Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
I hope you are as safe and as well as can be expected in this final month of a year that exposed us all to such unusually high levels of stress, grief, and hardship. With all that has happened, the start
of 2020 seems long ago, but my
January President's Perspective promised the AUB community what William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale College, described as “minimal protection, maximum support." With life getting harder and harder for so many, such support has never been more needed, just as it has never been clearer that expecting maximum protection from life's adversities is, candidly, a futile aspiration.
Still, no one could have imagined how our challenges would mushroom: the COVID-19 pandemic; local currency halving and halving again in value after the Lebanese government defaulted, declaring a national bankruptcy; poverty and unemployment spiraling upwards; shocking levels of inflation; and the destruction and trauma of the August 4 mega-explosion. Yet even now there is little sign that those owning this national tragedy have learned any of its lessons or understand how to lead us out.
Although AUB entered this crisis in a strong financial position, our university and medical center have been heavily impacted and we have had to take some extremely difficult decisions in 2020.
We knew hard choices were necessary to maintain AUB's enduring mission of world-class education for the best and brightest future leaders, carrying out research to lift up this region, creating opportunities, fostering sustainability, and serving those who most need it. But no decision was considered without developing the means of mitigating the impact on the people affected.
When the dire economic situation and unsustainable losses in medical revenue compelled us to address inefficiency and administrative overstaffing at the AUB Medical Center, our first discussions focused on how to cushion the losses incurred by our faithful and dedicated staff who were laid off. Accordingly, we developed the most generous redundancy terms that were affordable and ensured our departing colleagues would continue to enjoy access to educational and health benefits well beyond what Lebanese law entitled them to, launching a medico-social fund to help care for them and their families.
By “right-sizing" our employee headcount, we have been able to allocate funds so that our full-time faculty, normally paid in Lebanese pounds (LBP), could receive a significant portion of their salaries in US dollars abroad. Unfortunately, we could not afford to extend a similar package to our staff, but we have raised their salaries by 10%, or by more to those on the lowest pay grades, and are working on a boost for our valuable part-time faculty members.
No one is claiming these measures will solve the catastrophic drop in purchasing power witnessed this year, but it is all the university can do now thanks to concerted efforts to shore up its finances, cut costs, access new grant and philanthropic funding, all while increasing and diversifying our revenue streams.
Although we have initiated no academic lay-offs, our faculty numbers are down 12 percent over the last year, with more than 120 resignations and unpaid leave applications as the situation in Lebanon has deteriorated.
It is essential that we preserve this most valuable human asset, our faculty, which AUB has spent 30 years building up after the ravages of the Lebanese civil war, by investing the majority of our resources in recruitment, retention, and mentoring, and empowering and supporting them. Included in this institutional investment is the restoration of tenure under this administration, against the grain of American academia today where tenure is being rolled back. We cannot lose this precious resource here in Lebanon, if we are to maintain the highest quality of teaching, research, and service and continue healing the sickest patients.
Supporting our students
Our stance of maximum support for students has been articulated in 2020 by freezing tuition and accepting cashier payments at the nominal bank rate of 1,515 LBP to the US dollar for the fall term. As I had warned in my
June 15 letter to the community, this would be for the fall term only while awaiting structural solutions to Lebanon's economic collapse, and relief from the global economic
recession. This was the best we could do to ensure students and their families were not burdened by the terrible economic circumstances being felt in the rest of the country in order to pursue their AUB education.
But as the local currency plunged over the summer, losing more than five times its value, we were transparent we could not guarantee this rate into 2021 as losses were mounting unsustainably. Annual tuition revenue—which had risen to $190 million annually before the crisis—was tracking to reach less than $25 million in the 2020 spring term. It would be impossible to establish the means for credible long-term faculty and staff retention if we continued to sustain such losses.
And so, with no hope in sight in the shape of a new government capable of or committed to tackling Lebanon's multiple crises, or even the likelihood of one, we have had no choice but to
adjust the exchange rate to the only other legally tenable one, the
Banque du Liban electronic platform rate of 3,900 LBP. We know the figures are alarming, a 160 percent increase for those paying in Lebanese currency, but that is not the end of the story. As with our other hard decisions, we have been fully focused on how to alleviate the impact on the people affected, our students and families who pay AUB tuition, to ensure that the vast majority of our enrolled students will be able to complete their education.
The measures we are taking mean that with the support of our Board, alumni and friends we plan to increase the financial aid budget by more than $20 million in the coming spring term, compared with the fall. This will allow us to assist more than 60 percent of our most deserving undergraduate students, up from 46 percent this term, as well as giving additional support to master's and medical students. (PhDs are already, and will continue to be, fully funded.) And the amount of support per student will also obviously need to increase.
Interim Provost Zaher Dawy has
written to every student explaining the changes and directing them how to apply for financial aid and pledging to distribute additional financial aid funds in as fair a manner as possible, as well as making the process of
submitting applications as smooth as possible, while still exercising due diligence in evaluating financial needs of applicants. There is also an
FAQ that will be updated dynamically to support the vital communication process that is needed to reassure concerned individuals and to ensure everyone who requires help can access it.
The implication of extending financial support to 60 percent of our students is that AUB believes the remaining 40 percent have savings or income outside Lebanon and will be able to afford the increase. Without the slightest blame in what is an extremely unpredictable and unstable time for Lebanese families, it is clear that those tuition-payers with access to dollars have been settling their fees in LBP cash in all but a tiny minority of cases. While we sincerely thank those who have voluntarily paid in dollars at the full rate in the fall, after our call to do so in several communications during the year, the time has come for us to set a new course in which those who have the resources will contribute to supporting those who do not.
AUB's sacred mission
For many years, AUB has delivered top-quality, American-style liberal arts education and charged tuition fees accordingly—it has never been a discounted, one-size-fits-all provider, but a standard-bearer for Lebanon and the Arab world in an increasingly competitive global field.
As president, this was not a message that I hoped I would be sending five years after my return to AUB. When I arrived we had just over 400 students on grant-based comprehensive scholarships covering all expenses, and we have grown that number to almost 650. Financial aid has been increased from $15 million to $39.5 million over the last nine years and we still aspire to make AUB more accessible to the best students, regardless of ability to pay, with a target to reach 1,000 full scholarship places supported by grants and our operational budget by 2025.
The key to surviving this period in the best possible shape for the long haul is transparency, accountability, inclusive decision-making, explaining what we are doing and why, course-correcting when necessary, looking after the most vulnerable to the best of our abilities, and not being afraid to make painful decisions when necessary. This is made more challenging by the parallel narratives that are based not on fact but on emotion and on agendas that do not serve the university's long-term interests. But there should be no doubt that we will make our true message heard.
AUB is the finest and most enduring seat of learning in the Arab world and Lebanon's most meaningful, substantial, and irreplaceable educational, medical, and research asset. No other institution develops such opportunities for a better life in this country, fraught as it is with challenges, or in the Arab world, for that matter. Its growing influence and reach in the Global South, and in Africa in particular is not something we intend to scale back. These are all essential parts of our vision for AUB's future.
The sacred mission to safeguard this essential institution and make it more sustainable, so it can teach generation after generation and lift them up through knowledge creation, does not belong exclusively to the president, or Board of Trustees, or to this faculty and staff; nor does it belong to the current generation of enrolled students; it belongs to all generations of faculty, staff, students, alumni, administration, and Board, past, present, and future, and working together, we shall safeguard AUB for future generations, who fully deserve “to have life, and have it more abundantly."
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD