Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
I remember the first time I encountered the poem in my father's immaculate handwriting underneath the glass cover of his steel desk at our home in Ras Beirut. There, my father read aloud the lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's immortal “Ulysses":
“And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."
I was both curious and perplexed by the words. Who was this graying version of Ulysses, and why was he chasing fresh knowledge at the end of his days? Wasn't the return to Ithaca and his restoration to Penelope and Telemachus enough? Why knowledge, instead of fame, fortune, and greatness? I had read the
Odyssey and was perplexed by Tennyson's coda for the wisest (and wiliest) of the ancient Greek kings and captains.
More than half a lifetime has since taught me that pursuit of knowledge and scholarship rank among the most worthy and noble of human aspirations. We learn and seek to put that learning to the test: Can knowledge and scholarship expand our boundaries and contribute to human wellbeing, health, success, and happiness? It is the classic paradigm, the essential struggle of academia. Is the pursuit of truth through greater awareness and knowledge itself of intrinsic value, or should our greatest efforts be focused on excellence aligned for purpose? These are questions we who are privileged to spend our lives at universities ponder daily and yet rarely resolve. One aspect, however, is clear. The pursuit of excellence and its achievements are rarely straightforward, and the arc of that journey, like the
Odyssey, is rarely linear.
“More than half a lifetime has since taught me that pursuit of knowledge and scholarship rank among the most worthy and noble of human aspirations."
Through the mid-1970s, the American University of Beirut was one of the finest research universities in the world, a stature few could dispute. Then came the devastating Lebanese Civil War, lasting over 15 awful years, and costing our pioneering university the majority of its top research scholars, resources, and diversity, and focusing the university on what some would argue are the most essential, even primordial aspects of our mission—education, empowerment, and service, and in many cases, teaching and healing those least fortunate. Once the conflict ended, steps needed to be taken to salvage and rebuild the university, particularly its scholarship. For almost 30 years following the end of the Civil War, successive boards of trustees, donors, and administrations of the American University of Beirut focused on and resourced the restoration of the university's academic luster. The rationale behind the postwar efforts was straightforward—without real academic excellence, the pursuit of truth and impact is at best ephemeral and at worst unrealistic.
This 30-year journey culminated in quantifiable benchmarks of progress, including improved recruitment and retention of first-tier scholars; enhanced impact of scholarly production driven by the university's faculty members, students, and staff; an
impressive rise across rankings among the leading global universities; and the restoration of tenure following a 32-year pause, and its subsequent award to 185 AUB faculty members. With an increase in
highly cited books, articles, proceedings, and numerous international faculty recognitions and awards, it became clear that the university was in the ascendancy on many levels. Then came 2019 and a concatenation of crises. With these challenges, can AUB hope to hold onto its finest scholars and produce more despite the growing uncertainty of the Lebanese milieu?
“With these challenges, can AUB hope to hold onto its finest scholars and produce more despite the growing uncertainty of the Lebanese milieu? The answer appears to be affirmative."
The answer appears to be affirmative. The latest collation of the most highly cited scholars per country reveals the extent to which the American University of Beirut continues to dominate. While this survey does not account for the fields of scholarship requiring publishing definitive and well-reviewed books in top university presses (the humanities predominantly),
38 of the 50 most highly cited scholars in the latest survey of Lebanon are here at our university. Six of the remaining 12 scholars are recent departures from AUB, three having left to fill senior leadership roles at other universities, the other three on leave in the US. Despite it all, academic excellence is alive and well at AUB in 2022. No private or public university that I know of in the Global South accounts for a more disproportionate percentage of the most highly cited scholars in its country or a larger percentage of high impact citations than that of the American University of Beirut.
Many factors contribute to this extraordinary retention of leading scholars at AUB and their success in forging meaningful academic careers at a considerable distance from larger, more economically empowering nations. Most prominently, our scholars benefit from Lebanon and Beirut’s open, eclectic environment and the quality of their peers. Impressive to me is the number of individuals whose scientific careers have taken off and reached world class levels while at AUB, or those who have maintained world class research levels and then taken it up a notch since joining this university. In my three decades in academia, I know that as important as resources are, nothing is more effective in raising the quality of scholarship across the board than the presence of a critical mass of generous, competitive but congenial colleagues, the elusive “critical mass of excellence.” This leading university provides that, and in that spirit, the American University of Beirut must not only remain in Beirut but must also grow as a great global research university.
The diversity of scholarship that composes the bedrock of academic excellence, so vital for a thriving university AND a sustainable national culture, is rarely achieved except at the greatest universities. AUB's strengths run across an astonishing spectrum, from architecture and food sciences through business, the humanities, computer, biomedical, and social sciences, engineering, nursing, and public health. For a small university to continue to thrive, it must both aspire and inspire. This university does both, across decades and even centuries, against all odds.
“For a small university to continue to thrive, it must both aspire and inspire. This university does both, across decades and even centuries, against all odds."
Entering what promises to be an era of transformation in academia, we remain a mission-oriented university and will continue to evolve as we mature and diversify our offerings, geography, and outreach. But one thing must remain: The pursuit of excellence, for its own sake and for the greater good, unalloyed and unbowed.
“Entering what promises to be an era of transformation in academia, we remain a mission-oriented university and will continue to evolve as we mature and diversify our offerings, geography, and outreach."
Tennyson's aging Ulysses reflects on this in my favorite lines of the poem. After contemplating his own mortality, he observes, “Tho' much is taken, much abides," and reminding his companions of their indomitable will, he summons them to push off once again in pursuit of knowledge:
“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
Like Ulysses, the American University of Beirut endures in its excellence, unafraid to follow the data and vaccinate more than 99.6% of our community; to create new knowledge; to lead global efforts to enhance human wellbeing by generating and implementing breakthroughs; to educate, empower, and graduate the best and brightest who themselves produce world class knowledge of the highest caliber. While we encounter new challenges each day, the resilience of our scholars and their indomitable spirit are genuine cause for hope. We will continue to work on attracting and retaining the finest scholars for the benefit of future generations. We will adjust to what we are, remaining both aspirational and inspirational, ever
“strong in will" and outstanding in scholarship in order to continue
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
“Like Ulysses, the American University of Beirut endures in its excellence..."
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD