAL 2030 strategic framework, followed by a presentation to a special session of the University Senate. We shall meanwhile be conferring with our trustees, senators, the Syndicate, and student representatives through the USFC, as well as open meetings with different campus and medical center constituencies as the plan begins to take shape.
Much attention has been paid, understandably, to the paragraph of my May 5 message looking ahead to critical issues to be addressed. We must set a rate for our fees (including an acceptable, non-punitive LL/US$ exchange rate in the absence of clarity from government) so parents and guardians can still afford AUB's education, with the added financial support that we are making available. It is also vital that patients can still come to the region's finest medical center when they have urgent medical and health issues. While we are determined to hold fees at the lowest possible rate, we are also keenly aware of the direct impact this revenue has on employee salaries and benefits. We cannot under any circumstances let our dedicated and talented faculty and staff slip into poverty because of their lost purchasing power. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to increase donations and grant allocations, as well as leveraging new revenue-generating activities such as telemedicine and e-learning. The scale of our financial and economic challenges are such that new money cannot by itself remove the requirement to critically review all programs, departments, and benefits, but every penny secured will lessen the scope of the painful decisions that lie ahead to curb our expenditure. For this reason we have established an
AUB Emergency Fund, whose proceeds will go towards helping the most vulnerable members of our community, those who are facing the most difficulty in these troubling times.
I also have heard a great deal of opinions and concerns, many in a constructive spirit, about the pending closure of departments, and merging of centers and other aspects of the university’s operations. I am writing to assure all that we have no plans to close academic programs or departments, as long as we have students who need to graduate in those majors. It should also be crystal clear that these decisions are being deliberated and discussed by senior university leadership, deans, trustees and other deeply invested members of the AUB community. The study of the viability and success of programs undertaken by the Provost’s office as part of our Middle States Commission on Higher Education accreditation is nearly completed, and will be shared shortly. Integrated with student outcome data, including employment, graduate and professional school acceptances, mental health outcomes, and other important parameters, these findings will guide our efforts to make difficult but necessary decisions. No academic departments are being closed, frozen, or consolidated yet, as our focus has been to date on rightsizing selected administrative units and departments. Even there, the main purpose is not only to cut costs but, as we have stated, to make the medical center and university as a whole better, more academically oriented, more efficient, and ultimately more mission focused. More to follow in the next few weeks.
COVID-19 pandemic plans
Two months ago today, the
WHO adjudicated that COVID-19 had reached the level of a pandemic, the first time a coronavirus—from the virus family that causes the common cold—was so designated. Our lives and societies changed at a stroke, although at least here in Lebanon we have so far managed to largely contain the spread of the disease through a mostly effective nationwide lockdown. To date, there have been just over 800 cases, 230 recoveries, and 26 deaths—a terrible number, but relatively low in the global context.
As faculty and students heard from Provost Harajli on Friday, AUB will apply evidence-based measures developed by our Expert Committee on COVID-19, and ratified by our extended Council of Associate Deans (eCAD) and BOD, to reopen the campus in line with the schedule decreed by the government. A pandemic illness is, by definition, a new one that we do not yet have immunity against, spread over a large area. Whenever we end the lockdown, be it in this month or next year, everyone without immunity—which could be 99.99 percent of us—remains at risk and exponential spread of COVID-19 through the Lebanese population could still occur. Until there is an effective treatment, or vaccine, or preferably both, life cannot go back to complete normality.
A recent New York Times piece,
This Is the Future of the Pandemic, cites a team of Harvard epidemiologists whose models indicate COVID-19 will continue to pose a threat for much of next year and even into 2022. We must prepare ourselves for a long campaign, but let us show leadership as an academic institution founded on scientific enquiry and be a role model for evidence-based preventive measures to help the wider community pass this test. Our evidence-based guidelines on the resumption of in person classes will be shared in the coming period, emphasizing safety, learning, compassion, and flexibility above all else.
Helping hand in the neighborhood
Although our employees are suffering from currency devaluation and the shocking rise in prices that we have seen recently, it is very heartening to hear how our faculty and staff have rallied around to support the AUB
Neighborhood Initiative's (AUBNI) “Al Jar Lil Jar Campaign" to give financial support to needy families in Ras Beirut. If you would like to contribute, please contact AUBNI director Mona Hallak (firstname.lastname@example.org) or you can just leave some cash in an envelope at the designated postbox at Main Gate. No amount is too small.
The initiative has been coordinated with the local
mukhtars and our neighbors to compile a list of needy families who have been severely impacted by the economic downturn. So far 100 families have been identified as living in dire need in the Hamra and Ein El Mreisseh areas. Many breadwinners were already out of work before the COVID-19 crisis, while others made a living as day laborers, whose income disappeared during the lockdown. Rents and other bills have been unpaid for months and there are many older people living alone or with unemployed family members. All desperately need support to buy food, medication, and basic needs.
We are very thankful for the dozens of faculty and staff members who have generously committed to a monthly contribution so this campaign can be sustained for the coming difficult months. The first two rounds of distribution in April and May supported the families to cover their very basic monthly needs. A few families are threatened with having to leave their homes so extra money went to help them with the rent. For a more sustainable impact, AUBNI is coordinating psychosocial support to our vulnerable neighbors with the help of University Scholarship Program and Public Health students working on community projects.
It is heartbreaking to see the challenges many of our neighbors and others all over the country are facing. But it is truly heartwarming to see the AUB community coming together to support our vulnerable residents of Ras Beirut and living up to the Neighborhood Initiative's slogan “Al Jar lil Jar". We are all in this together and only together can we overcome these extraordinarily difficult times. It is precisely those efforts we have hinted at or more frankly outlined in this perspective and the many more tangible efforts to come that will show AUB for what it truly is: that radiant city on the hill that will survive all the most dire conditions and shine a light for all to see, to make of itself and its community the empowering examples so that others, including entire societies in these bleak and pessimistic days, may have their hopes for a better, fairer, more inclusive, and more abundant life realized. That, in the final analysis, is who we really are.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD