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Spring 2007 Vol. V, No. 3

AUB Reflections

A Chat with George Tomey

George Tomey, AUB’s first vice president emeritus, reflects on his many accomplishments, discusses his enduring fascination with medical engineering, and shares memories—both painful and uplifting—from his long tenure at AUB.

When did you arrive at AUB?
I really never left AUB because I graduated in June 1962, left to work in government for one year, then came back as a part-timer to the Department of Physiology in 1963 and became a full-time employee in 1964. I was in Physiology until the late 1970s, when I moved to the hospital and established the Medical Engineering Department and became the assistant dean of medicine. In 1987, I was asked to become VP for administration and served in that position for 19 years. So I spent, all in all, 42 years at AUB.

What was your first impression?
At AUB, I was introduced to the field of biomedical engineering and I was fascinated by it. This was through a friend of mine; we were together in high school and then he went to medicine and I went to engineering. When we met after graduating, I found this is something very attractive to me. I started doing research with Dr. Suhayl Jabbur and eventually I went to the United States for two years and got my graduate degree from the University of Washington.

I taught medical students for a long time; I taught them general physiology and biophysics and I helped Dr. Jabbur in the neuro-physiology laboratory courses. I established a required course for PhD students, called biomedical electronics, which is electronics as applied to medicine and biology; it was a very popular course. In brief, I liked teaching and research and when I moved to administration, it was not my cup of tea. But I was asked by Dr. Nassif to help establish the Department of Medical Engineering. I equipped the hospital from A to Z. It was a challenge, and I liked it in this respect. Later, I was among those who were nominated to the position of VP for administration and I was selected by the Board of Trustees and President Herter; I don’t think it is a job one can refuse.

What was the biggest change you noticed while at AUB?
I passed through AUB in the 1960s, which were the glorious days of AUB when 50 percent of my classmates were from all over the world, and so were the faculty. When we lost them all, I think this was very sad and I am very happy to see that now we’re reviving this mixture again. I believe that this is a nice change in the right direction, and especially that we’re reviving the PhD programs. Because with PhDs, as I witnessed before, there was a boom of research and every single lab in basic medical sciences was active and publishing. Research gives life to a university. Those were good old days and I would like to see AUB come back to this atmosphere.

What do you think your students most remember about your classes?
I think they were quite challenging for them; they didn’t know about the application of engineering to medicine and now, without it, I don’t think medicine can advance a lot. We talked about the very basics: the generation of electrical signals in the body and how we can make use of automation to diagnose and treat: MRIs, CT scanners, ultrasound, and so on. My specialty in graduate work was ultrasound.

Are you still in touch with many of your former students?
Yes. I meet them a lot. Some of them became professors here at AUB.

Did you stay at AUB throughout the war (1975-90)?
I stayed through all the years of the wars and these were difficult times. We were trying to simply survive and I spent many months in the basement of the engineering school. My house was across the street from engineering so my office was in the basement there. It was not an office; it was a mattress on the floor with my laptop and a telephone. That was difficult and I don’t like to remember those days.

Do you have particular memories from those years?
We were many times in dire need of food, fuel, water, electricity, and so on. So we managed in the war to get fuel from our neighbors. We devised a truck with a pump and a small container and we would go around and people would donate fuel to AUB; not only because it was a worthy cause but also because—this was during the Israeli invasion of 1982—people were afraid their houses would be blown up and they had stores of fuel, so they started donating this. I used to supply our neighbors in Ain el Mreisseh with power and they would pump water into our reservoirs from their water wells. These are nice memories. When people were short of bread, I gave power to

one of the bakeries across the street and they would give me bread for the hospitals. Many memories like this will keep your faith in mankind and humanity.

Of course, we were blown out of College Hall and this was another major catastrophe. I managed to relocate all of the departments and within ten days they were all operational. That was the most traumatic experience that I’ve witnessed. They were tough years. The campus was hit by around 89 shells. Every time we were hit by a shell, we tried to repair it. My house was also hit when I used to live on campus across the street from engineering. We used to cross the street at night and sleep in the basement. One night we were hit by two shells. My daughter’s car was simply blown to the trees. That morning I decided, “That’s it.” My wife and I took our two daughters and drove across two borders into Jordan from where they left for the United States and lived for a month with friends that we knew when I was studying in Seattle. My wife and I drove back from Jordan to AUB and, eventually, my daughters continued their studies at the University of Washington.

When did you leave AUB? Have you been back? What are you doing now?
It was a mutual agreement with the president that I would retire at the end of 2005-06. I was supposed to leave in August and take my vacation in September, but the president said, “You’re experienced with the war, so why don’t you stay?” So I stayed until things calmed down and left in early December.

I was acting president several times, whenever the president or provost was not here. In the summer of 2006, I formed the Crisis Response Team. Everyone stood up to this challenge and they really helped me in keeping this place running. The president wanted me to write a manual, but I told him that every single crisis is different than all the others because each has its own characteristics and priorities.

Now I am back to my field—biomedical engineering—and I am doing some consultation work in Lebanon and in the Middle East. I am trying to find out if I can be of use and I think people may want to take advantage of my experience. I am also taking it easy now and enjoying my granddaughter. I come back to AUB occasionally. I live nearby, so I can walk and stroll through campus. I also come to some activities that take place in Assembly Hall and some department gatherings. I keep in touch.

What impact has AUB had on your life?
It’s a difficult question. I think AUB shaped the way I first studied, what I studied, the career I chose, and the course of my professional life. My daughter asked me once, “When you go into a library or Barnes and Noble, which section do you go to?” I said engineering, so she said, “This is where your heart is.” I think that medical engineering is a very challenging and interesting field and I thank AUB for directing me to that.

Do you have something you would like to say to your former students?
It has been a long, long time, but I can tell them that I remember every single class that I gave. It was enjoyable and I am proud of where they are right now.

What stands out as your most important accomplishment at AUB?
I cherished my years of teaching and research and I liked what I introduced in the form of automation to AUB: the state-of-the-art hospital and medical equipment, automation of the library, and introduction of the Student Information System that allowed on-line registration. All of these are things that I am proud of. I modernized the power plant and this is what kept the University running—the mere fact that we had power. I also established the first fiber optic network at AUB and wired the buildings so that all professors, students, and administrators had access to the internet and were reachable by e-mail. This was a challenge made by Trustee Khoury and we responded, thanks to the efforts of Nabil Bukhalid and his Computing and Networking Services team.

As VP, I worked with several departments and each had its own specialty. It was interesting working with human resources; we developed job evaluations, job classifications, job descriptions, ratings systems, and salary ranges. Business Services was another challenge: supplies, procurement, housing, all of that. I can go on. I had around seven departments reporting to me and, when I left, I was replaced by six people.

In what ways has technology made life at AUB better or worse?
I think if you use technology intelligently it will help you. The work of the Academic Computing Center that is being done now is a very good tool and helpful for teaching and research. Of course, we moved from experiments into videos and demonstrations, so students do not have the hands-on experience. I taught them active transport across a frog’s skin where you would put the frog across a chamber and put radioactive sodium on one side. If you see this on a screen, you will see it much more efficiently, but it never replaces an actual experiment. Maybe I am from the old school, but I think you should at least maintain some laboratories. In a university environment, definitely automation is the right thing to do. But I think automation should be a tool to help you and not the only thing.