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A vital instrument of U.S. soft power needs saving

A man riding a motorbike passes by American

A man riding a motorbike passes by American University of Beirut in Lebanon on Jan. 23, 2021. The AUB, which is chartered and accredited in New York state, is the quintessence of everything generations of Americans worked to build in the Middle East since the 19th century. Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images/Xinhua News Agency

One of the greatest American educational institutions in the world isn't in the United States, it's in Beirut. Now, after 155 years of invaluable service, its future is under serious threat.

The American University of Beirut, which is chartered and accredited in New York state, is the quintessence of everything generations of Americans worked to build in the Middle East since the 19th century. It's also arguably the most important institution in Lebanon, easily the country's largest employer after the state.

Over the past year, it has been wracked by a set of crises worse than any it has faced, including the challenges it overcame during the country's 15-year civil war between 1975-1990. Saving the AUB and securing its future is key to salvaging Lebanon itself.

Founded as the Syrian Protestant College in 1866 by American missionaries, and renamed in 1920, the university has trained tens of thousands of academics (my father included) and professionals who have served societies around the region, and indeed the world. Notable alumni include three presidents, including current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, over a dozen prime ministers, former Occidental Petroleum head Ray R. Irani, the late architect Zaha Hadid, and 19 of the international delegates at the foundation of the United Nations.

The AUB has also been the most important vehicle for promoting American culture, values and learning in the Arab world. It represents the most positive aspect of what the U.S. offers the Middle East — a region where, since the 1960s, American influence has been seen as suspect if not predatory. Saving the university is therefore essential to repairing and rejuvenating the American relationship with the Arab world.

The association with the U.S. also means the AUB has its share of enemies and has endured more than its share of pain. In 1984, its president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated by a Hezbollah-affiliated organization called Islamic Jihad. During the civil war, 30 of its faculty and staff were kidnapped, including several professors. And in 1991, the 125th anniversary of its founding, a bomb attack by pro-Iranian militants destroyed the university's fabled College Hall administration building and its iconic clock tower.

But the unparalleled economic, social and political crises that have beset Lebanon in the past year represent a greater threat that the AUB has known before. It goes beyond the threats of violence to its staff, which university officials say have escalated alarmingly amid the political turmoil.

The massive Aug. 4 port explosion inflicted millions of dollars of damage on the campus. And since the AUB includes a medical school and hospital complex, like its peers everywhere else, it is being overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lebanon's financial meltdown is also taking a heavy toll on the university. The near-bankrupt state owes the medical school $150 million in arrears. The dire state of the economy has made it difficult for students to pay tuition fees. And the collapse of the Lebanese pound, and proposed "haircuts" for depositors to rescue it, has diminished value of the university's assets and reserves, and hindered its ability to raise money within the country.

Revenue for 2020-21 are projected to fall 60%, and the university expects losses to the tune of $30 million. The school may lay off up to 25% of its staff and close whole departments.

Fadlo Khuri, the university's first Lebanese-American president, is counting on help from abroad. In 2020, AUB got $30 million in support for its $423 million operating budget from the U.S. government through various programs, mainly USAID. Khuri hopes that contribution will rise to $50 million. He's also counting on a bigger grant in COVID aid than the $2.5 million the U.S. gave last year.

Khuri is also hoping to raise more money from the AUB's far-flung alumni and from philanthropic organizations. These sources have been yielding about $70 million annually, but the president is seeking to increase that to $100 million.

He knows that the AUB is not the only institution that is trying to tap these sources. There are other schools in the Middle East that need support but none come close to having a comparable cultural and economic impact in the region.

There will be some pushback in Washington from those who worry that strengthening major Lebanese institutions like AUB would automatically strengthen Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia the U.S. has designated as a terrorist group. But such fears are misplaced. If anything, the university is a strong bulwark against the region's religious fundamentalists, sectarian extremists and violent radicals of all kinds, including Tehran's Lebanese proxies.

Any serious policy of containing and marginalizing Hezbollah has to begin with strengthening and bolstering the institutions of the Lebanese state and society — and there's no better place to start than the AUB.

Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. This piece was written for Bloomberg.