The Other Side of America: US Education in the Middle East
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog correspondent Josh Mathew hopped a lecture on Friday about where you can go to get some learning in the Middle East.
In her introductory remarks, Lisa Anderson, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, introduced the panelists by noting the common misperception of American education in the Middle East: It doesn’t exist.
The presidents of American University of Cairo, Lebanese American University, and American University of Beirut, as well as the chancellor of American University of Sharjah (That’s in the UAE, folks) gathered to prove that stereotype wrong. But departing from the usual crowd of angry grad students with prepared diatribes for the question and answer session, the audience of well-dressed elders didn’t seem to need much convincing.
Things started off slow as AUC president David Arnold and AUS chancellor Winfred Thompson recited statistics regarding their schools’ diverse student bodies and faculties; however, the scope of discussion expanded as the panel turned towards the two American universities in Lebanon, presumably the focus of the audience’s interest considering last summer’s war.
LAU President Joseph Jabbra put it plainly: Lebanon “is where the action is.” Initially highlighting the university’s extensive financial aid, Jabbra emphasized the power of American education, as he believes that LAU serves to unify Lebanese students regardless not only of economic status but also of religion and ethnicity.
Speaking last, charismatic AUB President and Middle East scholar John Waterbury shifted the orientation of the lecture by directly addressing the dynamic relationship between the university and its often-turbulent surroundings. Echoing Jabbra’s understatement, Waterbury noted “Last summer was rough,” but reminded the audience that, having survived since its founding in 1866, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, and several sectarian conflicts, AUB won’t be closing its doors anytime soon.
Despite the U.S.’s response to the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Waterbury assured the audience that the Lebanese did not conflate American foreign policy with the university’s American faculty as staff and professors have not faced harassment from the locals. Similarly, he noted that the influx of southern Lebanese refugees into Beirut, even in their dire condition, never attempted to commandeer the campus’s facilities.
Pointing to AUB’s dedication to democracy and non-sectarianism, Waterbury noted that while several universities have suspended student elections in light of recent regional conflicts, AUB students cast their ballots this year in what was considered a “free and fair” election. That’s not to say there weren’t bumps along the way. Waterbury remarked that for each faction in Lebanon’s diverse and divided political arena, there was a student party equivalent competing in the elections. With 350 Lebanese soldiers guarding the campus against the alleged crowd of 2000-3000 of Beirut’s inhabitants, Waterbury postponed the counting of the ballots until the next morning in order to ensure a safe outcome (would that CCSC had a quarter of that excitement—you know, without the machine guns).
The One Columbia-SGB kerfuffle and a paltry 34% voter-turnout seem to pale in comparison to student elections in the Paris of the Middle East. I wondered whether these student were parties replicating their off-campus equivalents’ virulent sectarianism, or if it were simply a nerdier, more typical instance of student political enthusiasm like that of Model U.N.
So what connects these universities besides their emphasis on a vaguely American (presumably liberal arts?) education? Not much. While the four administrators expressed misgivings toward collaboration with the absurdly large and poorly funded public universities in the region (Damascus, Aleppo, Cairo, etc.), it also became apparent that the American universities’ greatest similarity was literally nominal as they operate within starkly different sociopolitical contexts. Waterbury joked that while 90% of his duties are identical to those of any university president in the States, the remaining 10% often has a “Lebanese…and sometimes Syrian flavor.” (Audience laughter). Meanwhile, Thompson mused that the politics of Sharjah are a bit different—the AUS was borne out of and is sustained by the “best government…a benevolent despotism.” (More audience laughter.) Finally, Arnold piped in that AUC’s political environment is somewhere between those of the UAE and Lebanon and that the university is still “experimenting with different forms of despotism.” (I heart political humor.)
While their paltry size relative to national universities limits the impact of these institutions and their liberal arts education, most of the speakers expressed interest in educational reform and competition in the region. Jabbra repeated his desire to bring public Lebanese universities “up to snuffs,” while Waterbury noted that AUB engages in considerable consulting with up-and-coming Arab universities hoping to attain the same caliber of education. The development of higher education in the Middle East not a question of resources, he reasoned, but rather of know-how.