A history of hardships | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

A history of hardships

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


An aerial view of the American University of Beirut. File

The American University of Beirut, the region’s oldest and most prestigious foreign institution of higher learning, is facing three existential challenges: the collapse of Lebanon’s economy, the stinginess of the ignorant, malevolent Trump administration, and the risks of infection by Covid-19.

Since its founding 154 years ago by US Protestant missionaries, the AUB has graduated generations of political leaders, doctors, intellectuals, teachers, and artists from across the world. Founded during a period of upheaval in Lebanon, the university has also survived World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, famine that killed half of Lebanon’s population, World War II, Lebanon’s independence struggle, repercussions of the establishment of Israel in 1948, two Lebanese civil wars (1958 and 1975-90), and Israel’s 1978-2000 occupation of south Lebanon, 1982-85 invasion and 2006 war.

The second Lebanese civil war exacted a heavy toll on AUB, largely because of US support for Israel, its occupation of Palestine and intervention in Lebanon. During the Israeli invasion acting President David Dodge was kidnapped by Shia militants and held for a year in Iran. The university’s President Malcolm Kerr was shot dead in January 1984 by Shia gunmen. Another 29 academics and staff were kidnapped, and the librarian killed. In November 1991, a bomb damaged College Hall, the iconic main building of the university, on the 125th anniversary of its founding.  

Having survived this long history of turmoil, current President Fadlo Khuri says the university is facing “perhaps its greatest crisis.” A quarter of its 6,500 administrative staff is to be cut. Senior university personnel will accept salary reductions of 25 per cent and faculty and staff will receive only a portion of pay in dollars. Students are struggling to cover tuition at a time Lebanon is imposing limits the supply of dollars and the value of the Lebanese pound has plunged from 1,500 (Dhs3.63) to 6,000-7,000 (Dhs14.52-16.94) to the dollar on the black market. Although the Trump administration has delivered $2.5 million (Dhs9.2m) and promised $10m (Dhs37m), this cannot meet the university’s needs. More than half of the university’s 9,000 students depend on scholarships. A number of professors have applied for posts abroad while students are cutting short their studies. Many also seek to leave the country.

The Trump administration’s niggardly response to AUB’s financial crisis is particularly egregious as it coincides with upheaval across the region caused by the US invasion of Iraq, meddling in Syria, and punitive sanctions regime on Iran. AUB is the sole major US asset in this region and has served as a countervailing force against the destructive policies adopted by serial pro-Israel and anti-Arab US administrations, the transactional Trump administration being the most dangerous. 

While Lebanon initially did well in the battle to contain Covid-19, an end to lockdown, repatriations of Lebanese expatriates and reopening of business has led to a spike in cases which could grow, making it difficult for the university to resume in-person classes for liberal arts students and nearly impossible for medical and engineering students.

The university — which began as the Syrian Protestant College — opened with 16 students on Dec.3, 1866. Arabic was the language of teaching. English was adopted in 1866. Its first president was Daniel Bliss who served until 1902. Among the earliest contributions to the Arab world were Arabic medical, chemistry, and astronomy texts by Dr. Cornelius Van Dyck. He was highly respected and honoured among “Syrians” when “Greater Syria” included Lebanon,

Syria and Palestine. He is credited for helping to launch the 19th century revival of Arabic literature.

Students at the college, Faris Nmir, Ibrahim al-Yazigi, Ya’coub Sarruf,and Shahin Makkarius were convinced  by a revolutionary French teacher to oppose Ottoman rule in Lebanon. After they posted anti-Ottoman proclamations in public places and attempted to enlist Muslims in this cause, they were forced to flee to Cairo where Nimr, Saffuf and Makkarius founded the Arabic daily al-Muqattam, which rivalled al-Ahram. Nimr took charge and wrote editorials favouring laissez-faire economics and British over Ottoman rule.

In spite of its pro-British slant, the paper contributed to the rise of Arab and Egyptian nationalist movements which ultimately prevailed. During the 1950s and 1960s AUB was a hotbed of pan-Arab nationalism channelled through the (Nasserite) Arab Nationalist Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (Parti Populaire Syrien), and the Baath Party.         

The AUB campus is located on a glorious 28 hectare site chosen by Bliss on a wooded hillside above the sparkling Mediterranean. Among the earliest buildings to survive are College Hall and Dodge Hall, dating to 1873, and the observatory of 1874. Marquand House, 1879, has housed AUB presidents since that time. The chapel now the assembly hall was built in 1891. After a series of additional buildings during the early 1900s, van Dyck Hall was built in 1931, appropriately, to house the school of health sciences. The main campus entrance is through a gate on Bliss Street, named for the founder. 

The AUB has more than 64,000 living alumni in 120 countries. Nineteen AUB graduates or ex-students from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia attended the 1945 signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. Six of Lebanon’s prime ministers, including incumbent Hassan Diab, and a host of ministers were AUB graduates. AUB graduates served as prime ministers of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Jordan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is also an AuB alumnus. Dr. George Hatem practiced medicine in China and helped eradicate leprosy in that country.

Among the university’s graduates were Dr. George Habash, leader of the pan-Arab Nationalist Movement and co-founder with Dr. Wadia Haddad of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The Front’s Leila Khaled, a former AUB student, became the first woman to hijack a commercial airliner in 1969 and repeated the feat in 1970. She was elected to the Palestine National Council and celebrated by a portrait painted on Israel’s West Bank wall near Bethlehem and in a 2005 documentary film made by a Palestinian woman based in Sweden. 

AUB is the model for the 100-year old American University in Cairo, the American

University of Sharjah, the American University in Dubai, the American University in the

Emirates, and universities in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdish region and elsewhere.

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