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Spring 2008 Vol. VI, No. 3

Inside the Gate

Peter Dorman, AUB’s 15th president

Back to Beirut

He may not be an AUBite, but the University’s newly elected 15th president, Peter F. Dorman, was born at the AUB Hospital, grew up on Bliss Street, and his Aunt Belle (who will turn 100 this year!) knew Daniel Bliss. We won’t see him on campus until the fall, but here’s a quick introduction.

You might say that your connection to Beirut dates back to before you were born.
It’s true—I was born in Beirut, at what is now AUBMC. My father worked for the Presbyterian Mission in Lebanon at the time, so my four siblings and I all grew up there and went to the American Community School (ACS). At first, we lived on Bliss Street itself in the old Dorman House, which was torn down in the 1950s and replaced by a movie theater and a memorable shawarma restaurant called Sheikh Salim and Cousin. One of my earliest memories was jumping over the campus terraces with Randy Wilson, the son of John Wilson, who was dean of the Faculty of Medicine in the 1950s and 1960s. Randy was one of my very best friends back then, and climbing the banyan tree outside the Observatory was a favorite activity.

My Aunt Belle clearly remembers Daniel Bliss, her great-grandfather, who died when she was just eight years old. She chiefly recalls him as an imposing older gentleman with shock-white hair, whose presence was as impressive as the profile of his prominent nose. And my father, Harry Dorman, often told us stories of how difficult life was during World War I, when there was a terrible shortage of food. At one point during the famine, orange circles of all sizes began to appear on the plaster walls around the AUB campus and in Hamra. People were taking oranges and just barely scraping off the bitter orange peel on the rough wall, in order not to waste any of the white pith, then eating the whole fruit, rind and all.

But when you grew up, you abandoned the Phoenicians for the ancient Egyptians.
As we were growing up, my family did a good bit of traveling around Lebanon and in the Middle East, and I’m sure that’s where my interest in Egyptology began. I had always been vaguely interested in Egypt and in ancient history, perhaps not in the passionate way that many people develop when they’re in the fifth or sixth grades—gold and mummies and all the rest of it. But with my degree in anthropology from Amherst College in hand, I applied to the graduate school at the University of Chicago in Egyptology. The program there happened to click with me. It’s heavily philological and historically oriented in a fundamental way, and I fell in love with it.

When did you return to the Middle East?
After I left graduate school, I held a job for ten years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the Egyptian Art Department, and after that I returned to the University of Chicago to serve as director of the Epigraphic Survey, which is a long running expedition of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in Luxor dedicated to the precise documentation of the reliefs and inscriptions on temple walls. During my time as director of the survey, our family spent many months in Egypt every winter. That position also entailed an academic appointment at the University of Chicago, and in 1998 I went back to teach at Chicago full time.

What’s your niche, and will you be teaching at AUB?

My specialty is essentially New Kingdom history and language, roughly the period of the Egyptian Empire between 1,500 and 1,000 B.C. My particular interest is exploring the interconnections between language, image, and material culture and the ways in which these aspects of Egyptian civilization are so intimately related. Because the hieroglyphic writing system is itself pictorial, the Egyptians took special delight in manipulating the relationship between image and text: there is often a wonderful interplay between representations on a temple wall and what is ostensibly an accompanying

inscription. I would love to teach at AUB, but I suspect my hands are going to be full for a couple of years. Before the Civil War, AUB had an outstanding Egyptologist on the faculty, William Ward, who was highly regarded in the field. Eventually I hope I can revive the interest in Egyptology that he represented so prominently and so ably for a good number of years.

Do you have a favorite hieroglyph?
That’s a bit like asking what your favorite letter of the alphabet is, but I‘ve become especially enamored of one hieroglyphic sign that depicts the ram-headed potter god, Khnum, at work at his potter’s wheel. The sign basically originated as the verb “to mold a pot,” but since Khnum was regarded as the deity who actively molded the flesh of humankind at birth, the hieroglyph can also stand for the verb, “to fashion, create” in the very broadest sense. The sign of the potter’s wheel was then adapted to signify the creative energies of the solar god, who was shown on the ceilings of royal tombs as a divine potter in the last hour of night, refashioning himself on the wheel as the infant sun disk just before sunrise. These associations illustrate the ease with which Egyptians combined, and recombined, text and image to create visual puns and to conceptualize religious truths.

How did the current political situation in Lebanon influence your decision to move from Chicago, Illinois, to Beirut?
My wife, Kathy, and I spent three months in Beirut in the spring of 2006 just before the July war, when I was offered a visiting position at the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES). It was the ideal time to be resident at AUB, and it’s that experience that reassures us that, although the political situation is not especially stable or predictable in the near term, we don’t feel personally that we’re going to be at risk. We’re also aware that Lebanon has gone through difficult times before, and are looking forward, very much, to getting back to Beirut.

