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Summer 2008 Vol. VI, No. 4

AUB Reflections

A university keeper

An Interview with
Abdul Hamid Hallab
Special Adviser to Former President John Waterbury

Abdul Hamid Hallab, who has been special adviser to former President John Waterbury since he officially retired from AUB in 1997, has figured prominently in AUB's outreach programs for many years especially during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. A native of Tripoli, Lebanon, Hallab spent fourteen years in the United States after graduating from high school earning his BS (in a record two years), MS, and PhD from Louisiana State University, where he taught for eight years before joining AUB's Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences in 1968.

MG: When did you first arrive at AUB, and what were your first impressions?
Abdul Hamid Hallab: I first arrived at AUB during a family visit to Lebanon in 1967. After chatting with Elie Salem [then dean of Arts and Sciences], he introduced me to Jim Cowan, then chair of the Department of Food Technology in the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences.

Jim Cowan had a magic wand. He charmed me and talked with me about joining AUB. I told him I had a good position at Louisiana State University (LSU), but I was captivated by him and by my tours of the campus and the farm [the Agricultural Research and Education Center or AREC]. I was inclined to think about coming back to my own country, even though I had set myself up in Baton Rouge with a riding mower and a new house and a new car every year. Jim Cowan lured me, saying this was where my family was, my roots . . . . He told me to think of the blue skies. So, finally, I took the plunge.

But when I arrived and the contract was for $3,000 less than the amount we had agreed, I almost turned the offer down, but it was my wife who said, “It’s not the money. If your heart is in it, let’s do it.”

At first I took a leave of absence from LSU, thinking I wouldn’t stay at AUB for more than two or three years. That was in 1968, and I’m still here.

MG: You had been teaching at LSU. What comparisons would you make between American students and AUB students of that time?
AUB students were more competitive. They worked harder and they wanted to excel more. Perhaps that was because I was teaching mostly pre-med students at AUB. I taught bio-chemistry to pre-meds and lab courses and food chemistry to food technology students.

MG: Where did you do most of your teaching?
I taught on lower campus, in the Agriculture Building. I never taught at the farm as I taught mainly chemistry and bio-chemistry.

MG: What do you think your students would remember most about your teaching?
Well, I guess you’d have to ask them. I know they used to mimic me at parties. I think they’d say I was a hard teacher, a demanding teacher. But I always started my lectures by saying, “Don’t ever leave out the why. Always ask me why and always challenge me, even what I put on the board.”

MG: Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?
I keep in touch with a few of my students—most of them have done very well. One notable student of mine is presently head of EARTH University in Costa Rica and a member of the AUB Board of Trustees, Jose Zaglul. Others are in contracting, agriculture, landscaping, directors of oil companies, etc.

Once when a master’s advisee of mine came to talk to me about dropping out of the MA program against his family’s strong objections, he was surprised to hear me say, when he told me he wanted to be an airline pilot, “Go do what your passion tells you to do.” Several years later I was called into the cockpit of a flight to Larnaca by the cocaptain—my Streetformer student. He thanked me, and said it was the best advice he’d ever received. Now he’s an MEA captain.

MG: In 1976 you abandoned teaching and went into administration.
Yes, I followed Peter’s principle. “You keep being elevated until you reach your level of incompetence.” Yes. I was assistant, then associate, and then full professor—and chair of the Food Technology and Nutrition Department.

But then I was asked to be director of a program I thought the University needed at a time (1976) when student attendance from the region was dwindling because of the accelerating civil disturbances in the country. So we set up AUBSCO, the AUB Services Corporation. The board was formed from the Board of Trustees and consisted of David Dodge, Fuad Bardawil, Nadim Haddad, myself, and Najeeb Halaby, who taught me how to be an entrepreneur rather than a professor. Nadim Haddad and I were vice presidents—he for medical affairs and I for all the rest. The corporation was set up outside the University, in Delaware.

This corporation lasted for two or three years before it was brought under the umbrella of the University as RADAC (Research and Development Administrative Center). At the time President Hoelscher felt that AUBSCO needed to operate under the auspices of the University because many AUB professors were going to work in the Gulf without AUB having much say in the matter. And so the new group was formed, and I was made executive director of RADAC.

MG: And how did the professors work in the Gulf? What did they do?
In RADAC we had 65 professionals, mostly from AUB. We worked in Saudi Arabia for five years, 1979-84, and set up a regional research center for agriculture and water.

We also worked in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Bahrain, we reorganized retraining of secondary teachers.We also established the College of Health Sciences and, working with Health Minister Ali Fakhro, we computerized his ministry and helped commission the biggest government hospital in Bahrain, Salmaniyeh Hospital.

In Qatar we developed health centers through AUB’s Faculties of Medicine and Health Sciences, and in the UAE we established schools of nursing and a five-year health, manpower, and development plan for the Ministry of Health.

MG: And the work in the Gulf continued after the war in Lebanon ended?
Oh, yes. In 1996, the ruler of Sharjah asked for help in establishing universities in the country. We set up the American University of Sharjah, and I was interim chancellor. When the ruler wanted me to stay, AUB said I could not continue there without an official leave of absence. But when the ruler said he would donate one million dollars to AUB, it was decided I would remain there on a half-time basis until we finished Sharjah’s University City, which now contains the American University of Sharjah, the University of Sharjah, and the higher Colleges of Technology for both men and women. The American University of Sharjah, thanks to AUB, is now fully accredited both locally and internationally, just like AUB.

MG: When did you retire from AUB?
Well, officially in 1997. But I’ve remained at the University working full-time, for a nominal salary of $1.00 a year as special adviser to the president.

MG: What has been the impact of AUB on your life?
I cannot in all fairness think of my life without AUB. And this is a fact and a reality; otherwise you would not find me still here at AUB sitting at my desk from 8 am until 3 or 4 pm—attending all functions. AUB is a part of me. I think if AUB had not come into existence, we would have had to create an AUB. We would have had to create a democratic, western educational institution like AUB. And I am very proud that I have been a part of this institution.

MG: Do you have any words you would like to pass on to your students?
I would say, though it might seem like a cliché, that in the ever changing world of today, you must, please, never think you know it all. Learning is a continuous process, especially in this day and age. A teacher has to love his/her profession. I feel sorry for anyone who is in the teaching profession who doesn’t love it. If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t live it in any other way.

Contact Abdul Hamid Hallab at ahallab@aub.edu.lb