Dear friends and colleagues of the AUB community,
As 2017 draws to a close, I am devoting my last message of the year to address some of the challenges our University faces in order to candidly share our thinking with you. Given our deep roots in the Arab world and our strong ties to the homeland of our American founders, it could be said a dual-identity institution like AUB sits at the heart of today’s global challenges. But I would argue our strengths lie in exactly that nexus, in which millennia of cultural development blend with the freshness and vigor of a young civilization honed on the most modern ideas. This message is about looking to those strengths, without pretending we have all the answers or concealing our imperfections under a veneer of specious optimism.
From my perspective, we can identify our challenges under five broad headings—affordability, economic conditions, the experience of studying, working or being treated at AUB and AUBMC, the excellence of our research and pedagogy, and the enormous challenge of geopolitical instability in our region.
When I see our students expressing their right to protest the high cost of an AUB education, my sympathies are doubly on their side. Freedom of expression, maximal inclusivity and diversity of our community go hand-in-hand. I am and will continue to be tireless in defense and pursuit of both. AUB fees are out of reach of many families, and represent a significant barrier to our core belief that the advantages bestowed by a top-class university education must not be confined to those already endowed with wealth, access and privilege. On the contrary, universities must engage in rectifying economic imbalance, empowering the disempowered and the underrepresented, and acting as an engine for positive change in society.
I am glad to say that after years of steep tuition rises we are becoming considerably more economically inclusive, not less. We are on track to double the number of scholarships we can offer and we want to and must do more. Although fees continue to rise to keep up with spiraling costs, we have capped these by tightening administrative budgets while increasing the funds available for transformative research. Philanthropy is a keystone for affordability, and it is stating the obvious that donors give more generously to dynamic, visionary and ambitious causes. To judge by current record levels of philanthropic giving, our support base has never been so galvanized in support of AUB’s vital mission. To go to the next level, the University needs to be recognized globally for what it truly is, one of the great societal difference makers and mainstays of tolerance, openness and diversity that exist in the world today. It is up to all of us to get that message out.
Our commitment to our students does not end when we hand them a certificate on Commencement Day. Yes, we received that fortifying news this year that in addition to being named the top-ranking institution in the Arab world by QS, we were ranked 41st globally for the employability of our graduates. It is welcome news that AUB performs well above its class in terms of this key measure of a university’s success, but we are not surprised when we observe the outstanding spirit of our graduates, who step out into the world filled with confidence and aspiration without a shred of entitlement.
But the job market they enter remains far from inviting, and we regret seeing so many of our alumni having to move far from home to find appropriate job opportunities, rather than being able to play the leading roles they are being prepared for, the building up of their own societies. We believe the AUB graduate of the future should be versed in the vital and marketable skills of the liberal arts alongside a professional qualification for some. We want each and every graduate to be empowered and equipped to create her or his own original role, thanks to an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset instilled at AUB. We ask our alumni to lend a helping hand, not only as internship providers and employers, but also as mentors and peers in a mutually supportive ecosystem where ideas are forged that can change our societies for the better. Creating something out of nothing is the biggest challenge, but our graduates are the ones to do it.
The university experience
The university experience Our community has gone through many trials and tribulations. You cannot compare AUB with other established institutions that have enjoyed decades, if not centuries, of tranquil contemplation and creativity. While I have always found Beirut an intoxicating, culturally diverse, and historic city, whose resonance echoes through the ages, I know that many find life here an inescapable series of frustrations and challenges. The unexpected is always just around the corner, while the inevitable includes power cuts, water shortages, traffic jams, garbage and pollution, cynicism, and anti-social behavior. For many, our campus is a sanctuary shielded from these ills, but one into which they can bleed and fester if we are not watchful.
