Spring 2008 Vol. VI, No. 3
Inside the Gate
Peter Dorman, AUBs
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.
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
Philip S. Khoury
Chair, Presidential Search Committee