American University of Beirut

Elias Zerhouni's Acceptance Speech

June 27, 2009 

President Dorman, members of the board, your Excellencies.

I'm very honored and privileged to accept this honor from this University.

One of the things that marks you in life is an experience that renews itself. One of the things about having a name that begins with Z is that you always end up speaking last after others who have been extremely articulate about their visions, and especially following someone like Majida. This was quite disturbing for me because as I came this morning all the photographers were taking pictures and I thought it was for me until they told me, "Please move out". 

I would like to tell you that my association with AUB is not new, and actually I am so pleased to be a part of the extended family of AUB because AUB graduates have had a lot of influence on my own career in the United States. When I came from Algeria to the United States in 1975, I came with a little scholarship of about three hundred dollars. I came with my wife Nadia, who is here today, and we had no friends. We had no network, and we knew no one. Our first friends were graduates of AUB who had left AUB and come to the United States in 1975 because of the troubles here during the civil war. First among them was Dr. Naji Khoury, who was an assistant professor at the Department of Radiology at Johns Hopkins University. He really took me under his wing and mentored me, and I made many friends then from AUB. 

But the thing I would like to share with you today is not how great the teaching is at AUB, [not] how great the programs are, [not] how the 75,000 graduates have played indeed a great role in not only the Arab world but throughout the world. What I would like to share with you is an experience that over time I have come to realize is the key to understanding the greatness of institutions. In my job as the National Institutes of Health director—we fund essentially 3,000 institutions around the world: universities, research institutes—so I've come to know many of them. You know, what is the one differentiating factor that you always have to find out is whether or not that institution has a spirit and a soul that are unique to that institution. So, although I thought at first that the American University [of Beirut] would be much like all the American universities I know, I have come to realize very quickly through my interactions with the alumni—then over the years—that this is actually a very unique institution with a unique mission, a unique dedication. 

I learned that all throughout the civil war the resilience, the courage, the staying power of this institution [persevered] throughout the worst times that could have happened to an institution. And I can bear witness. I came here in 2000 and spent a few days—Dean Cortas was my host—and I couldn't believe that an institution could rebuild itself after what it had been through, and I realized that AUB has a unique spirit and a unique soul. And to me, that is what makes the greatness of institutions. My experience is that without commitment and blending dedication with courage and resilience to fundamental core values and vision, you will not sustain yourself. 

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