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Higher Education in the Middle East: America's Legacy

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us as we welcome Dr. Joseph Jabbra, president of the Lebanese American University, to our program today.

Many of the things that America has tried to export to the Middle East, such as freedom and democracy, are in disrepute. Even so, there is one thing that hasn't lost its capacity to inspire, and that is an American-style education, which, in fact, might just hold the key to improving U.S. diplomatic relationships.

One of the reasons that our educational system is still so popular there is because of its history in the region. In the late 19th and early 20th century, American missionaries traveled to the Middle East, but soon realized that they weren't going to convert many Muslims to Christianity. Therefore, they redirected their efforts towards education, building schools and universities. At the time, the Arab Middle East was part of the Turkish empire, and American missionary education became part of their mission of bringing self-determination to people throughout the world. The missionaries did this, not by preaching regime change and revolution, but by teaching skills necessary for enlightened citizenship.

One of the earliest efforts was the establishment of the Lebanese American University in Beirut. The university was founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1835 as a school for the education of women in the Ottoman Empire. Their mission was to emphasize and encourage American values, such as free speech and, of course, responsible academic freedom.

For several decades after the establishment of this university and the American universities in Beirut and Cairo, there was a hiatus on opening and operating American institutions abroad. However, in the 1970s, more American universities began to open international campuses. Today branch campuses of well-known American universities, such as NYU, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M School of Engineering, and others, are growing in number throughout the Middle East. All of these new initiatives are being supported by forward-thinking Arab leaders, who recognize that higher education is really key to the future of their region. The educational landscape is changing.

But according to our speaker, these new branch campuses are not part of the fabric of the region, as the older universities have been and are. As these new affiliates struggle to figure out what kind of presence to have in this part of the world, the question becomes whether they can promote the United States and its ideals in the same way the so-called legacy institutions have done in the past.

For the answer, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our speaker today, Dr. Joseph Jabbra.

Thank you for joining us.

Remarks

JOSEPH JABBRA: Thank you very much, Joanne.

Good evening. The first thing I would like to do is thank you for being here tonight. This is a great occasion for me.

I would like to talk about three main areas:

  • First, I would like to talk to you about the challenges that the area, and in particular the Arab world, is facing insofar as higher education is concerned.

  • Second, I'll go over American institutions in the area and what they are doing.

  • Thirdly, I will speak about the impact American higher education is having in that part of the world. Under that, I will address three main areas: American higher education values in general, liberal arts education in particular, and American institutions as agents of change in the area. Then I'll conclude.

But before I start with the challenges that are facing the area, on the way here from Beirut I read an article which was quite interesting. The title was "Eureka! They Are People Like Us." The author goes on to say that these people have the same aspirations we do.

First, they are concerned about having and keeping their jobs, about having bread and butter on the table for their families and their kids. Secondly, these people are concerned about the safety, the health, and the education of their sons and daughters. Thirdly, these people—talking about people in the area—would love to have democracy, would love to freely elect their leaders, and if they are dissatisfied with them, they'd love to kick the rascals out.

The author concludes by saying, "By George, they have the same aspirations as we do."

Let me begin talking about some of the challenges that the area is facing. It has been said that the area, in particular the Arab world, lacks three things:

  • First, it lacks education.

  • Second, which is very important, it lacks empowerment of women.

  • Third, there is a tremendous poverty in the area, despite the fact that people think that the area is very rich because of oil.

Writers have spoken about the fact that the lack of education and poverty have contributed in the past to the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. They also have contributed in the past to civil war in Latin America. And to a certain extent, in the area at the present time, they are contributing to some extremist movements that are growing in the area.

If we go back to American involvement in the area, we realize that it went through three different phases. We first had the phase of the missionaries, who went there to convert the Muslims to Christianity, and when they did not succeed in doing that—they converted few Christians—they focused, fortunately, on establishing institutions of education. That was a great contribution.

The second phase was the economic phase, when oil was discovered and the West became very concerned about that particular source of energy and what to do with it. Of course, that's when we in the United States became more and more involved in the area.

The third phase was the political one. Although the three phases are interconnected, for the purpose of analysis, I'm trying to draw a distinction.

If you take a look at the population in the area, the overwhelming majority of people are under 30, and the overwhelming majority of those who are under 30 are under 20. Governments and societies are faced with a very difficult challenge. That is, in the next 15 to 20 years, in order to respond to the needs of youth, those governments in the area will have to create a minimum of 100 million jobs. It's absolutely staggering. Just think for a moment about what they will have to do in order to provide jobs for those who are graduating from universities and colleges. Otherwise, they are going to have unrest on their hands.

If you analyze the higher education system in the area, one of the things you discover is the fact that historically, higher education was focused on graduating students for government jobs. But at the present time the absorptive capacity of governments has been completely saturated. There is a disconnect between what colleges and universities are doing and what is available out there. This is very important.

A final challenge, which was pointed to by a major report by the UNDP about five years ago, is a very serious issue that governments and societies in that part of the world are not really paying attention to, and that is the knowledge gap.

Having provided this context, let me deal with American higher education. If you take a look at the list of institutions, three main institutions come to the fore. The first one is the American University of Beirut, AUB. In 1882, the board of commissioners for Foreign Missions in New York decided that they wanted to establish a college there that was American-based. They asked a very prominent person in that particular area to begin working very hard in order to make sure that a college was created patterned upon the American system. As a result of that, the American Syrian College was created. Later on, it evolved and it changed its title to AUB. But the main model that was in the mind of the board of commissioners was to create a college that was liberal arts-based.

The second American university was AUC, American University of Cairo, which was created in 1919, for the same purpose—education of young Egyptians and, secondly, engagement of the university in helping society meet its challenges. AUC is still operating up to the present time in Egypt.

The third American institution is Lebanese American University. As you heard, our roots go back to 1834, when a missionary coming back from the Near East, as they used to call it at that time, by the name of Eli Smith, began to travel the United States telling people about his experience. He got to Norwich, Connecticut, and while he was giving his report, there was a young woman of fame and riches sitting in the audience [Sarah Lanman Huntington], who played a major role in the city when Andrew Jackson issued his famous—or infamous—edict telling everyone that all non-civilized nations must be ostracized west of the Mississippi. As we know, the Mohegan Indians were in that particular part of the United States.

She decided to raise funds in order to establish a school for the Mohegans and their sons and daughters in a church. As a result of that, the Mohegans were considered a civilized nation and were not asked to leave their lands. They are still in that part of Connecticut, having at the present time the largest casino in the United States.

When Eli Smith finished his lecture, she came to him and began to ask him questions. While she was getting information about his experience, there was something else going in her mind. She fell in love with him. He told her, "Look, it would be impossible for us to get married, because I'm returning to the area."

She said to him, "You're not returning by yourself. I'm returning with you."

In 1834, they sailed out of Norwich, Connecticut, heading for Lebanon. In 1835, they set foot there. It took them three months to get from Norwich to Lebanon. The first thing she wanted to do was to establish an American school for the education of women in the Ottoman empire. Those of you who are familiar with the American higher education scene, that school was established two years before Mount Holyoke was established in the United States.

Unfortunately, two years after she established the school, she received a message from her mother telling her that her dad was very sick and would like to see her before he died. She jumped on a ship. Unfortunately, there was a shipwreck near Cyprus. They saved her, but she contracted a very bad disease and she died. She was buried in Izmir, or Smyrna, in Turkey. Her tomb is still there up to the present time.

That small school that she established, grew and grew. At the turn of the last century, it became known as American Junior College. It went through a number of iterations, and in 1993, it became known as LAU, Lebanese American University.

These are three American institutions. The reason why I say that is because they were created by Americans and they are chartered in the United States. There is no difference between an American institution here in the United States and any of these three institutions. The pattern was American liberal arts education.

There is also a fourth one, the American University of Sharjah. Although it is American, it is a bit different. It was established by the emir of Sharjah. It is chartered in Delaware and it is nevertheless  an American institution patterned on the liberal arts model.

Over and above these four higher education institutions, we witnessed an incredible growth in American-style institutions created throughout the region. They were created by people in that region, but they are American-style institutions, not American institutions in the sense of the three first ones and the fourth one.

Recently we witnessed a new phenomenon, and that is the rise of American branch institutions. A number of leading institutions in the United States decided to establish branches in that part of the world. The jury is still out as to how these branch institutions are going to continue to function and really fulfill their obligations to the region. Nevertheless, they are there, and they are competing with local as well as American institutions in the full sense of the word. As we all know, competition is of the essence of American higher education.

The area is replete with American consultants who are advising new American-style schools as to how to introduce the American model in that region. If you take a look at all of these schools, universities, colleges, and the consultants and what they are doing, the impact of American higher education can be felt throughout the region. Let me address this particular issue very clearly.

I will begin with the general values of American higher education. First, there is a sense of respect that is instilled in the students; respect for each other and for the human dignity.

Secondly, there is a tremendous sense of tolerance. Despite sometimes the strains that we go through, diversity is considered to be a strong source of unity, enriching the students, rather than a source of divisiveness.

What we witness with the liberal arts model is the following: Within the curriculum, there is a high degree of flexibility and freedom that is given to the students to choose their courses, especially in the area of electives. There is something that is really special and particular to American higher education, and that is the exposure of students to the wealth of human creativity and knowledge.

That leads me to the issue of the liberal arts education. What does it mean? It means a lot in our universities and our schools, although this concept has come under attack on several occasions.

First, when we talk about the liberal arts model, we talk about graduating educated students, not only students with skills. Especially in our day, given the fact that the global village is really facing incredible challenges, skills are not enough. They are important. We need to have them, as engineers, as doctors, and as architects. But over and above that, in order to make the right decisions, we need to be educated in the full sense of the term. That can come from the humanities—from history, from philosophy, from literature—which is very important, because it gives the student a sense of the human worth and the human experience.

If you take a look at the American model, at every institution, you have what we call a core curriculum. For example, at our university, no student enrolled in any of our professional schools, be it medicine, nursing, pharmacy, engineering, architecture—no one can graduate without satisfying the core requirements. The core requirements are very important. It offers the students courses in history, philosophy, and ethics. I would like to dwell a bit upon that.

If you take an institution, for example, like LAU—and I'm sure the other American institutions do the same—in our mission there are three very important elements, which are basically American elements:

  • Commitment to excellence in everything we do—not just in academics. That's the human endeavor, the aspiration of the human being to be a better human being. It can only come through that commitment to excellence. And excellence doesn't come very easily. It requires hard work, seriousness, and a sense of order in our lives.

  • Secondly—and it's relevant to Lebanon, the region, and to our context within the United States—the issue of inclusiveness. It means that it doesn't matter what religion, political party, or socioeconomic status that you belong to, as long as you are qualified and are willing to work very hard in order to earn an education that is second to none, we welcome you with open arms. If you don't have the money to come to the institution, we have the obligation to raise the money in order to make sure that you have that opportunity.

  • American institutions abroad do give a lot of financial aid. Our institution gives over $12 million in financial aid every year, and we're raising that to $15.5 million, in order to make sure that the institution does not become only for rich people. That resonates with the values of American higher education.

  • Thirdly, which is also basically American, is the notion of service. Serving each other and the community in which we live is not a sin. We tell our students, "We want you to be successful individually. We want you to aspire to success. But your individual success, in order to be meaningful, must be grounded by your success in serving society. You can't only take away from society; you have to give back." It goes to the heart of American higher education.


The three elements would not mean a thing unless they are guided by, informed by, and undergirded by an ethical compass.

One of the things, my dear friends, that is threatening humanity is the fact that ethics, even in the best democracies in this world, is eroding. A lot of problems that we are facing here and elsewhere are related in one way or another to the fact that ethics are slipping away.

Our American institutions have not only the responsibility, but also the obligation, to make sure that we instill the notion, the value, and the importance of ethics in our students. We need to restore ethics to where it belongs.

Another major value of American higher education—and that's the liberal arts model—is the education of women. Not only the education of women, but the empowerment of women. You have in that part of the world women who are extremely capable. What they need is the opportunity to serve society and to excel in the service of society.

Having talked about some general values and the meaning of liberal arts, let me talk a little more about American institutions as being agents of change.

When students go to an American university, they are not only exposed to education, to teachers; they are exposed to a lot of other things that take place within the confines of an American institution. I'm going to go over them seriatim so that we have a notion of what's happening in that part of the world.

When the students come in, the first thing they are exposed to is the issue of financial aid scholarship and merit scholarship. That gives them the notion that someone else is helping them get educated. When they graduate, they need to think about the fact that, in turn, they need to provide the opportunity for other people to get educated. In itself, that's a learning lesson for our young people, in order to learn to give—not only in terms of financial matters, but to give themselves to society so that others may have a better life. This is very American, the history of America—to give. Remember the engagement in World War I and World War II, giving not only in terms of money, but giving of oneself so that others may have a better life.

The second element that students are exposed to is the notion of governance within an institution. American institutions are unique in that sense. Sometimes they say, "You're the president of the university. You can do anything you please." My answer to them is that, at times, I feel powerless because of the structure of the institution. You have not only the president, but you have the faculty senate, the staff, and the students. It's very important for the students to learn the meaning of governance, that things will have to be resolved through negotiations, and not by violence or by force. They witness that.

In fact, student elections are a typical example of what I'm talking about. These young students are engaged in the electoral process, which gives them the idea that understanding each other and debating without having recourse to force is very important for society.

Philanthropy is a unique feature of American higher education. Americans do give. Fundraising is something that is really unique to America. I'm spending a lot of time informing people, telling our students about the importance of philanthropy.

The students, in an American context, learn about some of the perhaps intractable issues that are being debated by faculty, students, and staff. I'll mention at least two of them.

The whole notion of access and quality is a very important debate. Why? Because if you take a look at the higher education scene in that part of the world, quality assurance is lacking.

American institutions—LAU, AUB, AUC—are accredited by American accrediting agencies, AUC and AUB by Middle States, LAU by NEASC, New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The whole notion of allowing everyone to come in, but making sure that the standards of education are kept high is a major debate that is taking place in that part of the world. At the present time, governments are beginning to think about what to do with it. If you take an institution like Cairo University, you have 250,000 students. How are you going to deal with that?

We, as American institutions, are being looked at as a model for higher education in that part of the world.

The second debate that is taking place, which is basically American as well, is whether or not we should go to university for the sake of an education or get educated to get a job. The debate is really raging. Some people would say, "We are here to get educated, and when we graduate, we'll find a job." Others are maintaining and arguing vociferously that we need to make sure that these colleges and universities, which are funded by the public purse, respond to the needs of the market and society.

The students are really exposed to that debate, and they learn from it quite a bit. When they graduate, they already are equipped, not only with the skills, but also with an education.

One thing that is upmost in their minds is how these American institutions can play the role of the bridge between the Arab world and the West. The students begin to debate that. They learn how to communicate, how to explain something without taking sides, and how to provide the pros and cons before you make a decision. The analytical mind goes to the heart of American liberal education. How do we develop students, to teach them not what to think, but how to think? This is absolutely essential.

What we have at the present time is that the graduates of American institutions, are running the Arab world. If you take a look at businesses in general, you will find that the graduates of American institutions are at the top because of their education and because they are making a difference in terms of responding to the challenges that societies in that part of the world are facing. If you take, for example, the whole area of higher education, our graduates are doing extremely well.

In government our graduates are doing extremely well. Just think for a moment that between AUC, AUB, and LAU, we have about 20,000 to 21,000 students on a yearly basis. These students do graduate and find jobs in the region. A lot of them cross the oceans and come here or go to Europe. But wherever they are, the imprint of American higher education can be read on their faces and can be seen in their behavior on a daily basis.

When I go to the Hill in Washington, D.C. and discuss these matters with senators and congresspeople, one of the things that I mention to them is, "You get so involved in your daily business, and you forget about higher education abroad. Perhaps these American institutions are doing a better job being agents of change than our tanks and airplanes."

Thank you very much for listening to me.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Allen Young.

You mentioned the importance of liberal arts and the humanities. As I'm sure you know, there has been quite a controversy over the past three or four decades in this country about the contents of liberal arts and whether we should focus on the Western canon or whether we need to expand that Western canon to include literature and the arts of other parts of the world, including the Arab world.

Are these issues debated in the American universities in the Middle East? Where do they come out on that issue?

JOSEPH JABBRA:
Not only are they debated, but the results of the debate are being included. Why only focus on Western authors? Why don't we add other authors, which may offer a lot of good points in terms of the education of our young people? Not only is this issue being debated, but there are a lot of contributions made from other cultures that come into play within the curriculum that we have.

The debate is still raging, as you said, in this country. Nevertheless, American institutions abroad are open to that.

QUESTION: Thank you. James Starkman.

How expansive are indigenous Arab institutions of higher learning? Have there been spring-offs from the American institutions that you referred to?

JOSEPH JABBRA: American institutions are used as role models in terms of the content of the curriculum. You have a lot of institutions in the area that don't follow that. Nevertheless, American pedagogical philosophy is being a good ferment in that part of the world, and other, non-American institutions are learning quite a bit from American institutions in the area. Not only that, but as I mentioned, they are asking consultants. I'll give you an example. I was involved with The Emirates. They were asking consultants to come from the United States in order to help them put together a curriculum for elementary and high school students.

There is a give-and-take between the two. I need to make this point. Whether people agree or disagree with American foreign policy in that part of the world, everyone would love their kids, their sons and daughters, to go to an American institution and get an American degree. That is really fascinating to look at and analyze. But the area still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of non-American education.

I gave the example of the University of Cairo. The incredible number of students—how do you really make sense of that and how do you really make sure that the students are not wasting their time, that they are learning something? The number of students is going to continue to increase. The population explosion in that part of the world is remarkable.

QUESTIONER: Does Hezbollah sponsor any higher education institutions?

JOSEPH JABBRA: As I said, I don't want to get into politics. Nevertheless, I'm sure they have their own school.

One of the things that I was successful at was to take LAU out of politics. We are open to educating people. We are not in politics.

QUESTION: I'm David Hunt.

Has there been any effort on the part of the governments where these institutions reside to control the curriculum? For example, under the Mubarak regime, was there a thought that these institutions are teaching Jeffersonian democracy or freedom of the press; things that they might not be quite so comfortable with?

JOSEPH JABBRA: It's a very good question. Insofar as LAU and AUB in Lebanon, we have no interference by the government at all. Insofar as AUC, there has been no interference whatsoever in the curriculum. There might be some issues that are likely to rise between the government and the institution. But I don't think—to my knowledge, anyway—that the government has tried to interfere in the curriculum and the way we teach things.

Our programs are certainly vetted by accrediting agencies in the United States, but they have to be vetted as well by the government. We apply to the Lebanese government in order to have a new program in place. We have never run into any problem. They have never asked why we are including this subject matter. Nevertheless, they have to sanction what we offer. But we never had any interference dictating to us what kind of curriculum we should have in our school.

QUESTION: I know you have a significant Palestinian refugee population. Do they have access to the university?

JOSEPH JABBRA: One of the things we did at LAU was to make sure that funding is available for Palestinian students. The opportunity is given to them to come to LAU and to other American institutions. We went to foundations and asked them to contribute, and they did, without any hesitation.

We have a lot of students from the Palestinian camps who are doing extremely well, be it in pharmacy, engineering, or architecture. We feel very strongly that we should raise the money in order to provide those students with the opportunity to come to LAU and get an education that is second to none.

In fact, if you take a look at the region, the educated Palestinians—be it in business, education, or government—occupy very high positions.

In my research I found out that when the charter of the United Nations was signed in San Francisco in 1945, there were 50 states represented. Those who signed the charter—19 of them were graduates of AUB.

QUESTION: Harry Langer.

The Arab Spring has been generated by educated youth of the Arab nations desiring economic opportunity and representative government, as you rightly point out. What is the educational system, the American educational system—or any other system in the Arab world—doing to create a productive private-sector economy to provide the jobs for these people?

JOSEPH JABBRA: One of the things that we are doing, at least in our own experience, is to collaborate with the private sector and with the government sector in order to provide jobs for these kids. If you take a look at the banking system, for example, in Lebanon, it's saturated by graduates of LAU and AUB. They are given top priority. Once they come out of university, they are hired without any major issues—and not only in the banking industry; any other industry in the private sector in general. Students do find jobs.

In other countries—for example, for a long time in Egypt, graduates of universities have always found jobs in government. That goes way back to when Nasser was still in power. He said any graduate from any university would have a job with the government.

As I said, government jobs have been saturated. There are no more jobs. The private sector, the government, and the university sector must come together in order to make sure that those graduates do have jobs. Otherwise, there's going to be trouble.

QUESTION: Matthew Olson.

I hesitate to ask the question, because I don't know as much as I would like to ask the question. But, still, I have heard that Saudi Arabia is investing huge sums of money in establishing a major university in their country. Could you comment on that? Are they following the model that you have described here today or is it something a little different?

JOSEPH JABBRA: One of the things that I really would like to comment on and think out loud with you about is the following. I have some personal concern about the commercialization of higher education. That is a bias of mine. I feel that any time you commercialize higher education, you begin to cut corners, and the profit is taken away instead of being plowed back into the institution. Certainly Saudi Arabia has opened up and a lot of entrepreneurs are working very hard in order to get a permit to create a university. What does it mean for the future? That remains to be seen.

However, any new institution is asking for expertise from the West, be it from Europe or the United States, in order to help them put together the curriculum. That's a good sign.

How these institutions are going to fare as privately owned institutions, I'm not sure. But I told you about my bias. I am against commercializing higher education. The profit will be taken out of the institution and not plowed back into the institution. The temptation to cut corners is always there. Certainly they are asking consultants from Europe, the United States, and Canada.

QUESTION: Burt Siegel.

What is the number of students enrolled in your institution? Why did the Gulf states choose to go to ongoing American universities rather than start up universities there? Did they think of coming to you to create a startup? Would this be something that you would be interested in doing?

JOSEPH JABBRA: At our institution we are running at full capacity, to such an extent that we limited enrollment on the Beirut campus in our School of Business. We have at the present time 8,067 students. Our aim is to grow in the next five years or so to 10,000. But we need to be very careful about it. We need to be mindful of the absorptive capacity of the institution. How many students can you take in and really be in a comfortable position to respond to their needs, not only academic, but other needs as well?

There has been a realization on the part of governments throughout the world, and especially the third and fourth worlds, that education is at the heart of development. Therefore, there is a pride on the part of these governments to have their own institutions. That's why they are spending a lot of money in order to have those. They feel very strongly that the future belongs to the educated, and if they don't provide, as governments, for the institutions to really respond to the needs of society, they are going to be falling way behind.

It's national pride. It's a conviction that education is at the heart of development.

QUESTION: William Verdone.

You mentioned a sum total of about 20,000-and-some-odd students in those three universities.

How do you address the disenfranchised youth in the millions who have to choose between a job and an education? What would you say to them?

JOSEPH JABBRA:
In my own mind, education, education, education—this is the answer.

People are being very generous when it comes to education. I'll give you one example, LAU. I have been at LAU since 2004, when I left Los Angeles. I have not yet gone to a benefactor and asked him to give and been turned down. We are building a new building for the medical school. We went to one person and said, "You have an obligation to help."

He said, "How much?"

I said, "13.5 million."

He said, "You'll have it."

People realize that it is very important to educate, and education is expensive. They realize that they have to find the dough in order to provide that opportunity to the youth.

Are we going to have any problem? Yes, we will, because the absorptive capacity is going to be limited. Those are challenges that society and government will have to address. Otherwise, they are going to be in trouble.

JOANNE MYERS: We can say one thing. As long as you're at LAU, no one is in trouble. I thank you very much for being with us today.

 

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