Endangered Progress

President of American University of Beirut has overseen remarkable recovery over the last decade -- and now fears a tragic reversal.
July 21, 2006

When John Waterbury arrived in 1998 to become president of American University of Beirut, he did something unusual: He lived and worked on the campus.

From the time Malcolm Kerr, one of his predecessors, was assassinated outside his office in 1984,  presidents worked from outside the country. Indeed for much of that period, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to enter Lebanon. The fact that Waterbury was able to work and live on the campus is seen as so significant that his official university biography begins by noting that fact.

That may help underscore just how pained Waterbury is today. The university has been forced to suspend operations, American and other students from outside Lebanon are fleeing, and he finds himself many time zones away from the university he leads. Waterbury was on one of his regular fund-raising trips to the United States when hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah escalated, and Israeli missiles made Beirut unsafe and closed its airport.

Waterbury couldn’t fly back today if he wanted to. And although he very much wants to (“the whole captain of the ship thing,” he says), he’s not sure it would make sense. “It’s hard to know what the best thing is for me to do,” he says. “I would very much like to be there, but I don’t want to complicate things by being a prominent American in a very volatile situation.”

Asked if his comment suggests that he has been told he could be a target for extremists, he says he can’t go into any more detail than what he just said.

“I’m devastated,” says Waterbury, an expert on the political economy of the Middle East who spent most of his career at Princeton University before moving to Beirut. “We may be looking at a situation where we have to write off the last eight or nine years.”

In an interview, Waterbury outlined just how much progress the institution has made during the last decade  -- and how complicated his institution’s predicament is.

American University of Beirut opened in 1866, created by American missionaries as the Syrian Protestant College. Founded in Beirut to educate people of the Middle East, the fledgling college had American faculty members and leaders from the start. Perhaps most important, it reflected certain American values – opening its classrooms to people of all races and religions, and offering a mix of liberal arts and professional programs.

Waterbury says that one of the lessons he teaches students, many of whom were educated in societies where criticism of superiors isn't allowed, is telling them they can question him and disagree with him. The university is chartered by New York State and accredited by Middle States. Over the years, its degrees became prestigious throughout the region and its medical school and hospital have long been key institutions for Beirut – never more so than when the city has been under attack.

During the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s and beyond, the campus suffered on-campus murders and explosions, but never stopped offering courses. What it did lose was some of its American character -- at least that portion that depends on having Americans.

Many faculty members have historically been dual citizens of the United States and Lebanon, and during the period of the worst violence, the number of U.S. citizens with only American citizenship was zero. Under Waterbury’s presidency, that number has gone up to about 30 (on a faculty of about 250). Offers are currently out to more would-be professors, but Waterbury isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t think we’ve officially lost anybody yet, but a lot of people are getting out and they want to see what will happen,” from outside Lebanon, before deciding whether to return. “We’ve got a bunch of offers out now and I suspect a fair number of those won’t come -- right now they can’t come.”

While stressing the high quality of the non-American faculty members (many of whom were educated at top American institutions), Waterbury says that there’s no getting around the fact that you need Americans to be an American university. “It’s very important to our constituency in the Middle East and the Arab world,” Waterbury says. “They know that in terms of our structures, procedures and philosophy we’re an American institution, but they like to see living, breathing Americans here. It puts a firmer stance on what we are trying to do educationally.”

Enrollments are also vulnerable right now. During his presidency, enrollment has grown to about 7,000 from 5,000 and much of that growth has expanded the reach of the university. During the civil war, more than 90 percent of students were from Lebanon. The non-Lebanese share is now about 20 percent, with large contingents from Jordan and Syria and growing contingents from the West Bank, Oman, Yemen, Iran and Iraq.

The university had been preparing for the triumphant conclusion of a $140 million capital campaign, which has helped the institution repair damage from the earlier violence and improve facilities. Waterbury said that he expected some “sympathy giving” now, but that he feared some donors might say “I’ll see how things look in 10 years.”

Politics at Waterbury’s university are never simple. It is an outpost of American values in a region where many are hostile to them. In student government elections, students affiliated with or supportive of Hezbollah regularly win some races, Waterbury says. And “significant numbers” of the non-academic employees are supportive of Hezbollah, he adds. While there are no official ties between the university and Hezbollah, Waterbury says that he has met plenty of Hezbollah leaders -- he deals regularly with the Lebanese government, which includes Hezbollah officials at the cabinet level, “so it would be hard to avoid them.”

“There is no evidence of hostility to the university,” Waterbury says. Even on the campus, he says, students affiliated with Hezbollah are more concerned about the policies of Israel or the United Nations than of AUB.

When he left Beirut -- just days before the outbreak of fighting -- Waterbury says he had no indication that the situation was about to deteriorate. Now, he says, he fears “things are going to get much worse before they get better.”

Unlike the period of the civil war, when violence took place on the campus, there have been no direct attacks there. But in other ways, the situation may be much worse in the weeks and months ahead than even during that dark period of the university’s history. Waterbury notes that during the civil war, the borders were “porous,” so people who wanted to get in and out could usually do so, and food and fuel arrived without any real interruption. Israel is now effectively sealing borders, arguing that only by doing so can it fight Hezbollah.

“We can get up and running again, but not if there is no fuel or food,” Waterbury says.

Waterbury says he and his colleagues in Beirut are trying to figure out how to offer good programs on campus when the regular academic year begins in the fall. The university is also trying to figure out how it can help others in Beirut. “We will have faculty there and students and we can have at least basic skeletal programs and hopefully more. We will go with what we have.”

Relocate? Waterbury says that would be too damaging -- whatever risks or hardships are involved with staying in Beirut. “It’s very important that we keep the place functioning somehow,” he says. “If we board up the windows, it’s an invitation to lose the whole thing.”


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