Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
AUB is here to stay
As armed insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, one could be forgiven for assuming we had started a year even more turbulent and anxiety inducing than its predecessor. If the world's greatest superpower and longest continuously democratic republic was facing such an existential moment, what could possibly be the hope for the inveterately vulnerable and crisis-stricken Lebanon?
Happily for the US, many more Americans from both sides of the aisle now recognized the urgent need to heal a divided nation and are attempting to act accordingly. Where is the leadership with the courage and integrity needed to diagnose Lebanon's afflictions and implement their cure? What do we need to change here to set us on a healing path?
I do not claim easy solutions. For a small country, Lebanon faces a brutally complex set of challenges. But, as many of Lebanon's failures are a result of national actions, or inaction, so can their remedy be the result of individual and collective action, undertaken by objective and sincere citizens using evidence and critical thinking, transparently and free of rancor, in the interests of a better society.
This is where AUB comes in, our principal purpose being to nurture and empower citizens who play such a role. It is exemplified by the more than $40 million being added to annual merit- and need-based financial support since 2015, the dramatic increase in the number of fully funded scholarship students in the last decade, which have doubled over the last five years, the impressive growth of AUB's research enterprise and reputation over the last two decades, and a 155-year commitment to service that is both overarching and sincere. This builds on the foundations and contributions of generations of the AUB family who have impacted every walk of Lebanese and Arab life, from improving the communities around them to attaining global leadership in science, health, business, diplomacy, the arts, and innumerable other fields.
It is inconceivable to picture Lebanon or Beirut, without AUB. That is why there was such an outcry when false reports were recently published of the university’s “relocation”, to a distant emirate, regardless of the impossible logistics of such a move, let alone the philosophical, ethical disjuncture it would
AUB is here to stay, in Beirut to
not just Beirut, but Lebanon, the Middle East and North Africa, and the world, especially the Global South. There is no better place to do that than where we have always been, where our founders chose, on the shores of the Mediterranean in Ras Beirut.
Tolerance and inclusion
Although our beautiful campus remains largely empty as we help shoulder the burden of battling the coronavirus pandemic, our community—faculty, staff, students, and trustees—has been fully engaged online. In the fall term, this included an innovative diversity training module, “Inclusion in the Modern Workplace," commissioned by the
Equity/Title IX Office as part of our enduring commitment to fostering a safe educational and work environment, free of discrimination and discriminatory harassment.
The training stressed that what we communicate and how we communicate are central to who we are and how we function in higher education. Words matter, and the way we use them has enormous power to support our mission of connecting people to push the frontiers of knowledge. But words are also weapons when used carelessly or maliciously.
AUB supports inclusion not only from an ethical standpoint. Studies show that when diverse groups consciously avoid speech or action which causes harm or offense, or excludes their socially marginalized members, it actually fosters superior creativity rather than stifles it, as has sometimes been claimed. This is because clear expectations of non-derogatory speech and behavior remove uncertainty and overcorrection in diverse groups that can inhibit the expression of creative ideas.
The module went on to present a tripartite model of tolerance that should become a fundamental tenet of the AUB experience. At the basic level,
tolerance is avoiding harm to others, even if their views or behavior are objectionable to us; the next level is
civility, which emphasizes politeness and courtesy towards others in our interactions; at the top is
acceptance, which entails actively seeking to empathize with and understand those who hold opposing views.
We need to do more than simply tolerate different viewpoints and behaviors than our own; civility must be the minimum standard at serious academic institutions, while acceptance should be AUB's aspiration, at least with all those we come into close contact with. This does not require that we abandon our own convictions or acquiesce to ideas we disagree with, but it does require respecting the dignity of those who hold such ideas.
I hardly need say how sharply this mindset stands in contrast to the incivility and intolerance that dominates political discourse today, especially on social media platforms that channel most of the exchanges. Let us not be influenced by what we see around us, but rather set our own example. Let the AUB community be ambassadors for a kinder and more inclusive approach to difference.
Free speech and civil speech
Tolerance and respect for diversity are enshrined in AUB's mission, and the Equity/Title IX module made clear that these principles in no way curb another cherished principle in our mission, namely freedom of thought and expression.
Noam Chomsky, our
2013 honorary doctorate recipient, described freedom of speech not as the defense of people's right to express ideas we agree with—Stalin and Goebbels used to do that. “If you're really in favor of free speech, you're in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favor of free speech."
If you're really in favor of free speech, you're in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you're not in favor of free speech."
This is the kind of free speech that AUB upholds. We have a remarkable history of generating fierce and fearless political debate, underpinned by the freedom of academic inquiry and research unfettered by governmental, institutional, or public interference.
There are of course limitations to freedom of speech that are widely accepted and adopted in free societies: defamation; copyright infringement; fraud; and so on. Famously, it is not free speech to shout “fire" in a packed theater when there is none, because of the harm that is certain to befall a panicked crowd stampeding in the darkness. The First Amendment provides a legal framework to allow the precise adjudication of such questions, but what happens when such questions arise in the context of a university?
Regrettably, we have seen the toxic power of social media harnessed against AUB and its mission in recent months, as anyone scanning the Twitter replies to some of our posts will know only too well. The university will always encourage people to make up their own minds on matters of fact and we shall never seek to suppress views that we disagree with. But nor shall the university tolerate campaigns of cyber bullying and incitement that seek to hijack our social media platforms.
The worst of it is when we see AUB's friends and alumni being harassed by anonymous strangers just for posting in support of their alma mater, demonstrating just how far the incitement and acceptance of incivility has reached. To this end, we have codes of conduct that govern the behavior of all our students, faculty, and staff, in the digital space just as in the office or the classroom, and these shall be applied impartially with due process.
Without doubt these are days of escalated anxiety, and—yes—understandable anger in Lebanon, the Arab world, the United States, and really the entire planet. But we must never let bitterness and frustration pollute our norms of civil discourse as a university community. We cannot let our wounds and passion override our ability to listen to those we disagree with. Rather we must address them with a courtesy that acknowledges their dignity and reflects the respect with which we treat our fellow human beings.
If we are looking for what we can do today that will have a positive impact on the society around us, it is precisely this. Let us reaffirm our commitment to civility, let us expect it and exemplify it, in all our interactions. Let us lead not only in word but also in deed. Only then can we achieve our goal to model a fair, just, and inclusive mini-society.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD