BEIRUT — “I’m not having farewell parties for anyone.” That was the response from Fadlo Khuri, the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), when I asked about the exodus of faculty from the Arab world’s most prestigious university.
AUB is responsible for a staggering proportion of Lebanon’s academic output. From its tree-lined campus overlooking the Mediterranean, its faculty produce roughly two-thirds of the citable research in the country. But that record is now under threat. Lebanon’s best and brightest are increasingly moving abroad as the country has been wracked by a series of political and economic crises. More than 1,500 faculty and staff have departed over the past two years, and over 250 students left following last year’s massive explosion at the Beirut port. As the value of the country’s currency plunged, the school’s revenues fell by 70 percent.
AUB is just one example of a nation-wide trend: Thousands of doctors, engineers and bankers have already fled; in one survey, 77 percent of young Lebanese said they have considered or are actively trying to leave. The brain drain threatens to deprive the country of its most important asset, making the herculean task of rebuilding the country’s economy and reforming its broken politics even more daunting.
The country’s plight is forcing difficult choices on those who remain. An oncologist by training, Khuri must both acknowledge his employees’ struggles while also doing his utmost to stem the loss of talent from the university. The AUB president is an urbane figure with an academic bearing, but he doesn’t mince words about the gravity of the current crisis. While he is willing to grant temporary leaves of absence for faculty members who have been traumatized by the port explosion and the instability in the country, he takes a harsher line with medical professionals who tell him they’re leaving for a better salary. “If you leave your post as a physician or a nurse during a pandemic, you’re betraying the people whose trust you’ve worked to earn.”
Evoking the historic importance of AUB’s mission, Khuri peppers his speeches with quotations from Thomas Paine, Robert F. Kennedy, and the New Testament. But his fundamental challenge is more prosaic: Lebanon’s economic crisis means that its professors and the doctors at the hospital it operates are making a fraction of the salary they could earn abroad. In March, he announced that AUB would spend $100 million of its roughly $800 million endowment to pay employees who stay at the university. The goal is to invest in people who are committed to staying, he said, not retain those who were looking to leave. “Keep[ing] unhappy campers here is counterproductive.”
Khuri says he is now more worried about Lebanon’s long-term future than he was during the country’s 15-year civil war. It is an extraordinary statement: During that conflict, which lasted from 1975 until 1990, one AUB president and two of its deans were assassinated, another acting president was kidnapped, and 70 percent of its faculty left the country. Khuri knows the history well, as his own father temporarily led the university following the assassination of its president.
Khuri blames political elites for squandering the international goodwill the country once enjoyed. Despite the lira currency losing 85 percent of its value and 55 percent of the population falling into poverty, politicians’ bickering over the size of the losses has prevented the country from securing an international bailout. The government’s investigation into the Aug. 4 port explosion, which it promised to release five days after the blast, has yet to arrive. And while the government resigned in the wake of the explosion, political leaders have been unable to form a new one for the past ten months.
“Lebanon is much more alone now than it was before,” he said. “For the past decade and a half, the various factions have managed to insult just about every regional and international state. And while there is empathy for the people suffering, it’s an empathy that is somewhat constrained, by saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with these people? Do they not care what is happening to them?’”
Ironically, the man at the center of the current government, Prime Minister Hassan Diab, spent his career as a professor and a vice president at AUB. The relationship has not redounded to the university’s benefit: Diab sued it for roughly $1 million in severance upon being appointed to head the government in 2020, and the university’s financial difficulties are the result of his government’s failure to pay its bills. AUB says that the government owes $150 million to its hospital.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Higher Education has also been delaying certification of 10 new degree programs for over two years, even as it has approved new programs for the Lebanese International University, a for-profit school founded by a politician whose son is a minister in the current government.
“There have been many terrible governments, but this one is on its way to being one of the worst, if not the worst ever,” Khuri said. Diab, meanwhile, “is a pawn in a game that he barely understands.”
The Lebanese people previously made their views known about their government’s failures. Millions took to the street in late 2019 to protest a dire economic situation. But the outlook then was comparatively rosy compared to that which exists now. Despite the government’s failures, however, there have not been sustained protests in the country since early 2020. Activists point to several reasons for the lack of mobilization: The COVID-19 crisis has inhibited large gatherings, and the dismal economy has led many Lebanese to devote their energies to securing their basic needs. But they also suggested another factor preventing the emergence of street protests—the departure of many activists and civil society representatives from the country.
“If there’s going to be a political renaissance in this country, it will have to come from the population that remains,” said Ronnie Chatah, who ran heritage tours of Beirut for 15 years and now hosts a podcast about Lebanese society and politics. “We know too many passionate people, protesters who have packed their bags perhaps for good. They’re the ones who should be weathering the storm, and they’re not here.”
Chatah himself is an example of the push and pull relationship many Lebanese have with their country. The son of a former finance minister who was assassinated in 2013, he ran his walking tours of Beirut for over a decade to give Lebanese and foreigners an understanding of the city’s culture, politics and history. Despite his deep connection to Lebanon, he currently splits his time between here and the United States. His stays in Lebanon are made easier, he said, because he is paid in “fresh” dollars—income that can be transferred into or out of the country normally. By contrast, most Lebanese companies pay in either lira or what has come to be known as “lollars”—dollar deposits in a Lebanese bank that can neither be withdrawn nor sent abroad and are consequently worth a fraction of their stated value.
“Even saying these words shows how silly the situation is,” Chatah said. “There are not many people I know who have stuck around and who are still trying to make a living.”
The economic situation has grown so dire that it appears to be further entrenching the political class that caused the crisis in the first place. The World Bank reported that GDP contracted by 20 percent in 2020, and projects it will shrink by a further 9.5 percent in 2021. In December, the World Bank said that the depression was the result of a “deliberate lack of effective policy action by authorities.”
As the private sector collapses, the country’s politicians have used their access to state jobs and resources to buy the loyalty of large segments of the population. Khuri wonders whether they are intentionally trying to force out Lebanese who don’t toe the political line: “The evidence seems to be that they want people to leave, to change the face of the country.”
Khuri’s efforts to rally the AUB community to hold together in this time of crisis have been challenged by internal disputes sparked by the university’s straitened circumstances. Spurred by the drop in revenues, the university announced in December that it would require students to pay tuition at a rate of 3,900 lira to the dollar rather than the official rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar—a move that represented a 160 percent tuition hike for most students. Student groups responded by organizing a movement calling on students to pay their tuition at the official rate through the notary public, and then sued the university when it announced it would not accept payments in that manner.
It took over a decade to rebuild the American University of Beirut after the trauma of the civil war, and it could take just as long to revive its fortunes after the current crisis.
Lingering resentment also continues within AUB over how the administration handled the layoffs of 600 staff from its hospital last year. On the day of the sackings, the army established a large presence around the hospital to ensure the newly-fired staff would leave peacefully. Some employees saw this heavy-handed approach as at odds with the university’s exhortations that they should sacrifice for the good of their shared community.
While Khuri sees it as part of his job to sympathize with the challenges faced by students and employees, another part is to provide a stern voice about economic reality. He is more accommodating toward the students: The movement to pay tuition through the notary public has been a failure, he said, as 99 percent of students had paid tuition at the requested rate. At the same time: “If you’re young and don’t rebel and question authority, why are you in college?”
He takes a harsher line when it comes to doctors’ complaints about the layoffs. The firings were necessary because the hospital had hit “not a glass ceiling, but a titanium ceiling” with regard to its finances. He blamed the doctors for failing to provide detailed feedback about how to target layoffs, saying that as a result, the firings were more broad-based than he would have liked. And finally, he defended the army presence around the hospital when the layoffs were announced, which he said was spurred by an intelligence report warning that the firings could have led to protests that may have resulted in property destruction. While he admired the doctors’ commitment to their staff, “I’d be more inclined to listen to their whining if more of them stuck around.”
From many doctors’ perspective, however, the prospect of staying in Lebanon has become increasingly untenable. Doctors at AUB are receiving $20,000 of their salary in fresh dollars while the rest arrives in lollars—as a result, they are earning far less than what they could be making abroad. Nurses and support staff have it far worse: Most of them are paid in Lebanese lira, and consequently have seen their salary lose roughly 85 percent of its value.
As a result, doctors who have extensive financial commitments abroad—children attending university in the United States, for example, or a mortgage in Britain—have already left. Some of the departures have come in bunches: One renowned cardiothoracic surgeon left to join a hospital in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya and took many of his department’s nurses with him.
Those who remain are frustrated by the increasing obstacles they face in providing high-quality care. Medical equipment must be imported from abroad with dollars that are in increasingly scarce supply, leading to shortages. “Every day, I have to brace myself for the fact that I’m going to walk in the office and they’re going to tell me we ran out of this essential item,” one doctor said. “Why would I want to stay in a place where I can only offer services with substandard equipment?”
But the grim situation is not necessarily hopeless. Khuri takes solace in the fact that AUB has been able to hold on to a disproportionate number of its “superstars”—faculty members that would have the easiest time finding work elsewhere if they chose to leave. It is these men and women that Khuri hopes will form the nucleus of a revived AUB, much like those who stayed during the civil war and rebuilt the university after it ended.
It took over a decade to rebuild AUB after the trauma of the civil war, and it could take just as long to revive its fortunes after the current crisis. Whether the university, and the country as a whole, succeeds in this effort depends greatly on its ability to keep its most talented people in the country.
Particularly at the present moment, many Lebanese would point out that there is a thin line between sacrificing for your country and being ripped off by it. At the same time, the decision to leave one’s home is often just as difficult. “You can literally watch this place fall apart in front of you and know better—that it’s unstable, it’s potentially anarchic, you can’t guarantee your own safety—and you still stick around,” Chatah said.
If there is reason for optimism, it stems from the continued emotional pull Beirut exerts even on those who have fled it. And even as the current wave of departures accelerates, there is still a chance many may eventually follow their hearts home. “I think Beirut is the best story ever told,” Chatah said. “It just depends on how you tell it.”
Top photo: The American University of Beirut, College Hall (marviikad, Wikimedia Commons)