Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
Amidst all the global and local tumult of 2021, it may have escaped a few members of our community that 2021 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the American University of Beirut admitting women to its classes, diplomas, and degrees. It took the Ivy League and other great Western universities almost half a century to follow our lead, by which time AUB had already graduated female diplomats, educators, nurses, physicians, writers, and other trailblazers. Having launched the Middle East’s first nursing school in 1905, AUB would then open its doors to brave, creative, and groundbreaking women in every field of enterprise.
I have asked myself what threads unite the early resourceful and successful AUB women, and how they connect to the AUB of 2021. The Syrian Protestant College had not been the American University of Beirut for long when the influential advocate for women’s rights Anbara Salam gave a lecture at AUB and challenged the male-dominated culture prevalent in the Levant, a story told beautifully in a recent play by her granddaughter Aliya Khalidi. Shortly afterwards, the sisters Wadad and Salma Makdisi utilized their AUB education to become educational pioneers, transforming Al-Ahliah School and making it one of the finest home-grown preparatory schools in Lebanon and the Middle East. Angela Jurdak graduated from AUB and became Lebanon’s first woman diplomat, serving as secretary of the Lebanese delegation to the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and helping author the UN Charter on Human Rights. A few decades later, the irrepressible Ghada Samman became one of the boldest and most fearless writers in the Arab world. Around the same time, cutting-edge architect Zaha Hadid would launch her undergraduate studies at AUB as a mathematics student before heading to London and becoming one of the most groundbreaking architects of the last 50 years, and the first woman to ever claim architecture’s prestigious Pritzker Prize.
Certainly, all of these great women were determined to blaze trails that few others could see at the time, much less attempt. But perhaps they also shared a sense of confidence and empowerment not only from their diverse upbringings in various countries across the region, but from their matriculation at the American University of Beirut; a space where their confidence was grown and their ability to see and seize opportunities reinforced.
A strong thread does link these remarkable women with newer generations. Recently, AUB has nurtured great female biological scientists as diverse as the world-renowned neuro-geneticist Huda Zoghbi and the great bone metabolism researcher Ghada Hajj Fuleihan. Shining on the world stage, both Najat Saliba and Abla Mehio Sibai were remarkably named laureates of the prestigious and highly competitive L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science Awards in the course of two consecutive years.
We now have
CIBL (Center for Inclusive Business and Leadership for Women) based at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, a school named after a pioneering businessman whose own daughters, AUB alumnae Hutham and Lubna, would themselves become business titans across multiple continents. CIBL for Women is doing more than studying the issue of gender equity in the MENA workplace, they are actively working towards positive change, partnering with employers, government agencies, and civil society organizations to develop and support the implementing of inclusive policies and practices. Currently, a plethora of women occupy senior leadership roles at AUB including deanships, chairships, and senior administrative posts. I am also confident that women will be among the leading contenders to succeed to AUB's presidency when my own term ends.
“… to graduate full of life, confidence, faith, and determination is a powerful reinforcer of hope…”
While acknowledging the long road traveled, we must acknowledge the equally arduous path ahead before true gender equality at AUB can be achieved and celebrated. As I noted in this year's
Opening Day speech, the path forward starts with careful, critical self-examination. Empowering women is about more than encouraging leadership skills, it is about the totality of a person's life. In this regard, we can and must do more, including providing an early learning center to support the children of faculty and staff at AUB as well as better understanding systems to support research careers for both women and men.
Six years ago, we launched the first presidential task force on the lives and careers of women faculty. That report, led by Huda Zurayk and Howayda Al Harithy, themselves iconic women of AUB, helped illuminate the issues. The exhaustive report found that much progress has been made in areas such as the percentage of female faculty members and gender-based salary discrepancy, but inequities remain. They came up with concrete recommendations and implementation plans that are now being followed up on by what has become a standing committee devoted to this critical issue.
The struggle for gender equity—like so many efforts to address inequities—requires continuous work. It requires both men and women, younger and older, to check their assumptions and modes of thinking, to scrutinize their actions, and to speak up when encountering bigotry, discrimination, or harassment. Founded in 2014, the
Equity/Title IX Office has helped to make AUB a safer, more respectful, and more inclusive educational environment. In addition to protecting women and others from harassment, prejudice, and discrimination, it has begun mandatory trainings for faculty and staff, set up a support network across campus, and implemented safe reporting mechanisms to combat the ongoing taboo around reporting of transgressions. With this and many other initiatives, AUB seeks to serve as a leader and role model so that women are safe not just within our walls but also without.
AUB seeks to serve as a leader and role model so that women are safe not just within our walls but also without.”
This year, we honor the progress represented by AUB's Coed Centennial. It is an opportunity for celebrating the gains and reflecting on what still needs to be done. A
new website marks related events and initiatives on campus, including this year's Founders Day speaker, Sheikha Altaf Al Sabah of Kuwait, a philanthropist, leader, and herself a pioneering AUB alumna. She will lift our spirits on December 6, 2021 and remind us of the progress and possibilities.
At AUB, at least, hope continues to spring eternal despite the odds.”
our students navigate their way through the pandemic and the confluence of
challenges and catastrophes that Lebanon and the world have faced, seeing them
grasp opportunities that seemed so unreachable, so impossible just a few short
years ago, to graduate full of life, confidence, faith, and determination is a
powerful reinforcer of hope for us that she will indeed continue to have
life and have it more abundantly. At AUB, at least, hope continues to spring
eternal despite the odds.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD