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Spring 2009 Vol. VII, No. 3

AUB Reflections

From Uncle Sam's to UN Days

An Interview with Riad Tabbara (BA '56)

Riad Tabbara launched his 27-year career with the United Nations as a young PhD student at Vanderbilt University in the 1960s. After serving as AUB’s FHS dean in the early 1990s, former Prime Minister and AUB Trustee Rafic B. Hariri convinced him to serve as Lebanon’s ambassador in Washington. Three years later he returned to Beirut, and finally followed up on the dream he has had since his days at IC.

MainGate: When did you arrive at AUB and what were your first impressions?
Riad Tabbara: That was in 1953. I had just graduated from the French section of International College, so I knew AUB pretty well—it was really a continuation of IC. We were on campus frequently. Until now, I feel that IC is part of AUB.

But perhaps my first impression was that I didn’t know enough English. We thought we knew English, but our first professors were Americans, and the American accent was difficult to understand. When I first visited the United States I had the same problem, because my vocabulary was so limited. Once I needed a needle and thread, but none of our university language or our conversations at Uncle Sam’s had prepared me for this practical necessity.

After graduation in 1956 you went to the United States for your MA and PhD. When did you return to AUB?
Well, I toured the world before I returned to Lebanon in 1975. I worked in Ethiopia, New York, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. When I joined the United Nations while I was completing my PhD at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, I was shipped out after four months in New York to Ethiopia as a demographer, not as an economist. I wrote my dissertation on population and development, and then I did a manual on demography.

Did you think of yourself as a demographer?
No, but I always thought of myself as in the social sciences. At one point at the UN I was director of all the social programs in the Middle East, and I was head of the population policy section. You know, it has always been unclear where economics ends and sociology begins. Shortly after I returned to Lebanon in 1975 to work with UN ESCWA as chief of the population division, the war started, but I remained here until 1982 when I went as UN representative to Tunisia and the Arab League and UN liaison with the PLO. After five years with UN ESCWA in Baghdad as head of social programs, I joined AUB as dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences in 1991.

Did you do any teaching as dean?
Yes, but not regular courses. I used to cover large parts of certain courses such as statistics, demography, and the economics of health.

When you came back to AUB after such a long period of time, 1956 to 1991, did you notice any big changes at the University? Any changes caused by the war?
During that period, I always used to visit, so I saw the development as it happened, more or less. AUB was almost home. I was raised in Ras Beirut. Our house was just across the street from AUB, so whenever I returned, I was in the neighborhood.

Although much the same, there were some subtle changes on campus. The University was more conservative in a way. Some of the girls were covering their hair, wearing the hijab. The teaching was not of the caliber that it used to be, but the quality of the students remained surprisingly high. As dean I visited Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan. At Johns Hopkins they would

tell me, “Whoever you send from AUB, we will accept, because everyone who has come from AUB in the last few years has been exceptional.” I couldn’t forget that. I couldn’t reconcile that statement with what I’ve just said about the decline in the quality of teaching.

I thought about it and decided it was because we used to get very good students—the cream of the cream. They had to come from very good high schools, and they had to be the very best in those schools. Health Sciences took only the top 20 percent of those who passed the AUB entrance exam. We had the very best students in the world. I taught, at one time, at Berkeley, which is supposed to be one of the top universities in the world, but I do not think the level of students I saw at Berkeley was any better than the level of students I had at AUB.

At the time we had many challenges, and as dean, I was proud of what we were doing at this University. It was a strange thing. After the war, AUB was supposed to have really suffered in comparison with other universities but what really saved us at the time was the number of scholarships offered, especially by [Rafic] Hariri. We had about 80 percent of our students on scholarship; later that figure was drastically reduced. But those scholarships really saved AUB until our faculty came back up to standard.

What do you think your students would remember most about you—what would they say about you?
I don’t really know. I hope there would be some good things. Behind my back, I don’t know. But they still come here, for advice and help. Some of them work for the UN and major companies, and some work for me here at MADMA (the Center for Development Studies and Projects).

I think they would remember me because I treated them as somehow more important than they had been treated before. I gave them a room in Van Dyck for recreation, which they hadn’t had before. And you know, I received some objections to the idea that the students should have a room all to themselves. But I saw them congregating in the corridors and realized they needed a place. The room was furnished by the President’s Club, and then the students took over and bought vending machines. I think maybe they thought I treated them better than they’d been treated in the past. Another small example: When I first came, the elevator in the building was supposed to be for faculty members only. Little things like this, you know, made the students come to you—with their problems—and, I think that’s what they might remember me for.

Those years when you were dean (1991-94) were during the first post war years when Lebanon was struggling to get back on its feet; Beirut was putting the infrastructure together—there were a great many problems. How did those experiences impact on you and the students during your period as dean?
Everyone wanted to help Lebanon, and during that time I remember that the students would come and ask what they should do. I talked to them about cleaning up Bliss Street, and they went out and organized a clean-up campaign. Then they came back to ask what else they could do, so I suggested, “Let’s encourage bicycling in Lebanon.” And they did. They found someone to rent bicycles, and now there’s a whole outfit renting bicycles in Beirut. Next they turned to car accidents; they worked on prevention even before YASA (Youth Association for Social Awareness). I was happy to get the students involved in the reconstruction of their country.

In 1994 you left the Faculty of Health Sciences to become Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States. Is that the reason you left AUB?
No. From the beginning, in 1991, I had planned to stay as dean only three years. Ever since my high school years I had dreamed of setting up this company I now run today, MADMA. The name is an acronym formed from the Arabic. I intended to start the center when I resigned from AUB. When I announced my plan, the students held a demonstration: they closed the Medical Gate. I was called in the morning and had to rush down there to meet with the students in the big lecture hall; they said they wanted their dean back. When I convinced them of the reason why I wanted to leave, they held a march from one end of the University to the other, and on the way, they were joined by students from other faculties.

So how were you side-tracked from your MADMA plans to go to Washington?
A man called Rafic Hariri, whom I didn’t know at the time. I learned from the newspapers that my name had been put forward for ambassador. I protested that I could serve my country just as well in Lebanon. I said I had spent so much time outside Lebanon that now I wanted to stay in my own country. I begged, “Mr. Prime Minister—anything, anything you want me to do inside Lebanon, I will do free of charge.” But eventually I was persuaded to go to Washington, and I was there for three years (1994-97).

Did you have any relationships with AUB while you were in Washington?
In the United States I worked closely with the Alumni Association; I sponsored many of their fundraising events. And, of course, every time I returned to Lebanon I saw many people from AUB. Look—I went to three universities. And if you ask me, “Which is my alma mater?” I would answer—and I think 95 percent of people who went to AUB and other universities would say the same—“AUB is my alma mater.”

You are drifting into the area of the last, but very important question: What has been the effect of AUB on your life?
Everything. At AUB I changed from a student into a thinker—from a student who was trying to pass exams to somebody who was interested in bigger stuff. I remember the first book of philosophy I read outside the course: it was by a Spanish philosopher called Ortega y Gasset. It was Revolt of the Masses. I have recommended that book a hundred times, and I still have a copy—underlined. I remember in my second year taking seminars and classes out under the pine tree. I learned that knowledge is not passing exams—it is far more interesting, challenging, mysterious.

And AUB also opened for me some friendships that have lasted for fifty years. My long-lasting friendships were sealed at AUB.

J. M. C.

Riad Tabbara (AUB BA ’56; Northwestern MA ’58; Vanderbilt PhD ’65)
- Dean of FHS (1991-94);
- Lebanon’s ambassador to Washington (1994-97);
- Director, MADMA (1994 to the present).