A Katrina-Like Outpouring for the Mideast?

American higher education rallied to help colleges devastated by a natural disaster. Shouldn't it do likewise for a man-made one? Wick Sloane asks.

July 27, 2006

Imagine. No interruption of study and research for all students and faculty in the Middle East shut out in this latest war. Lebanon. Israel. Gaza. Iraq. Everyone.

Why not? Education is cheaper than war.  

John Waterbury, president of American University of Beirut, who was stuck in the United States when war broke out, is in Washington seeking federal aid and hopes to soon be on his way back to his campus. I'll bet he and all his Middle East colleagues would welcome help from us.

Never mind U.S. visas for now. We have the Web, satellites, cell phones and air drops. Imagine seeing on CNN: classes and seminars and students studying in the rubble. Now. On all sides of all borders. People from around the world showing life will go on. Saturday, I listened to a friend describe the ballet precision of his evacuation from Lebanon last week. With thousands of others. The U.S. government can do such things. Punch the “Reverse Route” button. Of course, this is difficult.

Hurricane Katrina was an act of God. American higher ed scrambled to help. This Middle East war is of man. (And Yale at that, given higher educations of U.S. leaders Bush, Cheney, Bolton and Bremer, at least.) Are U.S. colleges and universities planning to help there, too? Mustn't we try?

AU-Beirut, a U.S. chartered institution, is closed for classes. I telephoned the New York office, on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, as it happens. Steve Jeffries, the AUB vice president there, knew of no unified offers of help yet. “Right now, we’re working on humanitarian and medical issues,” he said. Students, faculty and staff in Beirut, calling the situation the Challenges, are helping anyone they can with blood drives and shelter and medicine for the wounded and the refugees.

The American Council on Education's president, David Ward, offered empathy but no call for help in his regular newsletter to presidents last week. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities may be too busy howling in self-interest about a proposed national database of student academic records.  

Enough. Something must be happening.   

I wrote to a few of the higher ed presidents and panjandrums I know. These places claim a tax benefit for producing leaders, not just wealth. Roger Mandle, president of Rhode Island School of Design, has told me several times that the field of design has to move to illumine intractable social issues. What would solutions here look like?

I wrote Rick Levin at Yale and Morty Schapiro at Williams, my schools. Ruth Simmons at Brown, where I pay tuition. Mike McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation. Roger Mandle. Clayton Spencer at Harvard and John Strassburger, president of Ursinus College. What plans are under way? What is the obligation of U.S. higher education here? AU-Beirut has not heard, so far, from American higher ed.  

No reply so far from Levin at Yale, whom I met when I was a student and he a professor at the School of Management. Schapiro, of Williams, says he is trying to come up with some ideas.

Ursinus College, in Philadelphia, may be the only place to have an offer.

“Ursinus could offer free housing, board and tuition for the fall semester for up to five students if not more,” said Strassburger, the Ursinus president. “We probably could come up with salary for a school in residence teaching some Middle East subjects for the fall or the year.”

Strassburger over the weekend e-mailed an Ursinus faculty member and alumnus, the retired Ambassador Joseph Melrose, recalled to the Lebanon desk at the U.S. State Department. Acknowledging the complexity, Melrose, speaking for himself, replied that American colleges and universities should plan for transfers from those able to get a visa. “I would also encourage you all to continue to reflect on what might be done for Lebanese students in the future. It would be refreshing to have at least a skeletal plan in place.”

I keep thinking of the one-time Columbia University President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, "I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

Even knowing what help might work, for now, is vexing. Looking around, at least two of the Web sites for Lebanese colleges didn’t work at all. The sites that work show the enormous need.

“Due to the present conditions of our dear and bleeding country,” the Web page of Haigazian University, Beirut, announced the end of classes for now. “Offices and other functions of the University will continue with as little interruption as possible, whenever possible. May God keep you all in His Grace.” (The university's name, the site reports, honors Armenag Haigazian, an Armenian educator with a Yale doctorate, who passed up escaping to the United States to continue teaching and then died in the Kharpert prison.)

Lebanese American University has closed classes in Beirut and Byblos. The Web site goes on: “We urgently ask each and every employee to be very conservative in their usage of the utilities, especially electricity and water, so that we can deal with the expected shortages of these very essential resources, in an optimized manner.”

At the Yale Web site? Nothing on the  Middle East. But this, ironic, headline: “Yale president says U.S. should adopt more open attitude in attracting int'l students.”

No “Out of the Office” autoreplies to my presidents' and panjandrums' e-mail. So far, only replies from Williams and Ursinus.  I just tried Joe White, president of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Jim Duderstadt, emeritus president of the University of Michigan. I’m sure those two will have far better ideas than mine.  

In May 1977, I was in the hospital lobby at American University Beirut, visiting with a friend whose husband was a doctor there. The hospital was neutral. Around me were fighters from all sides of the civil war, with submachine guns. The American University Hospital treated everyone. A precedent for U.S. higher education today?

I’d left Jerusalem that morning over the Allenby Bridge, the back door of the Promised Land, to Amman. Then, in service taxis up through Damascus into Lebanon and in Beirut by dinnertime. I’d spent an afternoon in Jerusalem with an American Quaker missionary, who’d been there for decades. Why was the Holy Land always in such trouble?

This has always been a tough place, he reminded me. “You have to remember that God has sent his best people here to this region three times, and the place is still in trouble. All I know is that we can’t give up.”

While I was walking my dog this week, a young friend, Kirsten Nyborg, stopped to talk. Harvard 2006, now an intern for Campus Crusade for Christ. Would she give her Harvard a nudge? “That’s pretty bad,” she said of the silence. “We’ll put this out on our listserv, too.  We’ll send everybody -- Junior Year in Beirut for All. Bring a rake. We’ll get things cleaned up.” And she jogged off.  

What’s become of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, Yale ’63, who evacuated Iraq ahead of the U.S. troops. (“L” for “Let’s disband the Iraqi army and not collect the weapons first.”?) According to the Yale alumni directory, Bremer is managing director, Marsh Crisis Consulting. Perhaps Rick Levin should give Bremer a call?


Wick Sloane is chief operating officer at Generon Consulting in Massachusetts and former chief financial officer of the University of Hawaii system.


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