American University of Beirut (AUB)

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Prominent institution of higher education in Lebanon.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) was once the most famous university in the Middle East, if not in the entire African and Asian region. It was established as the Syrian Protestant College by the American Protestant Evangelical Mission to Syria in 1866. The AUB is run by a New Yorkbased board of trustees, whose members are citizens of various countries. The university was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York.

The arts and sciences faculty awards bachelor's and master's degrees; the faculty of medicine awards bachelor's and master's degrees in science, master's degrees in public health, and certificates in undergraduate nursing and basic laboratory techniques; the faculty of engineering and architecture awards bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering and bachelor's degrees in architecture; the faculty of agriculture and food sciences awards master's degrees in all departments, as well as doctorates in agronomy. English is the language of instruction except in courses within the department of Arabic.

Initially, most of the students at the university came from elite Christian families. But the university's reputation soon eliminated any sectarian label, and it attracted Arabs from various countries. Its admissions standards and tuition made it, and continue to make it, inaccessible to most students from lower income groups. However, the student body has become somewhat diversified through scholarships and grants.

Although the university took its Christian message seriously in the early years, to the point of dismissing a popular professor for daring to teach Darwinism, its curricula became secularized during the twentieth centuryperhaps to reflect the religious diversity of the Lebanese population.

AUB's medical school has been one of its most important divisions, training generations of physicians who practice throughout the Middle East. It was, and to a degree it remains, one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the region. The American University Hospital has become known as one of the best hospitals in the Middle East. The university has benefited from a relatively large endowment and from U.S. congressional support. The liberal atmosphere of Lebanon, at least before the Lebanese Civil War, allowed the university to attract scholars, faculty, and staff from the world's best educational institutions.

The AUB has been criticized by many thinkers and political activists, including such alumni as Dr. George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, for its U.S. associations. It was seen by some as a bastion of cultural pluralism, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, when the university administration responded firmly to student protests. For militant student leaders, the campus was considered no more than an espionage den and a recruiting center for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Yet militants and moderates, secularists and fundamentalists, all wanted to be admitted. A degree from AUB provided the best financial prospects; in fact, until the 1970s it almost always guaranteed a job for its holder. Political and economic changes in Lebanon, however, decreased its value, especially when some Lebanese could afford to attend far more prestigious foreign universities.

The AUB underwent tremendous changes because of the civil war (19751990). Despite extensive damage, it continued to function, even during repeated interruptions due to intense fighting. Some of its professors were threatened or kidnapped, and its president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in 1984 by unknown gunmen. Its main administrative building, College Hall, bombed in the early 1990s, has been reconstructed. The division of the city of Beirut into eastern and western zones affected the life of the campus community, which became more sharply divided along sectarian lines. The administration authorized the opening of an off-campus program in East Beirut during the war for those who could not reach predominantly Muslim West Beirut.

The quality and standards of the AUB have declined as a result of the war. Many foreign nationals on the faculty left, depriving students of some of the most qualified teachers. The flight of many Lebanese and Palestinian professors forced the administration to accept applicants who in previous times would have been considered underqualified. The shortage of professors in some departments led the administration to accept applicants with an M.A. as teachers, which was uncommon before the war.

The end of the civil war promised improvements at the university, and the restoration of peace and normalcy increased the number of professors returning from exile. The new president, Robert Haddad, formerly of Smith College, announced that his goal was to bring AUB back to its former level of excellence. Haddad was succeeded by John Waterbury in 1998, and he did much to improve the relationship between the administration and the faculty. Haddad had alienated the faculty by appearing to impose standards and procedures that many on the Beirut campus did not find suitable. Water-bury's tenure coincided with a deteriorating economic situation in Lebanon, and yet he remained committed to an ambitious fundraising campaign. Waterbury attracted professors from outside Lebanon, and from outside the Arab world, hoping to return AUB to its prewar days when faculty and students represented different cultures and religions. But the declining economic situation in Lebanon and the end of interest-free loans through the Hariri Foundation (formed in 1984 by Rafiq al-Hariri, who later became prime minister), has increased the percentage of upper-class students. Although financial aid exists, it is not sufficient to offset the higher cost of living and education in Lebanon. But AUB has benefited from the consequences of the 11
September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Many Arab students from the Gulf region began to avoid higher education in the United States, long a favored destination for Middle Eastern students, and sought to study in Lebanese universities, especially AUB. The high cost of AUB education, however, still deters some applicants, and selectivity has been sacrificed across the board. AUB has also suffered from the proliferation of private universities in Lebanon (some forty-seven by one count). Gulf Arab countries have also competed with AUB by opening up their own versions of American universities. In 2003 the American University of Kuwait was added to the list of American universities in the Middle East.

see also beirut; bliss, howard; habash, george; hariri, rafiq bahaʾuddin al-; lebanese civil war (19751990); popular front for the liberation of palestine; protestantism and protestant missions.


Coon, Carl, ed. Daniel Bliss and the Founding of the American University of Beirut. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1989.

Penrose, Stephen. That They May Have Life: The Story of the American University of Beirut 18661941. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1970.

As'ad AbuKhalil

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