Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Beyond Survival": The American University of Beirut

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

"Beyond Survival": The American University of Beirut

Article excerpt

The American University of Beirut, the oldest American institution in the Middle East, is in trouble. Like Lebanon itself, mention of AUB usually gives pause. Beirut? American? How could any institution, particularly American, survive in Beirut?

But survive it does and with a good deal of courage and panache, plus a measure of necessary compromise. Balancing problems against potential, the university's administration has concluded that AUB is somewhere "beyond survival."

"A Mere $8-Million Deficit"

"We are working on the premise that a university that is 124 years old cannot simply succumb to stagnation and inactivity because of a mere $8-million deficit," AUB's Deputy President Dr. Ibrahim Salti declared recently.

Founded by American missionaries in 1866, the Syrian Protestant College, as AUB was then known, advocated freedom of thought that allowed the individual to choose his religion, politics and way of life. Such ideas, new to the Middle East, attracted the nucleus of intellectuals and activists who later became catalysts for the Arab nationalist movement.

AUB's impact on life in Lebanon and the region was major. It could even be said that AUB created Ras Beirut, the area around the university where Christians and Muslims lived together in harmony before 1975, and where most of the American and European residents of Beirut lived and worked. Dr. Samir Khalaf, AUB professor of sociology now living in Princeton, says neither would have been possible without the other.

"What would have happened," Dr. Khalaf asks in his book, Lebanon's Predicament, "had not Daniel Bliss first laid eyes on this deserted stretch of sand dunes and wild cactus and persuaded the American Board of Commission for Foreign Missions to transform the `city's garbage dump' into the site of what has become the most distinguished American academic institution in the Middle East?"

In 1991 the university will celebrate its 125th anniversary. The very presence of AUB on Lebanese soil for more than a hundred years has been a positive factor in East-West relations.

But is AUB really American? The University's Director of Information, Radwan Mawlawi, gave a clear opinion in 1983: "AUB is American in name only. Since its founding it has been serving generations of Lebanese and Arab students. It is American because its degrees are accredited by the state of New York."

While this and similar statements might reflect the "realpolitik" of a university adapting to its changing environment, they also point up AUB's function as an Arab university whose methods, standards and philosophy are influenced to varying degrees by American ideas.

The US, however, takes more than a passing interest in the university that bears its name." The American University of Beirut and the United States have had a long and productive relationship," Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy said in 1988. "For years the United States government has helped AUB and its hospital meet many of its operating costs."

American assistance also comes from foundations, corporations and individual donors. In 1981, then-AUB President Harold E. Hoelscher reported, "In around two decades the US has put nearly $100 million in this institution."

But neither tender loving American care, nor financial support from Arab countries, has been particularly even. As a result, for years AUB has lived on a knife-edge. Help from the US Agency for International Development, which reached $15 million in the mid-1980s, has dropped steadily ever since, reflecting US official disillusionment with the intractable political problems in Lebanon. The $6.5 million earmarked for AUB in 1989 was cut back to $3.5 million, with the extra $3 million going to Israel for an educational program there.

University policy has been to maintain good relations with all the parties in the strife in Lebanon, according to Information Director Mawlawi. "Politics are taught as a science at AUB," he said, "but students are not allowed to practice politics on campus. …

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