How do you think the new wave of American-style educational institutions and US branch campuses in the Middle East will impact AUB?

It’s enormously gratifying to see the demand for cooperative academic programs in the Gulf that stress an Americanstyle education. A number of the programs that are being set up in the Gulf are quite directed in terms of their educational goals, while others are aimed at a more general liberal-arts approach. AUB’s great distinction is not only its world-class medical school and professional schools, but its broad-based humanistic and social sciences faculties, a combination that is not offered elsewhere in the region, to my knowledge.

To my mind, the overriding importance of AUB and other American educational institutions in the Middle East is that collectively they represent the very best of what the United States has to offer—freedom of thought and discourse, and the opportunity to train young minds to pursue productive and rewarding careers—at a time when the American image overseas has regrettably suffered so much in recent years.

With so many changes on campus in so many areas, where do you start?
Following a highly successful fundraising campaign, AUB’s long-range Campus Master Plan looks ahead for a number of years to the completion of new constructions and to the renovation of older facilities across campus, which will make a huge difference to teaching and research. I am particularly keen to learn more about the interaction between faculty and students at AUB and the ways in which we can move forward to enhance the diverse intellectual community already so vibrant on campus, in terms of expanding research opportunities and enriching degree programs. The dialogue between students and their faculty mentors is the essential part of the life of any great educational institution.

Any words for our alumni?
I view the alumni of AUB—one of the most dedicated and loyal alumni groups of any university I know—as one of its extraordinary assets, one of its great treasures. So many AUB graduates have gone on to important positions in the diplomatic and business worlds, in academia and elsewhere, that they serve as effective ambassadors of their alma mater and constitute an irreplaceable asset for helping to build the University’s future. I look forward to meeting them.

And just to confirm the rumors, could you run through your family tree for us?
Daniel Bliss is my great-great grandfather. His eldest daughter, Mary Bliss, was married to a school teacher, Gerald FitzGerald Dale, who came to Beirut and then traveled with her to Zahleh to teach. He and two of their three daughters were lost in the cholera epidemic, so Mary moved back to Beirut as a widow with her one surviving daughter, also named Mary, and she organized, along with Jane Elizabeth Van Zandt, AUB’s School of Nursing. Her daughter, Mary Dale, married my grandfather Harry Dorman, a doctor who came out to Beirut to work at the AUB Hospital and who became the first dean of the Faculty of Medicine in the 1920s. So my father’s generation all grew up in Beirut and my father ultimately became a missionary in Lebanon. It all seems to come home in this rather roundabout way.

Why recycle?
Recycled glass generates 20% less air pollution and 50% less water pollution.

A word from the Presidential Search Committee...
The Presidential Search Committee was unanimous in its recommendation to the AUB Board of Trustees that it appoint Professor Peter Dorman of the University of Chicago as AUB’s 15th president. The committee felt strongly that he possesses the personal and moral integrity and academic vision to take AUB to new heights as the leading teaching-centered research university in the Arab world. He has a strong commitment to strengthening AUB’s research environment and its ties to the University’s teaching mission. He also understands that AUB’s continued leadership will depend not only on the growth and success of its new PhD programs but also on the continuous improvement of its core undergraduate programs. Dorman is committed to diversifying AUB’s student body, to attracting and retaining outstanding faculty from around the world, and to increased outreach and service to Lebanon and its region. We are confident that he will build on the achievements of President John Waterbury.

In consulting the AUB faculty and students, the search committee heard loud and clear how important it would be for the next president to have direct familiarity and experience with Lebanon and its region. That Peter Dorman was born and raised in Beirut in the 1950s around the AUB campus and belongs to AUB’s founding Bliss family, certainly was attractive to the search committee. That he spent a significant period of his adult life as a scholar in Egypt was too. In the interview process, he made very clear that only the lure of a leadership position at AUB could possibly pry him away from his present position as a professor at the University of Chicago. In the end, the search committee converged on Peter Dorman owing to his proven integrity and reputation, his engaging personality, his strong academic accomplishments, his clear sense of what it means and takes to become a great research university, his attractive managerial style, his commitment to the ongoing efforts to rebuild AUB’s regional stature and leadership, including a commitment to attracting the requisite financial resources to enable AUB to reach the next level of distinction, and his more than passing familiarity with and commitment to Lebanon and the region.

Philip S. Khoury
Chair, Presidential Search Committee