The antidote to this is already in our hands, and it lies in our identity as a place of free speech, objective learning, without prejudice or discrimination against the "other". AUB embraces its purpose as a role model of a fair, just and inclusive mini-society whose values are not under assault but are so powerful that they permeate and enrich the societies around us. This is why we put such emphasis on gender equality, on free elections, on dialogue and transparency and will continue to do so. This is why we are prioritizing our efforts to create a more sustainable built environment that enhances collaboration, fosters creativity, and allows for exchange of ideas. It is exemplified by our Neighborhood Initiative, our Taskforce on the Lives and Careers of Women Faculty, ourUniversity for Seniors, our student clubs, our Accessible Education Office, our Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, to name just a few. And rather than contain this mini-society within our university boundaries, we must push it outside and promote and perpetuate our values far more powerfully than we have in recent times.
Excellence in research and teaching
I have already spoken of our drive to invest more funds into research, with internal funding growing from $2.5 million to about $5 million in the last three years. This increase is a vital piece of the jigsaw in our efforts to remodel the approach to graduate education and graduate assistantships that we began at the start of this academic year. Down the road, we have two major undertakings to cement AUB’s excellent reputation as a seat of higher learning and to strengthen that reputation by attracting, empowering, and retaining the strongest possible faculty at this university, namely reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) and the restoration of academic tenure after a hiatus of more than 30 years.
MSCHE accreditation—which AUB gained in 2004 and had reaffirmed in 2009 and 2014—represents the highest expression of confidence in AUB’s mission, goals, resources, and performance, and we know it is within our grasps. However, the criteria are necessarily under constant review and the Office of the Provost has had to mobilize a monumental effort involving more than 145 members of the AUB community, including faculty, staff and students, to draft the self-study report which lays the groundwork for what we hope will be a smooth reaccreditation.
If that were not enough, we see the successful introduction of academic tenure as a central plank of AUB’s research and educational mission. By the September 2017 deadline, 107 full professors at AUB who were eligible to apply for tenure submitted their applications, which we take to mean that our commitment to restore it being met with a high degree of engagement and effort. In the absence of our own tenured faculty to adjudicate, all applications are being assessed by an independent panel of world-class scholars, and we believe strongly that this is the fairest, most transparent way to reintroduce this durable and significant stamp of academic freedom and excellence. We are under no illusion that awarding tenure is a challenging milestone, but without it AUB will not be able to aspire to global relevance and impact.
Our final challenge is the most uncertain, yet the most daunting. Beirut and Lebanon have been blessed with a long period of calm that we have not seen for some time. Does that mean it will continue or do we inevitably face deterioration? Does this make all our efforts to strengthen and guarantee AUB’s future a vain undertaking? You will not be shocked to learn that I believe we must tilt towards the future with a sense of confidence and self-belief as though the next 10 years will be better than the last. We cannot be cowed into despair or inaction from a feared future, especially when the AUB community have played such an important role in shaping the future of our region and doing so much to preserve the better angels of our nature, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln.
I would like to end with a quotation from our great alumnus Dr. Jose Zaglul who taught us many lessons of optimism and humility in his Founders Day speech, one which I hope will be quoted for many years to come in the annals of this institution. “I am sure that my country [Costa Rica] and others in the South can learn a lot from [Lebanon’s] history and rich traditions. Lebanon rebuilt itself from the tragedies it has lived through and from this we can learn about resilience. Universities can play a key role in catalyzing these kinds of exchanges. In a global world, we need leaders who can change the world by working together, across the North and South, to empower individuals and to counteract the negative patterns that we see in society. It is you, the younger generations, the leaders whom the universities are preparing today, who will change Lebanon and the region for the better. We need to learn to live together as one country, one human race, heal the wounds, build bridges, and become a harmonious society. We have to overcome our differences and show solidarity. We must exchange violence for love.”
With those inspiring words, let me take this opportunity to extend to you my sincere best wishes for a Merry Christmas and my warm regards to all of you for a more peaceful and prosperous New Year.
Fadlo R. Khuri, MD