On April 11, the dwindling number of subscribers to the print edition of the Sunday New York Times were assailed by a full-page paid advertisement by the “international advisory council” of the American University of Beirut, an outpost of American higher education in the Middle East where I was on the faculty for eleven years.
“The time to support AUB is now,” the ad instructs, claiming that Lebanon’s recent crisis portends a bleak future.
A couple of earlier op-eds apparently encouraged by AUB’s controversial president Fadlo Khuri, a physician who was sued for medical malpractice prior to his career in academic administration, also pleaded for assistance.
AUB’s prospects remain dire, but not everyone agrees that its pitiful condition results entirely from Lebanon’s woes. When the recent crisis hit, the university had already been in major financial trouble and a dizzying leadership spiral for many years.
A recent letter to AUB’s Board of Trustees provided by an internal source paints a darkening view from within.
Decrying an “era of police statehood,” the letter’s authors claim that they are “chastised, bullied and threatened by the President and senior leadership for speaking out,” while AUB’s communications office “plays a Gestapo role, monitoring the social media of faculty and staff … with follow up calls of intimidation.”
Repressive measures allegedly include “denied compensation” and the use of “disciplinary and grievance bodies … to witch-hunt faculty/students who have been vocal.”
These allegations have followed alarming developments alien to regular university life. Last July, Khuri, who according to AUB’s tax filings is paid about $1 million per year while nearly 60 percent of Lebanese live in poverty, fired 850 medical employees mid-pandemic and summoned Lebanon’s military and security forces to enforce their dismissals.
In December, facing internal reports that AUB would exhaust all of its currency reserves by the end of 2021, Khuri arbitrarily changed the exchange rate AUB uses for tuition, resulting in a de facto 160 percent cost increase overnight.
Hundreds of AUB students protested, only to be met by the security forces, which resorted to beatings and tear gas to disperse them. Several dozen students sued AUB to enforce the official exchange rate – so far successfully, – while AUB anticipates a substantial drop in new enrollments this fall.
Spectacularly, AUB is also being sued by Lebanon’s incumbent Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a longtime AUB faculty member and administrator who claims that AUB stiffed him on severance pay. Khuri, who insists that the Lebanese government owes AUB $150 million, did the university no favors when he later characterized Diab’s government as “the worst government in Lebanese history.”
Khuri’s next move was to liquidate $100-$150 million of AUB’s endowment, a stopgap measure that he claims will sustain labor costs for just the next three years.
Meanwhile, AUB has taken only limited action to ensure the incomes of almost all of its remaining employees, who, with the exception of Khuri and about two dozen top administrators, are paid in Lebanon’s rapidly depreciating currency.
A new policy announced this month purportedly guarantees faculty members a maximum annual dollar payment of only $30,000, with the rest payable in the nearly worthless national currency.
Unsurprisingly, AUB is losing faculty as well as students. About 150 of my former colleagues left by the end of 2020, but many more are following now that the academic year is over, in some cases without alternate employment.
Khuri is dismissive of the departures.
“I’m not having any farewell parties,” he snapped at a recent interviewer – probably a wise policy since he would otherwise host one almost every day. That is a lot of cake for a man of his ample proportions, but the gesture would likely be unnecessary since, according to an anonymous AUB professor, “everyone hates Fadlo.”
In April, Khuri described faculty members tempted to leave as “flight risks,” a term normally reserved for criminal suspects like the disgraced automotive executive Carlos Ghosn, a former AUB trustee once held out as an “emblem of transparency” who actually did flee trial in Japan and is now considered a fugitive from international justice.
Khuri promises that those who remain in their immiserated positions will enter what he calls AUB’s “Hall of Heroes.” He didn’t say whether AUB can afford capes, but one suspects not.
Tellingly, no current AUB faculty member would speak on the record; almost all cited fears of retaliation. Likely for the same reason, the handful of self-described “activists” among them, who regularly castigate Lebanon’s government in angry and even violent terms, are conspicuously silent on matters AUB.
Hicham Tohme, who holds three degrees from AUB and taught there from 2014 to 2018, does not hide his disappointment, however. “This administration has mismanaged every single issue it faced,” Tohme says. “Under Khuri’s leadership, we are seeing a 155-year old institution crumble. He has no qualms preaching lofty ideals while at the same time resorting to physical violence.”
Another former AUB faculty member and alumnus who spoke anonymously added, “I was disappointed, yet not surprised, to read of the many failings at AUB … I experienced much of what was depicted in the letter. I suffered the retaliatory and unprofessional nature of the leadership.”
AUB’s ultimate fate may be of little consequence.
The “American model” of higher education that once made it unique has been widely replicated around the world.
In Lebanon, a dozen competing institutions offer similar credentials, generally accompanied by lower tuition, better exchange rates, and fewer beatings. Some 77 percent of young Lebanese would prefer to leave the country anyway, with a rising number saying they have no wish to return.
The only meaningful message of AUB’s plight is what it foretells for the American higher education it claims to model, much of which is following the same path that has turned AUB into a dumpster fire.
The depressing trend points to overbearing, overpaid, and – it needs to be said – overweight administrators hypocritically presiding over intimidated campus communities whose experience mocks higher education’s lofty values.
Only 45 percent of Americans now believe that a college education is vital to success, down from 95 percent in 1980. Top students at elite universities are sensibly eschewing academic careers, which offer uncompetitive salaries alongside unappealing speech and behavioral controls that courts increasingly find to violate civil rights.
While AUB may be the first institution to beg for its survival in the erstwhile paper of record, it is unlikely to be the last.
Paul du Quenoy is President of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Read more here.
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