PRESIDENT’S PERSPECTIVE

da | 19/01/2024 | AAS BLOG | 0 commenti

Dear alumni and friends, This last fall semester flew by, what with all that took place at AUB, in Lebanon, and the world. As time, my nature, and habit have taught me, I kept my head down and kept “trucking” onward. Trucking is a time worn expression for that approach but also the title of one of the Grateful Dead’s most enduring songs, one my friend Hussein Ibish introduced me to almost five decades ago. As the song goes, I learned to keep moving forward, and to make decisions with the best collective judgment, based on adequate but never perfect data:

Truckin’, like the do-dah man
Once told me, “You’ve got to play your hand”
Sometimes the cards ain’t worth a dime
If you don’t lay ‘em down

AS THE SONG GOES, I LEARNED TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD, AND TO MAKE
DECISIONS WITH THE BEST COLLECTIVE JUDGEMENT,
BASED ON ADEQUATE BUT NEVER PERFECT DATA.

Of course, trucking in and of its own is not enough. Standing up for institutional principles and making one’s point in a timely and effective manner is paramount. I am proud that AUB is today every bit as academically outstanding as it has been in decades, while becoming steadily more economically and geographically diverse. Our university continues to stand for the very best kind of inclusiveness and opportunity without sacrificing excellence. There is a great deal to get done over the next few years in developing the university’s expanding footprint, between reimagining our educational curricula, retooling the mothership, and building AUB Online, AUB Mediterraneo, and the Keserwan Medical Center (KMC), for the long term.

Academic year 2024–25 will see the beginning of the final year of my second term as president of the American University of Beirut, a landmark achieved to date by one third of the 15 presidents who preceded me. Those data are skewed by the first half of the university’s history, in that the first three presidents (Daniel Bliss, Howard Bliss, and Bayard Dodge) comfortably made that mark. Together, they combined to steward AUB with great sagacity for 79 of the 157 years of our existence to date. Since then, only Samuel Kirkwood (1965–76) and John Waterbury (1998–2008) have successfully completed a full decade of service, and, after impactful presidencies, both men stepped down within months of completing those terms. No doubt, Presidents Bliss, Bliss, Dodge, Kirkwood, and Waterbury did their fair share of “trucking.”

Next July also marks my 30th year in academia. Increasingly aware of the personal and professional toll of the last eight and a half years as AUB president, while keeping a close eye on the war on Gaza and its proclivity to spread into a regional war, I have begun to reflect on lessons learned during my decades-long academic journey. Inevitably, I continue to search for qualities, skills, and ideas that help sustain us through periods of prolonged challenge. I have not only mined academic resources, though more on those in a future Perspective; of late, I have read and watched documentaries about the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) which constituted the last major religious war fought on European soil and helped reshape modern Europe. Sparked by ambitious German princes and kings whose opposing faiths (Catholic and Protestant) fueled natural antagonism across what was then the Holy Roman Empire, this war led to population shifts, dragged in much of northern and central Europe, and cost well over five million lives, leading to shrinking populations across a dozen major European nations.

INEVITABLY, I CONTINUE TO SEARCH FOR QUALITIES, SKILLS, AND IDEAS THAT
HELP SUSTAIN US THROUGH PERIODS OF PROLONGED CHALLENGE.

The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most brutal in our shared human history. Perhaps in my moments of greatest optimism, I had hoped the academy, whose role grew substantively during the European Renaissance and in the subsequent Enlightenment, would play an active role in reducing the reasons for conflicts and wars by bringing people of vastly differing perspectives together. But a Western academy too deeply entrenched in its ways has grown less effective than it should be.

WE ARE HERE TO HELP BETTER PREPARE INDIVIDUALS TO LEAD AND EFFECT
SOCIETAL IMPROVEMENT, AND NOT JUST CREATE KNOWLEDGE
AND OPPORTUNITY FOR SOME.

In late 2014, when invited to interview for the presidency of AUB, I lamented the mission drift of academia, not exempting AUB. I felt that while the academy had collectively improved in teaching, service, research, and patient care, we had largely lost track of our primary purpose, of our core mission. We are here to help better prepare individuals to lead and effect societal improvement, and not just create knowledge and opportunity for some, thereby already worsening global disparities in wealth, resources, healthcare, and education. Our very “eliteness,” as I mentioned in my inauguration address in January of 2016, had become far too economic in nature. I was not only speaking about AUB.

BUT A WESTERN ACADEMY TOO DEEPLY ENTRENCHED IN ITS WAYS HAS GROWN
LESS EFFECTIVE THAN IT SHOULD BE.

Watching powerful donors and vested interests deliberately bring down the presidencies of the two women chosen to lead Harvard and Penn was deeply disheartening. Sadly, it provides further proof that the academy has drifted badly. We cannot be arrogant enough to believe we can overcome centuries of ongoing oppression of peoples by simply bringing different people face to face, worthy as that undertaking might be. Yet perhaps we can more effectively teach the futility of the act of oppression and its long-term consequences. I am convinced that diversifying our curriculums, helping educate and empower better women and men, needs to be the primary focus of our missions once more. Most importantly, we can no longer afford to be shy about our pursuit of excellence, both for itself and for the greater good.

None of this will be easy. Adapting and implementing the VITAL 2030 footprint will be a mammoth undertaking, as will revisiting the master plans for the campus, medical center, and our newest educational and healthcare components. Each one of these projects is both intriguing and inspiring to me and our team. As a whole, they are essential for the sustainable transformation of our university as it plays an even larger regional and global role. We must therefore forge forward in these times when academia has willingly surrendered its perch as a provider of brave and widely trusted public intellectuals. There will be good times and less pleasing ones, but we must not break our stride whatever the circumstances.

As the Grateful Dead sang,

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times, I can barely see
Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been

Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home
Whoa, whoa, baby, back where I belong
Back home, sit down and patch my bones
And get back truckin’ on

This is my 100th President’s Perspective. I, and we, will keep trucking. As I informed our board chair and leadership, I am here to stay at AUB. Lest anyone think otherwise, I am as determined as ever to ensure that when the time comes to step away from the mantle of leadership, the prospect of mission drift will be firmly in AUB’s collective rear window.

THIS IS MY 100TH PRESIDENT’S PERSPECTIVE. I, AND WE, WILL KEEP TRUCKING. 

____

Office of the President
American University of Beirut
T +961 1 35 00 00 –Ext 2500

ORIGINAL ARTICLE HERE

This is my 100th President’s Perspective. I, and we, will keep trucking.