Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
The month of June is when higher educational institutions typically celebrate their cyclical endeavor of infusing human society with a fresh cohort of graduates who have spent three, four, six, or more years shaping their skills and their characters on their campuses to make an impact on the world. In ordinary times and in secure societies, this noble purpose indeed deserves its annual celebration—how else do societies progress and improve? In Lebanon, for the Class of 2021, our students' successful completion of their academic missions was justly described as “epic" by the interim dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), Dr. Abla Sibai.
“Who would have imagined, when you joined AUB only few years back, that a new coronavirus would sweep the world, and that Lebanon would be bleeding with challenging, painful, earthshattering multilayered crises?" she asked, as she emphasized how her graduates were entering a world that desperately needs their contribution in public health and health science.
Thousands of you have watched and enjoyed our livestreamed 152nd Commencement Exercises that took place last week for the three faculties in medical and health disciplines, FHS, the Faculty of Medicine (FM), and the Rafic Hariri School of Nursing (RHSON), whose levels of vaccination (administered by AUBMC) enabled
in-person ceremonies. In all we were able to formally graduate 256 students, including 54 PhDs and master's degrees, 95 MDs, and 107 bachelor's degrees—a small proportion of the phenomenal class of 2021, but it was clear that the whole university—faculty, staff, and students—was invested in the unique significance and symbolism of these beautiful ceremonies.
The Green Oval provided a magical alternative setting for these unforgettable rites of passage. Of course, we felt the absence of the radiant parents and loved-ones of our graduates, although the high viewing figures on three superbly produced video presentations spoke of their presence via YouTube and Facebook. We also missed the luminescent presence of honorary doctorate recipients to connect with and inspire our future leaders, although we were honored to be joined at the FM Commencement by the internationally recognized ophthalmic surgeon, distinguished professor, and pioneer in vision research and innovation, Dr. Dimitri Azar (MD, '86), who delivered a fine keynote via video that will live on in the memories of all who witnessed it.
The consensus was that the location and orders of ceremony more than compensated for any break with the traditional commencement on the Green Field. Amid the pomp and pageantry, students and faculty felt the visceral human emotions of meeting face-to-face for the first time in many months—and sometimes for the first time, period, for those who embarked on their shared journey of learning last fall on video conferencing platforms. From the podium, we felt, as educators and academic leaders at the end of this incredibly taxing academic year, an overwhelming joy and pride in seeing how our students did not just overcome the obstacles in front of them, but emerged as an indomitable cohort of heroes and leaders. And for many, there was an emotion hardly felt during these past 18 months: Hope.
We are not just nurses; we are educators, counselors, advocates, and leaders. We became activists, we became community builders, and we became front-liners"
Listen to Grace Hajinazarian (BSN '21), RHSON class speaker, reflecting on her cohort's experience to see why hope is irrepressible at AUB: “We are not just nurses; we are educators, counselors, advocates, and leaders. The challenges and pressures we have faced shaped us into resilient and determined individuals, capable of overcoming all that stands in our way. We became activists, capable of fighting for our rights, as well as supporting causes we believe in, and resisting all injustices and discriminations we witness. We became community builders, by being active participants in numerous projects and plans directed towards the recovery of communities affected by the August 4 explosion. And we became front-liners, as some of my colleagues volunteered at AUBMC when COVID-19 cases continued to rise in Lebanon."
My message to the graduates—entitled “Where has all the good news gone?"—was prompted by recent research on media reportage of the COVID-19 pandemic showing how the genuinely positive news, major milestones in vaccine development, for example, is underplayed while negative stories, such as potential side-effects from vaccines based on adenovirus technology, are vastly overblown and go on to create vaccination hesitancy when risk-benefit analysis strongly argues in favor of taking whichever major vaccine is first available. That is not to discount the terrible consequences of this disease, but it is a reminder to cut through the torrent of negativity and focus on the important and actionable issues, fighting the virus together, tackling health inequality that COVID-19 has highlighted, and addressing the social, political, and economic determinants of health.
By insisting on shaping and serving a better, fairer, more inclusive, and more hopeful world, we can answer the question of where the good news has gone, because the AUB Class of 2021 IS the good news. And so we look forward with great anticipation to the September ceremonies which we shall stage for this year's graduates from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, and the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, as well as a special ceremony being planned to celebrate the AUB Class of 2020 whose commencement exercises were postponed in the pre-vaccine days of last summer.
If June is usually the month to reflect on success, it is also time to take stock of the perplexing questions we have been confronted with as a community, and the answers that we have found to continue upholding our mission, implementing our values, and modeling them in the broader society. In particular, the financial, economic, and banking crises in Lebanon have robbed people of all ages and backgrounds of their livelihoods and their dreams, putting uncertainty and fear in their place, while the coronavirus pandemic has been a once-in-century plague that has devastated lives and livelihoods.
On top of trustees' tireless and generous personal philanthropy, they have created new dedicated funds to reward and empower our medical and staff heroes"
As many of you read in the
message from Chairman Philip Khoury on June 4, the Board of Trustees has moved sagaciously and decisively on initial plans to inject funds from abroad in order to support AUB's most precious asset, our faculty and staff. This amounts to dedicating $150 million from unrestricted endowment funds and targeted philanthropy over the next three years in order to maintain quality education and research at AUB and to invest in the most critical programs and people in the incredibly difficult circumstances that Lebanon is experiencing at the moment. As detailed in my
June 11 message to the community, it includes part-payment of salaries in real (“fresh") US dollars for all to reverse the precipitous loss of purchasing power and banking restrictions that our employees have experienced, and a new board-designated professorship program to motivate and support the top academicians we need to pursue AUB's global mission of excellence.
No university leadership draws on its carefully accumulated endowment without serious soul searching—but this is no ordinary situation and we must do everything we possibly can to ensure that our remaining faculty and staff, on whose shoulders AUB's entire and future mission rests, can afford to stay at their posts so that we can continue educating and graduating outstanding students to work for the betterment of their societies, all while caring for the most complex medical cases with state-of-the-art nursing and medicine. But these trustees are also never shy about putting “skin in the game" and on top of their tireless and generous personal philanthropy to AUB they have created new dedicated funds to reward and empower our medical and staff heroes for the small, and non-so-small, miracles that they perform every day.
The hope that can only be kindled by an institution whose sole purpose is to educate future leaders and struggle to create better societies"
We are only in this position of relative strength after making the difficult decision to lay off staff in the painful summer months of 2020, and to adjust the bankrupting US-LBP exchange rate for tuition at the beginning of this year. The latter decision, fortified by a massive increase in financial support for those who could not afford to pay at the adjusted rate, has been thoroughly vindicated by data from the Registrar's Office which shows there was zero impact on student enrolment in the spring term. Yes, we have all had to shoulder burdens in a situation which the
World Bank has calculated to be one of the 10 most severe economic and financial crises globally since the mid-19th century, and possibly in the top three. No one escapes such a predicament, but the measures we have taken have meant that those who can afford AUB’s tuition at the new rate have paid accordingly and those who could not afford it have been able to continue their studies thanks to the largest infusion of financial aid in AUB’s history.
The next piece of the puzzle remains getting our campus community vaccinated and back at AUB before the fall term, and as you heard in the
message of the co-chairs of our Vaccine Working Group, Drs. Carine Sakr and Umayya Musharrafieh (photo, above), this effort is already underway with nearly 1,000 Pfizer shots having been administered to the first batch of faculty, staff, and students on Saturday. Thanks to the outstanding work of the COVID-19 Immunization Center at AUBMC we have a highly efficient system able to handle up to 250 patients an hour. We know how anxious many of you are to get your shots, given the liberation from fear and disease that can represent, and we shall be administering the vaccine as quickly as possible to all students, HIP holders, and their dependents as soon as the vials arrive from the Ministry of Public Health.
This is a suitably positive note to end what has been an extraordinary year of trials and hardships, but also the hope that can only be kindled by an institution whose sole purpose is to educate future leaders and struggle to create better societies, a mini-society focused on achieving excellence in the service of the greater good. We wish you all a peaceful and restful summer vacation so that we may all return next fall to take up the struggle once again for AUB and its community, for Lebanon, for the Arab World, for the Global South, and for humanity as a whole.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD