American University of Beirut

Richard A. Debs' Acceptance Speech

June 25, 2005

It's a unique experience to be on this side of this ceremony - and I should add very humbling to be with my classmates, here, the Class of 2005, and to be among those honorees who've gone before. When you think of those honored in the last couple of years since we've revivified the tradition of honorary degrees, when you look at the list of those people - and I won't name them all - it is an extraordinary list, and this group today has further embellished the honor. I don't know why I'm here, but I guess John and the Board wanted me to be here to edge me on.

I'm going to reminisce a little, if you'll permit me to, and go back to the time when I joined the Board of Trustees in 1976. And looking around this hall, I guess that about half the people here weren't even born at that time, and most of the rest were probably in high school. The University was at that point a hundred and ten years old, and had a glorious history behind it. I can't relate the whole history, but I have to tell one story - about its role in the creation of the United Nations. You all know that story. If you don't, do your homework and get the details - it's really inspiring. At that time, right after World War II, the signatories to the Charter of the United Nations were the leaders of governments from all around the world. There were more signatories who were alumni of the American University of Beirut than any other university in the world. And that included Cambridge, Oxford, and the Sorbonne, not to mention Harvard, Yale, and Princeton - all of them global universities priding themselves on educating leaders worldwide. But this University had more alumni than any of those signing that charter. That's quite a story and it reflects the international status of AUB.

Anyway, in '76, looking back at the history - it was glorious. But looking ahead from '76 things became very clouded. The future of the University really looked in doubt. In the decade and a half that followed, AUB and Lebanon suffered greatly. It's a story we all know - I don't have to relate it. Unfortunately they were very tragic years.

And yet - yet - despite all the troubles, and despite the attacks on the University and on its people, AUB continued to operate and to fulfill its mission of education. And the university hospital continued to operate to fulfill its mission of treating the sick and wounded. And, in each case, it was regardless of political, partisan, and sectarian divisions. In that respect alone, I think, despite all of this, it was a moment of glory in the history of AUB. And the people who were here and ran the University and the hospital at that time have to be counted among the heroes of AUB's history.

By the end of the civil war, in the early '90s, AUB had been badly weakened in many respects; physically, in terms of buildings, infrastructures, facilities, and so forth, there was much to be done; financially - financially it was tough. We discussed bankruptcy at various times. We never discussed it for long, but it was an option we had to think about. And spiritually, spiritually - in terms of the morale of the university community, it was a very dismal period. But the University began, together with Lebanon, to grow - a slow and gradual process of rebuilding - in a sense the beginning of a renaissance, which, indeed, did develop.

The process has accelerated in more recent years until today. The University has not only survived, but it is thriving. All you have to do is look around you; look at the campus, look at our student body, which has doubled in the last two years - doubled, but maintained its high quality standards. The faculty is a vibrant, robust, and growing body. The administration is strong and well structured. And there are major construction projects going on all over campus. Last night, as many of you know, we held the formal ground breaking for the new business school, the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, which will be a great addition, a great pride for the University. We have the Hostler Student Center; we have the Irani Engineering Complex. Altogether we have ten projects going on at this time for building or refurbishing major buildings of the University, all designed to strengthen the University in achieving its basic mission, which is education.

It is a mission that AUB is particularly well equipped to fulfill, and I think it's more crucial than at any time in its long history. Much of the turmoil and conflict in the world today, the divisions between East and West, North and South - between countries and within countries - have been enflamed by ignorance - misunderstanding, miscommunication, misinterpretation, misinformation, and even disinformation - all feeding on ignorance.

In my view, ignorance is a disease, and its only effective medicine is education. And that's how AUB has made, and will continue to make, its great contribution.

As I see it today, looking at AUB in Lebanon, the University and Lebanon are at another crossroads. We find ourselves in this position because of events triggered by the most tragic assassination of Rafic Hariri, our treasured colleague and longtime trustee of AUB, who in many respects had been the driving force behind Lebanon's recent renaissance. As a trustee, you should know that he was the single most generous contributor in the University's long history. His generosity to education was not limited to AUB. He contributed scholarships to about 35,000 students in universities all over the world. He certainly knew the value of education.

The question now is, will the disease of ignorance spread once again, leading to more turmoil, or will these recent tragic events be a catalyst for better understanding, for better communication, for better cooperation, and more progress in the years ahead? I believe, and believe firmly, that it will be the latter. I believe in the Lebanese people and their new-found ability to discard the old ways of divisive thinking and to work together for the common good. And I certainly believe in the constructive role that AUB can play in that process.

In closing I want you to know how proud I am to be a member of this Class of 2005. I am now an AUB alumnus - and I've never been before - and I join the ranks of tens of thousands of AUB alumni around the world. They have done exceedingly well in their careers and in their lives, and they all owe a deep debt of gratitude to their alma mater for what it has done for them. AUB can survive and thrive in fulfilling its mission only if there is significant support from friends, from foundations, from businesses, from governments - and most of all, from its alumni. I hope that they will measure up to their responsibilities to ensure the future of this great University.

Thank you for this honor. It has been a privilege to be part of the AUB community for all these many, many wonderful years. And I look forward to many more as an AUB alumnus, Class of 2005.

Thank you.

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