Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
This would usually be the season when our campus returns to its bustling, late-summer normalcy. Instead, this being 2020, AUB students and professors are having their first pedagogic encounters on low-resolution digital connections as opposed to the high-definition, surround-sound experience of face-to-face classes.
Our inspiring teachers, magnificent students, and indomitable staff are working flat out together to optimize the experience of effective online learning. Yes, there are obstacles, especially here in Lebanon—in-person does not require a stable internet connection or even electricity—but we are doing our level best in this “brave new COVID-19 world.”
We welcome our new students to this “Virtual AUB” with joy, hope for the future, and the love that we feel for every member of the extraordinary community that you have joined. Our motto, “That they may have life and have it more abundantly,” is now your motto.
Although your introduction to AUB is unlike that of any previous cohort, you join a 155-year-old community of scholars that has made its mark on the world, empowered by liberal education and an open, welcoming approach to a diverse community of difference makers. Regardless of how you began your AUB journey, you now share the lofty objective of making the world a better place. We look forward to greeting you all on campus when communal life—which lies at the heart of the university experience—returns in a post-distancing world.
Ever the optimist, I see a potential inflection point, one that changes the traditional higher education paradigm of “sages on stages" forever. I envision a future where face-to-face teaching makes up a valuable one third of our undergraduate timetable; another third can be delivered online; and the remainder devoted to experiential education—learning by doing—which is the most stimulating, character forming, and transformative kind of education.
As we seek to further enrich the undergraduate experience, doors are also opening towards fully online learning for those who wish to access a top-quality education without requiring their physical presence on campus. This will enable an ever-expanding contingent to log on for life-long learning, whether as a free public service or by paid subscription. As the world changes before our eyes, let us focus on the changes we want to happen, fashioning a new kind of higher education that is long overdue.
A different kind of Opening
Tradition still has its place, of course, and our 155th Opening Ceremony was as traditional as we could make it under these circumstances. Although the pews of Assembly Hall were empty, I invited our academic leadership to join me on stage to give human form to the remarkable level of teamwork and collaboration that drives our sacred mission today.
My videotaped opening address recalled the story of Cain and Abel, the first biblical tale I remember my father telling my brother and me, no doubt to instill a more harmonious relationship between us. When God asked the murderer of his brother's whereabouts, Cain evasively replied, “Am I my brother's keeper?" The mission and values of AUB instruct us to be all our brothers' and sisters' keepers in the more modern sense, especially in Lebanon, which has had much more than its fair share of setbacks in the last 12 months.
Although, as a university and medical center, we have no wish to swim in the shark-infested waters of Lebanese politics, it is our role and obligation to speak up about the sectors where we operate. The September 7 convocation, which we have made available online, addressed these matters head on with two key messages.
* The long history of private, non-profit university education in Lebanon has bestowed unique advantages to this country and offers its best hope for the future. The recent favoritism shown in government circles across the globe, including in Lebanon, towards third-rate, for-profit versions must end.
* The August 4 disaster dealt a devastating blow to Beirut's hospitals which already faced daunting financial challenges amid COVID-19 and the economic collapse. Supporting quality healthcare in Lebanon must be a national and international priority if this country is to have a future.
Respecting President John F. Kennedy's maxim, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," the address ended with a series of statements of how AUB can help lead in these most challenging times: whether by providing matchless excellence in education and healthcare in a turbulent world; extending our hands to help those in need; freely giving of our time and expertise; providing evidence-based answers to today's problems; or just by refusing to strike back if others hurt or anger us, or denigrate the best of our intentions.
Beirut in our name and our hearts
As humanitarian aid and agents flooded into Beirut after August 4, it became clearer why AUB interventions are so impactful. Just as this American university is part “of Beirut" rather than just being located “in Beirut," our community is part of the social fabric and approaches such challenges not as an outside savior but as a neighbor, a sister, a brother. Just as being a good sibling or neighbor is a long-term commitment, AUB's contribution to the Port Disaster recovery is empowered by a myriad of actions and choices made prior to that fateful day.
Take for example our Neighborhood Initiative (AUBNI). As you know, our community responded to an AUBNI call in April 2020, dubbed Al Jar Lil Jar, to provide much-needed financial support during the COVID-19 lockdown to some 200 vulnerable families in Ras Beirut. So far LL82M has been distributed to support the last remaining original inhabitants living under old rent contracts in the shadow of the new high-rise residences and office blocks. Such families are unable to meet emergency costs incurred on August 4 and even risked being made homeless to make way for yet more glass and steel. Thanks to the established AUBNI database, individual philanthropy by our community, and partnerships with NGOs, money and support was instantly directed where it was needed.
AUBNI coordinated the ambitious Rubble to Mountains scheme, a debris management consortium with strategic partners which has presented the $2.3 million project to the World Bank for funding. A plot of unused land in Karantina was secured from the Beirut Municipality where some 120 thousand tons of debris is being collected for recycling, to be used to rehabilitate abandoned quarries—diverting it from corporate/government landfills that further pollute our environment.
The AUBNI also spearheaded a collaboration with a London-based charity that succeeded in reopening and restoring the playground of the beautiful Karantina Municipal Garden—that was not closed by the blast, but had rather remained under lock and key for three years owing to official backpedaling. The space will now be used as a traditional storytelling venue and for open-air workshops to help children recover from post-trauma conditions in an effort supported by the AUB clinical psychology team.
Of course, August 4 reminded us that inhabitants of the most damaged areas around the Port of Beirut are also our neighbors who need our help and the Neighborhood Initiative was able quickly to pivot. After helping needy Ras Beirut residents repair their damaged homes and shops, AUBNI is collaborating with Nusaned on the fully-funded renovation of a traditional but modest triple-arched building that caught the full force of the blast on the northern edge of Mar Mkhael. The owners, who are elderly and impoverished, were inundated with offers from property developers, doubtless intending demolition to make way for another high-rise. But now the owners have been rehoused and are promised a triumphant return before the end of 2020. You can follow this and numerous other stories on AUB's communications channels, which will be following up on all the incredible and impactful work done by our outstanding community.
We owe a word of deep and sincere gratitude to all those who have put their shoulders to the wheel, whether through donation or volunteering their time and expertise. Thanks to you, we shall overcome this period of hardship and we shall help all those around us in their recovery. In doing so, AUB provides a message of realistic hope, while acknowledging the deep trauma that those who have resided in the country over the last 12 months have experienced.
Many residents of Lebanon, Lebanese and guests, have been in a rush to depart, those wounds made much more profound by the devastating physical and mental trauma of the August 4 explosion. Hope, so abundant in the air last fall, seemed far rarer this year—as I gave my sixth Opening Day address—than it did last year, or five years ago when I gave my first address, entitled “Learning how to fly without a safety net." We must not allow that to happen.
While we cannot and should not criticize anyone for making decisions to keep themselves and their family safe in this suddenly far less welcoming world, we can provide tangible hope by providing more support, more care, more compassion, and more opportunity. My next Perspective will arrive in a month, and in it I will focus on what AUB will be doing to provide mental health support to our community and beyond. All humans are imperfect, slightly or significantly damaged creatures. But we can and must work together to help heal ourselves and others, so that we can create a better world for all, particularly for those less fortunate.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD