The American University of Beirut used to tally its influence by the number of its alumni among the region’s monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers. Today, AUB’s boosters have stopped counting heads of state but remain as obsessed as ever with reclaiming the luster of an institution that remains the best-reputed and most independent university in the Arab world.
That’s no mean feat in an era when authoritarian rulers in most Arab states are using the tools of surveillance, torture, and state harassment to curtail freedom of inquiry.
Yet today, in the heart of this region’s historical turbulence, AUB has begun an ambitious effort to make — or remake — itself as a great Arab university. For the first time in its 150-year history, AUB inaugurated a Lebanese president this January, a biologist and medical doctor named Fadlo R. Khuri. He has begun quietly but steadily breaking taboos in a systematic effort to emerge from four decades of hibernation and reconstruction, hoping to restore AUB’s ambitions and connect unapologetically to Lebanon and the Arab world.
“We can’t sit there and say we’re going to wait for the country and the Arab world to get its act together,” Khuri said in an interview in his corner office at College Hall, a stone building with a New England clock tower built in 1871. “We are committed to being excellent without the asterisk — not excellent ‘for Lebanon’ or excellent ‘for the Arab world.’ ”
Khuri’s bold talk about shedding mediocrity, fighting corruption, and competing directly with top universities around the world marks a vivid departure for AUB, which until recently was still a deeply scarred institution. In 1984, gunmen murdered AUB president Malcom Kerr — an American famous for his magisterial study of Arab politics — inside College Hall as he was entering his office. In 1991, the last year of the civil war, a bomb blew the building and iconic clock tower to smithereens. Reconstruction began immediately, and College Hall reopened in 1999.
It took 14 years from Kerr’s assassination for AUB’s president to risk living in Beirut at all — during the interim, the university was run remotely from an office in New York. Today, the campus gleams like any well-funded small liberal arts college with a gifted landscaper.
But in many important ways, AUB has not yet begun to recover from the hiatus violently imposed by the civil war. Tenure was scrapped during the war years and only now, in Khuri’s first year, has AUB decided to reinstate it — a necessary precursor for the university to compete with top-tier research institutions. AUB’s leadership is so afraid of sectarian politics and student activism that it bans the mention of political party names on campus and so heavily regulates debate at a Hyde Park-style speaker’s corner that students stopped showing up even at the peak of the Arab uprisings.
And in a country beset with multiple crises and a crippling political divide, its preeminent university seems often strangely genteel and detached, with only glancing mention at public events of pressing realities like the next-door war in Syria, the 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon, and the often violent struggle between Lebanese sectarian warlords underwritten by expansionist regional powers.
The stakes are high in a region where scholarship is severely restricted; for example, researchers are almost entirely unable to work in Egypt today because of restrictions on academics and the routine detention of scholars. Last month, an Italian graduate student was allegedly murdered by Egyptian security officials. The greater the limits, the more independent scholarship is sorely needed. Institutions of state are in shambles, and political discourse, even five years after a wave of mostly failed popular uprisings, remains in a state of suspended animation.
Lebanon is better off than many of its neighbors in the Arab world, and that’s saying something when the most basic essentials of life and government barely function: For nearly two years, Lebanon has been unable to elect a president, and for nearly one, it hasn’t been able to dispose of the nation’s garbage.
Khuri’s predecessor was more likely to chide faculty members for failing to go through proper channels when reporting litter on campus than for failing to take a public stand on the issues of the day. Reams of leaked documents published in the Lebanese press detail allegations of kickbacks, nepotism, and corruption in the university’s procurement and finances — especially significant considering that AUB is the largest employer in the entire country of Lebanon after the government.
In a refreshing change of tone, Khuri has dispensed with the notion that civility, or even pure scholarship, is more important than relevance. He wants his deans to define the criteria for tenure and promotion to value service to Lebanon.
“Yes, we want to have international impact. But we were put here to have an impact locally and regionally,” Khuri said. “I would rather have my engineer who designs a retractable school for Syrian refugee kids spend a lot of time and get that right than necessarily publish 20 articles and get cited.”
Amherst College graduate Daniel Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, with high hopes to spread Christianity in the Levant. Instruction was in Arabic, and Bliss planned to quickly turn it over to local leadership. Within decades, however, Bliss had clashed with a faculty member who wanted to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and shut down a student protest movement. English replaced Arabic, and “native instructors” were relegated to secondary status. Eventually, the institution gave up on its failed missionary aims and in 1920 adopted it modern name, the American University of Beirut.
It became a cornerstone of an era of ferment in Arab political life. Liberals, nationalists, revolutionaries, communists, and others were agitating throughout the Levant and the Arab region. In the half century that followed — through World War II and decolonization, the establishment of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, and a long cycle of regional wars — it was an epicenter of political activism and research in and about the Arab world.
Until the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, AUB hosted some of the most influential and prolific figures of Arab political and intellectual life. Arab nationalists, Lebanese chauvinists, leftists, Palestinian revolutionaries, and countless others sharpened their arguments in AUB’s lecture halls and the nearby cafés on Bliss Street.
But the civil war undid the university. After Kerr’s murder, the university hunkered down, improvising in order to continue teaching students throughout the ebbs and flows of violence. AUB survived by insulating itself from its surroundings. Once a petri dish of politics, AUB tried to transform into a sterile politics-free zone. When Lebanon’s fratricidal war ended in 1991, AUB rebuilt a gleaming campus that now enrolls 9,000 students and employs 800 full-time faculty members. But the university never fully recovered its luster or reputation. Top scholars were deterred by the absence of tenure, and many would-be faculty avoid Lebanon, considering it unstable or dangerous.
“It’s always been a real crossroads,” said Betty S. Anderson, a historian at Boston University whose 2011 history of AUB remains the definitive study of the school.
But it is still a draw because none of its new competitor universities can match Beirut’s intellectual climate. “You still have academic freedom at AUB,” Anderson said. “There are red lines you can’t cross, but there is still an openness and freedom to maneuver here.”
The failure of lavishly state-funded universities in the Gulf suggests that money can’t buy excellence in research or education, and AUB, diminished as it is, remains the Arab world’s top university.
AUB is making an effort now to reverse decades of decline and reestablish a distinctly, and distinctly Arab, renaissance. Its challenges mirror those that face researchers across the Arab world: political pressure to avoid sensitive topics, corruption, and instability.
Research is dramatically underfunded in the Arab world ($10 per capita is expended for scientific research in the Arab world compared to $33 in Malaysia and $575 in Ireland) and subject to extreme political pressure, according to an ongoing multiyear study of research in the region by an AUB sociologist, Sari Hanafi, and Rigas Arvanitis, a sociologist at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France.
This spring at an AUB symposium, they released their new book, “Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise,” about the dismal state of Arab research. Across the region, the sociologists found, Arab researchers suffer a double bind, discredited by religious authorities as well as by authoritarian states.
Lebanon had fared slightly better, Hanafi said, but only because of international funding. “When we talk about producing knowledge, we always should ask what is its purpose,” Hanafi said in an interview. “AUB’s international success comes at the expense of local relevance.”
Much of the research done in the Arab world is set by the agenda of foreign donors, Hanafi said, or is locally driven but of poor quality or published on platforms only read in one country.
“There will be no important research in the Arab countries without freedom to think, speak, and write,” Hanafi and Rigas wrote in their book. “Important research will be done elsewhere, and far from the actual needs and desires of the Arab population.”
Khuri is candid about AUB’s fallen stature, and about the need to think beyond the university’s American identity to its Arab and Lebanese role and responsibilities. But striking a balance will be tricky. Until the civil war era, the US State Department was a major funder and considered AUB an arm of Cold War foreign policy. AUB steadfastly refused to cast itself as a Lebanese institution in part as a hangover from its imperial roots but also out of a desire to protect itself from the sectarianism, political violence, and graft that pervade Lebanon.
Born in Boston, Khuri finished high school in Beirut and then returned to the United States, where he studied at Yale and Columbia universities and finished his medical training at Boston City Hospital and Tufts. Khuri salts his conversation with references to the Red Sox and Celtics; as a teenager in Lebanon he listened to Sox games on Armed Forces radio. He carefully describes himself as card-carrying member of the ACLU with family roots in Beirut and AUB — someone who can navigate Lebanon’s local political culture without getting sucked into sectarian politics.
“I think it’s high time after 150 years that one of us was qualified enough to lead this institution,” Khuri said. “I get AUB, and I get Lebanon, and I get the US.”
Some of AUB’s problems are familiar: Students complain about unsustainably high tuition and the difficulty finding jobs. Faculty complain of low pay and tone-deaf administrators.
Others are of an entirely different nature. Faculty search committees lose compelling applicants who drop out when a bomb goes off in Beirut. Lebanese government officials approve work permits for some of the foreign faculty but illegally delay or withhold permission for faculty from Syria, the Palestinian territory, and some African countries. AUB developed its own electricity and water infrastructure during the war, but, like the rest of Lebanon, it struggles from chronic shortages and resource mismanagement.
Despite the official ban on politics, student clubs with tame names run for council elections as Trojan horses for Lebanon’s sectarian factions. The student newspaper publishes a handy guide explaining that the Cultural Club for the South fronts for the Shia organization Hezbollah, the Youth Club for the Sunni Future Movement, and so on.
Speaker’s Corner, a prominent feature of campus life until 1974, was brought back in 2010 but quickly faded away. Administrators, terrified that open debate about politics could quickly escalate into sectarian strife, carefully vetted topics and heavily coached student speakers. Like many public events on campus about polarizing contemporary topics, the result was so anodyne that students lost interest even at the peak of the Arab revolts that swept the region in 2011. Speaker’s Corner is once again on hiatus, and students said that faculty members tell them it’s better this way, since the young don’t yet have the “maturity” to discuss sensitive political matters.
Suspicion borders on paranoia as members of the AUB community track the relative number of supporters of each of Lebanon’s main political factions. Some whisper darkly that Hezbollah has taken over the faculty; others point to recent hires to argue that the rival Future movement now dominates AUB. Any perception that the university has sunk into the clutches of one faction or another could hurt the institution’s standing and expose it to pressure, threats, or even violence.
In order to eliminate the perception of sectarian bias, university admissions stripped out personal artifacts like essays or portfolios; Khuri wants to reverse that.
As Lebanon’s national crisis has reached a breaking point over the failure to dispose of garbage since July 2015, political activism among AUB faculty has quickened. So far, perhaps as part of his commitment to the Arab nahda, or renaissance, Khuri has let it flourish.
Dozens of enraged professors banded together in the fall to propose technocratic fixes to the Lebanese garbage crisis and have become a major force in an accountability movement that paints all Lebanon’s politicians as party to a colossal failure. The faculty proposals have emerged as the main alternatives to government policy.
An AUB economist named Jad Chaaban has spearheaded a group that’s running a slate of candidates for the Beirut city council elections this spring. If it does well, the group could emerge as a new, antisectarian political party in the next national parliamentary elections — a return with a bang of AUB’s legacy as a political player in its own right.
With several of Lebanon’s entrenched politicians on AUB’s board, Chaaban said that Khuri will need thick skin to resist encroachment on faculty autonomy. “They say they welcome dissenting voices,” Chaaban said. “So far they have left us alone.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.