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Originally published: “An Unsentimental Education,” Carnegie Middle East Center , August 31, 2020.

The American University of Beirut can serve as an example to a crisis-ridden higher education sector in the United States.

By Susan Resneck Pierce and Marwan Muasher

In February 2020, virtually no one expected that within weeks Covid-19 would create a perfect storm of financial vulnerabilities that would bring on a daunting financial crisis for many U.S. colleges and universities. The institutions face plummeting room, board, and potentially tuition revenues. They are anxious about the effect of Covid-19 on financial markets and the value of their endowments and are confronted with unanticipated expenses, particularly increased financial aid and technology associated with online learning.

The reality is that many U.S. colleges and universities, public and private, have been in financially precarious positions for the last decade because of unsustainable structural deficits. These have been the result of declining enrollments, escalating tuition discounts, deferred maintenance, and unaffordable debt.

Colleges and universities affected have been taking incremental steps to eliminate the deficits, although some struggle with a financial runway of only months rather than years. In recent years, some have cut staff and more rarely faculty positions, consolidated administrative functions, and adopted shared services. Many have pursued alternative revenue streams, such as new online programs, continuing education opportunities, and accelerated undergraduate-graduate degrees. Some have sought more international students and additional transfer students. Universities have also concentrated on improving retention.

But Covid-19 has meant that incremental approaches will no longer work. Instead, most colleges and universities, even those with significant financial wherewithal, are taking steps that once would have seemed draconian. These involve hiring freezes, ending discretionary spending, suspending travel, and cutting the salaries of top administrators. Many are furloughing or laying off employees. Some are reducing benefits. An unprecedented number are eliminating academic programs and faculty positions, including those held by tenured faculty. State governments, suddenly faced with their own budgetary problems, are slashing their support for their public colleges and universities. And almost all are struggling with whether, when, and to what extent, if any, they should bring their students, faculty, and staff back to campus.

We believe that the American University of Beirut (AUB) has much to teach other colleges and universities in the region about resilience and how to bring about transformation, while being absolutely true to its mission and core values, even in, or perhaps especially in, times of crisis. Not only can AUB’s actions be an inspiration to other colleges and universities around the world, but as it seeks to redefine itself going forward, we hope it will reaffirm rather than abandon its commitment to the liberal arts and the aspiration to produce an informed citizenry that will benefit their societies and the world.

We also believe that the United States is at a critical moment in that many of the foundations of American democracy have been under attack. Certainly, the notion of E Pluribus Unum—the United States’ motto “Out of Many, One”—has given way to uncompromising polarization. Diversity, rather than being a value to cherish, has become for far too many people a motivation for separation and for demonizing the other. At the same time, we are heartened that across the United States those protesting racial inequality and police violence, particularly against African Americans, represent the country’s rich diversity in an unprecedented way. In this moment of inflection, we therefore hope that American colleges and universities will again be motivated by the Jeffersonian belief that education for “the people at large,” including knowledge of history and other countries, is the antidote to tyranny.

Understanding AUB’s history and its current choices are instructive. Located in Lebanon, chartered in 1863 in the United States, and accredited today by the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, AUB has evidenced an abiding dedication to the centrality of the liberal arts and an ongoing commitment to fostering a pluralistic learning community. Since its founding, and in times of civil war, bombings, and tragically the assassinations of a president and deans, AUB has been committed to educating “[g]raduates [who] will be individuals committed to creative and critical thinking, lifelong learning, personal integrity, civic responsibility, and leadership.”

The campus has, therefore, been a place where students from all over the world, representing many religions, ethnic groups, and political points of view study with an equally diverse and talented faculty. That commitment to diversity and liberal arts is what made AUB survive for the last 154 years in a region that has witnessed wars and upheavals. It was able to survive during fifteen years of Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, despite staggering political, security, and financial difficulties. It did so because of the commitment of its administration and faculty to a system of education that insisted on developing holistic individuals able to deal with life’s complexity and that was not only focused on technical training.

Covid-19 has hit Lebanon and the region on top of an already very difficult political and economic environment. This is the fourth major crisis to hit the region in the last decade, and the fifth one for Lebanon. The Arab uprisings of 2011 were a direct result of the lack of good political governance exercised by most Arab governments. In 2014 oil prices began falling, and with it the disintegration of regional economic systems based on rentierism, which had placed more emphasis on patronage and clientelism than on productivity and merit. The lack of attention to these issues by the Arab world led to a third major crisis as uprisings took place in four Arab countries—Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon.

The political and economic situation in Lebanon and the effects of Covid-19 run the risk of causing major upheaval in a country whose cultural and religious diversity have often served as a beacon for the rest of the region. AUB has not only endured, but its liberal arts education, a rarity in the Middle East, has produced many of the regions’ leading politicians, businesspeople, academics, artists and thought leaders. No less than nineteen AUB alumni were delegates to the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, more than any other university in the world.

AUB’s commitment to these values, and its role in continuing to serve as the region’s foremost provider of leaders who are creative, innovative, and critical thinkers, will be crucial for the region’s future.

Indeed, AUB is once again drawing on this liberal education to help navigate through turbulent times. Despite the dramatic depreciation of the Lebanese pound, which saw AUB’s budget slashed in half and which has led to the layoff of more than 1,000 employees, AUB is once again drawing on its history of taking an uncompromising stand in favor of the liberal arts. It has put forward a plan which, tough as it might be, will ensure that the university and its values survive.

AUB today is arguably the strongest academic institution in the Middle East and North Africa, offering excellent programs not only in the arts and sciences, but also in medicine, engineering and architecture, agricultural and food sciences, health sciences and nursing, and business. The 365-bed American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) is considered the leading medical center and healthcare institution in the region. Another of AUB’s strategic priorities is to lift the quality of health and medicine regionally.

Prior to the October uprising in 2019 and the onset of Covid-19, AUB was thriving. In fall 2019, the university had enrolled 9,499 students. Approximately three-quarters of them were undergraduates, the rest graduate and medical students. Twenty-two percent of students were from 89 countries. The ratio of females to males was 52 to 48 percent. AUB had also raised nearly $580,000 toward a campaign goal of $650,000 and is today finalizing its next and ambitious strategic plan, VITAL. The university also has launched educational and healthcare programs for Syrian refugees, who today number approximately 1.5 million people or 25 percent of Lebanon’s population.

However, AUB was suddenly and negatively affected by the protests that began in October 2019. Like all Lebanese universities it was closed for brief periods of time. Covid-19 meant that in March 2020, AUB again needed to shut down its campus, moving exclusively to remote education. Many international students returned to their countries. However, AUBMC remained open. The combination of Covid-19 and Lebanon’s escalating political and economic problems led to unimaginable unemployment and poverty in the country.

In addition to moving classes online, AUB took several other immediate actions. The university fairly quickly raised $10 million for student scholarships and needy patients, pledging that no student would have to abandon his or her studies for financial reasons. To remain true to its commitment to healthcare, the university also, within ten days, established a fully-operational AUMBC Coronavirus Clinic. This clinic includes an outpatient facility for screening and testing as well as intensive care and immediate care beds, along with additional rooms for stable patients. AUB’s Medical School also sought to improve care in the refugee camps.

AUB President Fadlo Khuri, has been candid with the community about the dramatically altered landscape and next steps. In a May 5, 2020, memo to the campus, he wrote that AUB expected a 60 percent drop in revenues for the coming fiscal year, and was open about the steps that would need to be taken. Khuri has created advisory working groups of trustees, administrators, faculty members, and students to recommend strategic priorities for the next five years. He has made clear that the goal will be to make the informed and mission-critical decisions about all aspects of the university rather than to make across-the-board cuts.

There could not be a more inauspicious moment for the crises facing AUB. In the Middle East and North Africa the need is as great as it has ever been for a new generation of leaders who embrace diversity, freedom of speech, and a commitment to a more just world. As Khuri has put it, “It is my deep conviction that Lebanon and the region have no hope whatsoever if AUB cannot fulfill its mission. Saving AUB must be our only priority. And save it we will.”

Covid-19 is also proving that the region cannot conduct business as usual, and that it is in dire need of more inclusive political systems and more productive economic ones. It will require a generation that thinks critically and freely, that is innovative, and that believes in inclusion and diversity. These qualities are absolutely necessary for a stable and prosperous Middle East. AUB has been the leader in producing such individuals in the past. Its model will need to be applied more widely to education systems in the region that have become outdated.

Until Covid-19, the external threats, while significant for many U.S. colleges and universities, did not approach the magnitude or those facing AUB. Even so, we have in recent years seen that on many U.S. campuses the liberal arts, once considered an essential ingredient of higher education, have been sacrificed to the misperception that students and society will be better served by technical training and pre-professional preparation.

The most prominent example comes from the 4,000-student University of Tulsa. Despite its billion-dollar endowment and once-strong reputation for the liberal arts, the university recently eliminated undergraduate majors in philosophy, religion, Russian and Chinese studies, all Master’s and Ph.D. programs in art, chemistry, history, and physics, and an array of other undergraduate offerings in music and languages in favor of a focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and professional studies.

There has also been growing skepticism that the value of higher education does not warrant the ever-growing price tag. Some public officials have made known their disdain for higher education in general and the liberal arts in particular. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, famously and inaccurately claimed, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less [sic] philosophers.” Rubio later said, “I’ve changed my view on philosophy. But not on welders. We need both! Vocational training for workers and philosophers to make sense of the world.”

We are concerned that the historical commitment on any number of U.S. campuses to academic freedom, freedom of expression, critical thinking, and the valuing of sometimes fervent but civil discourse and reasoned disagreement, has been sacrificed on the altar of intolerance for those with different political or social views. Although we both believe that college campuses should be places of inclusiveness, we believe that they should also be places where different points of view can be discussed and, yes, debated civilly and with mutual respect. Instead, we are now seeing the dangers of an educational system that no longer is a collective depository of intellectual and moral power.

At this moment we are mindful that no one can anticipate what higher education will look like in the foreseeable future and beyond. But as colleges and universities inevitably redefine their priorities and how they function, we hope that those institutions—founded as AUB was in the liberal arts tradition—will again embrace the importance of educating an informed citizenry who understand democratic ideals and who are committed to making a contribution to the world.