Makram Rabah

AUB: 150 years of solitude

The American University of Beirut (AUB). (Image via aub.edu.lb)

The place and prominence of the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a leading institution of higher learning is beyond doubt, as much or perhaps all of the major events in the region or beyond can be traced in one way or another to this majestic campus. AUBites are often accused of overstating the role that their alma mater has played throughout the years, preferring to brand it as an elitist entity reserved for those who can afford its somewhat exorbitant fees.

While it is certainly not a public institution, induction and graduation from AUB has and will remain governed by merit alone and the gates and classrooms are open to people from different walks to life.

As AUB celebrates its sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary, many articles and sentiments have been published celebrating its academic excellences and the vanguard role it has played in the development of Lebanon and the region. Naturally these flattering reports go on to name some of the leading alumni who currently exceed 55,000 and counting. The names of leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, and physicians, such as George Habash, Wadi Haddad, Charles Malek, Hanan Ashrawi, Miles Copeland III, Reem Acra, Fares al-Khoury, Constantine Zurayek, Kamal Salibi to name a few.

It is somewhat rudimentary and expected for an entity which has been around for a century and a half, way before the rise of many of the modern Arab States, to boast such an impressive alumni roster as well as for these individuals to have contributed positively or negatively to the development of their respective countries.

However, to actually grasp the role of AUB and its trailblazing graduates, one has to look closely at the evolution of both within the wider scope of events, especially the not so rosy episodes and acts these distinguished men and women took.

Many celebrate the founding fathers of the Syrian Protestant College, later AUB, as being progressive and liberal educators who promoted free thinking. While this statement might be partly true, most of these figures were undemocratic and aggressive with any person or entity which did not conform to their religious doctrinal outlook. This was the case in what is commonly referred to as the Lewis Affair in 1882, when the SPC administration sacked professor Edwin Lewis for a mere reference to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

While Lewis never adopted Darwinism in his teachings nor his famous speech its mere mention was enough to unleash the anger of Daniel Bliss, AUB’s founding president, whose quest to create the Man of the Future did not necessarily include listening to the opinion of others. However this puritan and highhanded approach was never adopted by the successive AUB administrators but was left to the discretion of the individuals concerned.

Starting as early as the mid-1940s, AUB like the rest of the region was caught up in the anti-imperialist activity. This was to further increase with the establishment of the state of Israel, as a breed of student activists introduced a more militant and violent rhetoric and a plan of action.

The Movement of Arab Nationalists (Harakat al-Qawmiiyyin al-Arab) would field such famous names as George Habash and Wadi Haddad, which would later form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a revolutionary organization that did not shy away from using violence as a means to the liberation of Palestine. So one is left to ponder how a university that endorses liberal education and tolerance could graduate such militancy?

The same violent attitude would repeat itself under different settings, with the infamous Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, professor of Philosophy. Azm, who had published a work entitled Naqd al-Fikr al-Dini (Critique of Religious Thought, 1969), was accused of blasphemy and instigating civil strife which lead to his brief detention by the Lebanese authorities.

A few years before however, Azm had lost his appointment at AUB as the faculty of Arts and Sciences did not approve of his promotions and thus he was dismissed. Azm’s predicament was much the work of a group of AUB professors, headed by former Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Charles Malek, who neither approved of the former’s ideological Marxist proclivity nor his support for the Palestinian cause. This clear breach of academic freedom by AUB however remained among a few numbered incidents and never transformed into a clear policy.

Just last week, as the 16th president of AUB Fadlo Khuri was delivering his inaugural address , seated in the front seats was the veteran Lebanese politician and AUB graduate, Walid Jumblatt. Moved by the words of Khuri, Jumblatt would tweet about the impact that AUB had on his later career, as he reminisces about his journey after he was plunged into the midst of the Lebanese civil war as both a warlord and politician.

Jumblatt would conclude his reflections by stressing the role of AUB in resolving conflicts and opening up to the world around it, both an admirable and much needed undertaking.

By declaring its commitment to the development of the Arab world by “a self-initiated Marshall Plan, a homegrown one,” Khuri was honoring the tradition set forth by AUB’s first president Daniel Bliss to “make noble Men from the youth of the orient,” and perhaps beyond. However, looking back at a century and a half of AUB’s illustrious history, and the abovementioned examples one ought to consider the following.

AUB has always been an organic entity which reacted to the world around it. And as much as we celebrate and highlight its achievements, what is also needed is to reflect on its mistakes, challenges and failures at times. The importance of AUB does not reside in its longevity, but rather on its ability to learn and adapt and to graduate men and women who might at times resort to physical and intellectual violence but still be brave and wise enough to critique and reexamine their experience.

When Daniel Bliss decided to buy land in what is now Ras Beirut, the people of Beirut labeled him a madman who wanted to live with the coyotes and the cactus groves in virtual isolation. However, these 150 years of solitude have proven all these critics wrong and will continue to do so for centuries to come.


Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975.”

The American University of Beirut (AUB). (Image via aub.edu.lb)

The importance of AUB does not reside in its longevity, but rather on its ability to learn and adapt and to graduate men and women who might at times resort to physical and intellectual violence but still be brave and wise enough to critique and reexamine their experience.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    3- The founders of AUB were essentially American Protestants. As US Protestants, they were tasked with countering European Catholic influence in the Lebanon of the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Because of the sectarian nature of Lebanese society, US Protestant proselytizers found no sectarian horse to mount, so they changed their strategy from one focused on religion to one focused on education in order to have a share of the Western pie penetrating the Levant at the time. France had the Maronites, The Vatican and Austria had the Catholics, Russia had the Greek-orthodox, etc. Britain managed to squeeze itself in the mix by mounting the Druze horse, and only the very few Lebanese who agreed to convert to Protestantism could rise in the AUB administration. 4- Finally, as American, the AUB leadership loved the open, no-border status of the Near East under the Ottomans. Trips were easy to take from Beirut to Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cairo, Aqaba... Post World War I, however, borders were drawn and AUBites hated Lebanon as much as they were to later hate Israel. The US State Department is today still manned by sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of late 19th, early 20th centuries AUBites who raised their children in Beirut to speak Arabic and become Mideast-assigned US diplomats. No wonder US State Department maintains a hatred of the Lebanese entity because it went against their preference for a "Greater Arabia" or "Greater Syria" that would mimic the Greater American melting pot. That is why they named it American University of "Beirut", not of "Lebanon", because they rejected the latter as an artificial creation of French colonialism.

    February 6, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    1- " induction and graduation from AUB has and will remain governed by merit alone" - FALSE. Even though I had the merit, I myself was first denied admission to AUB, but my father's friendship with a high-placed administrator circumvented this obstacle and a mere week after receiving a rejection letter, I received an admission letter. I have since regretted this all my life, and I am not from a wealthy or influential family. Far from it. 2- I completed both Bachelor's and Master's degrees from AUB during the war years, and ended up teaching there for a couple of years. An inordinate proportion of my students were academically mediocre sons and daughters of ministers, MPs, and such elite people of typical Lebanese influence and wasta, as well as the progeny of wealthy Arabs from all over the Middle East. As such, these spoiled children of wealthy influential people could afford the luxury of being leftwingers and revolutionaries in public life, while in their private lives they were well-off, powerful, influential, and counter-revolutionary. Feudal lord Walid Jumblatt is a perfect example of this "social-political", but far from intellectual, elitism of AUB. Today's AUB student body is no different. Find where the children of the corrupt ruling political establishment of Lebanon are studying and you'll head straight to Bliss Street.

    February 6, 2016

  • MazenFC

    Hanibaal-Atheos while I may agree with your statement that some AUBites make their way in through political "wasta", it is worth mentioning that their numbers remain negligible with respect to the entire student body. Furthermore, this is not a reality unique to AUB. Some of the most prestigious universities around the world sometimes make exceptions to accommodate certain individuals who are not necessarily qualified, and they do that simply because that student's family made a generous donation to the institution for instance. After graduating from AUB, I pursued my graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and I can tell you that in many cases I worked with some students who had no skills whatsoever, making me wonder how could they possibly have made it in. This is perhaps a problem, a dark side of every renowned institution of higher learning, but it no way should this undermine its overall quality of education. Excluding these specific cases, and recalling my days at AUB, I met many less fortunate students who were forced to drop out of the university because of their poor academic performance. AUB is by far one of the few institutions in the country (if not the only one) that expels students who do not perform well. In other words, it is generally very hard to succeed there if one is not willing to work hard.

    February 8, 2016