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AUB facing serious challenges due to Lebanon's fragile conditions

Jul 15,2020 - Last updated at Jul 15,2020

The American University of Beirut (AUB), the region's oldest and most influential foreign institution of higher learning, is facing the most serious challenge in its 154-year history due to Lebanon's fragile economic, social and political collapse.

Since the AUB crisis is mainly financial, the university has to cut administrative staff, reduce faculty salaries and seek funding from the US, international donors and alumni at a time the money is tight everywhere due to Covid-19. Local students face an uphill battle to find money for tuition while dollars are scarce and the Lebanese Lira has lost 80 per cent of its value. If external students are determined to brave crisis-ridden Lebanon, they must secure hard currency funds for housing as well as tuition.

AUB welcomed me as a graduate student during Beirut's most gracious and graceful days, when the city was celebrated as the "Paris of the Middle East". Stretching from the Main Gate on Bliss Street, named for AUB’s first president Daniel Bliss, across the plateau hosting iconic College Hall and class buildings, and down wooded slopes to The Mediterranean, the campus has provided both a quiet place to learn and a safe site for noisy debate. Friends made during my time there remain friends decades later although we have been scattered round the world by work and war.

AUB must not be allowed to fail for lack of funds for staff, faculty and students alike. Since it’s founding by Protestant missionaries in 1866, the AUB and its peaceful campus have provided sanctuary for constantly challenged youths of the region and for liberal ideas under threat across the globe.

The AUB was established as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866 when Lebanon was in turmoil. The college, which changed its name in 1920, survived World War I, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, famine that killed half of Lebanon's population, the unstable French mandate and Lebanon's independence struggle, World War II, the destructive consequences of Israel's creation in Palestine 1948, two Lebanese civil wars, and Israel's occupation of the south from 1978-2000, the 1982 and 2006 invasions and frequent attacks.

AUB helped shape the history, peoples, thinking and spirit of the region. In his seminal 1938 book, The Arab Awakening, George Antonius gave credit to the university for playing a key role in the rescue of the Arabic language and Arab culture from decades of Ottoman neglect. He wrote, "When account is taken of its contribution to the diffusion of knowledge, of the achievements of its graduates, it may justly be said that its influence on the Arab revival was greater than of any other institution."

Among AUB's earliest contributions were Arabic medical, chemistry, and astronomy texts by Dr Cornelius Van Dyck who was celebrated as a great scholar and friend by "Syrians" when Lebanon, Syria and Palestine were part of "Greater Syria". He also contributed to the 19th century reestablishment of Arabic literature. Antonius wrote, "So far as the power of example went, his was probably the most valuable and effective single influence ever exerted by a foreigner in the cultural development of the country."

By adopting Arabic in its early days, AUB promoted Arab nationalism. A secret society was formed by 22 young men who demanded independence from the Ottomans. In 1883, four students, Faris Nmir, Ibrahim Al Yazigi, Ya'coub Sarruf and Shahin Makkarius, posted anti-Ottoman proclamations in public places and appealed to Muslims to join the cause. They were forced to flee to Cairo where Nimr, Sarruf and Makkarius founded the daily Al Muqattam newspaper and Al Muqtataf, a scientific monthly, Arabic publications which fed the spirit of nationalism.

Having contributed to the early rise of Arab nationalism, during the 1950s and 1960s AUB became a crucible of pan-Arab nationalism proclaimed by the Arab Nationalist Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Baath Party. In the good old days before Bliss Street was ravaged by fast food joints, Arab Nationalists used to gather at Uncle Sam's and Baathists at Faisal's restaurants across from the Main Gate. AUB graduates who were members of these movements have been influential in Arab politics for decades despite the efforts of the US and its Western allies to contain Arab nationalism and undermine the pan-Arab identity forged by the Arabic language and the common culture of Arabs from the Gulf in the east to the Maghreb in the west.

There are today more than 64,000 AUB alumni in 120 countries. Nineteen AUB graduates or ex-students from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia attended the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco in 1945. Six of Lebanon's prime ministers and a host of ministers were AUB graduates. They also served as prime ministers of Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is an AUB alumnus.

Dr George Habash, leader of the Arab Nationalist Movement and co-founder with Dr Wadia Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine were AUB's most notorious graduates. In 1969, the Front's Leila Khaled, a former student, became the first woman to hijack a commercial airliner. She repeated the feat in 1970. She was elected to the Palestine National Council and became the subject of a 2005 documentary film produced in Sweden.

Due in part to AUB's existence and mission to promote freedom of thought and diversity, liberal Lebanon has always been a wild card in the Arab deck. Dissidents of all shades of opinion from around the region and further afield have found refuge in Beirut. During the 1960s, Beirut supplanted Cairo as the cultural capital of the Arab world. Newspapers of multiple political persuasions, literary magazines and intellectual life flourished. During these desperate days, thanks to its many universities, including AUB, Lebanon retains a certain amount of cultural life despite multiple existential challenges.

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