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Students, faculty at risk in crisis-hit American University of Beirut

The US government recently pledged $10 million to help the ailing institution [AFP via Getty]

Date of publication: 26 June, 2020

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With students struggling to pay fees and plans to dismiss up to 25% of its workforce, AUB has never edged closer to collapse.

Deprived of a crucial student loan because of Lebanon's economic collapse, Ali is struggling to save his seat at the American University of Beirut, itself gripped by the crisis.

Since it was founded in 1866 by Protestant missionaries from the United States, AUB has become one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East, producing generations of leaders, artists, and intellectuals.

But AUB president Fadlo Khuri says with Lebanon's economy tanking, the university is facing "perhaps its greatest crisis", and plans to dismiss up to a quarter of its 6,500-strong workforce.

The student body is also suffering, with capital controls and devaluation of the Lebanese pound making it increasingly difficult to pay tuition - that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

"I am going to have to pay more than $12,000 for next year," said 19-year-old Ali, whose family owns a small pharmacy in a southern Beirut suburb.

Before the crisis, the economics student only had to pay $6,000 each year, with his scholarship and a bank loan covering 70 percent of his fees.

But Ali's bank informed him in December that it would cancel the loan, and the Lebanese pound has now lost 75 percent of its official value on the black market.

"My father's purchasing power has dropped... but he won't let me leave AUB," Ali said. "He is sixty years old and he still works hard."

'Minimise impact'

For decades the Lebanese pound was pegged at 1,507 to the dollar, but that rate now stands at more than 6,000 with informal money changers.

Read more: Protests rage across Lebanon as currency hits new low

For the upcoming semester, AUB will commit to the official rate for tuition payments, but it may have to adopt a new rate if the unofficial devaluation persists.

Situated on a lush hill overlooking the Mediterranean, AUB's campus is an oasis of greenery in the heart of the bustling city.

Old stone buildings and futuristic architecture stand above a massive football field, a tennis court and an indoor pool.

British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and countless regional leaders over the decades are among its alumni.

Hassan Diab taught at AUB before becoming Lebanon's latest prime minister earlier this year.

But more than half of the 9,000-strong student body at AUB, which has been at the heart of every major social movement in the country's history, benefit from financial aid.

"The university is going to take a hit in the next phase," said dean of students Talal Nizameddin, promising increased financial aid for the neediest students.

The US government recently pledged $10 million to help the ailing institution.

Leaving Lebanon

AUB has weathered crises in the past. During the 1975-1990 civil war, one of its presidents was killed and another kidnapped. But the university has never edged so close to collapse.

"It's an extremely serious crisis because AUB has never before had to lay off people," president Khuri told AFP.

AUB will cut up to 25 percent of jobs, mostly administrative positions, particularly in its hospital, which has shelved expansion plans.

University leadership will take voluntary pay cuts of up to 25 percent, but faculty and staff will receive a portion of their salary in dollars.

"We want to keep them," Khuri said of the university's educators. "This is the best faculty in terms of impact in the Arab world, the quality of the publications."

Two professors told AFP however that they felt frustrated by management's handling of the crisis, and said some staff were planning to leave.

"The best and brightest are going to apply abroad," said Charles Harb, a professor in political and social psychology who has been with AUB for 18 years.

Students are also cutting short their studies.

After his father lost his job as a bank executive last year, 19-year-old Osama abandoned a business minor that would have required an extra year's study.

"I decided to graduate in four years" instead of five, said the computer and communication engineering student, who has to pay almost $17,000 a year on top of a scholarship.

Osama says he no longer sees a future for himself in his home country, and is instead looking for a consulting job in the Gulf.

"A year ago, I would have answered of course I want to stay in Lebanon," he said. "But in the end, it's not a question of what I want anymore."

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