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Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4

A Tradition in Transition

President Dorman’s 2009 inauguration had concerts, symposia, and ceremony, but sadly, no fireworks. Bayard Dodge’s 1923 inauguration featured rockets, fire balloons, and a “Cosmopolitan Night” where Egyptian students recreated the “tomb of King Toot-and-Come-in.”

“A university is the noblest and greatest institution invented by human society,” declared Board Chairman Calvin Plimpton at the inauguration of President Harold Hoelscher in 1977. A university is also the natural home of tradition—cultural continuity, “the handing down of information, beliefs, customs.” Traditions at AUB range from inaugurations, student government, and the Speaker’s Corner to lighter events such as Outdoors, the election of Miss AUB, and graduation parties. In addition, each department has its own individual traditions such as trips, gala dinners, and student send-ups of faculty members.

In this Inauguration Year, we turn first to one of the more formal AUB traditions, the inauguration of the president of the University. In May, for the first time in 37 years, AUB held a formal ceremony for the inauguration of Peter F. Dorman as fifteenth president of the American University of Beirut.

Only eight other presidents have been given formal inaugurations, beginning with second President Howard Bliss and continuing through President Malcolm Kerr, the ninth president of the University. Following the assassination of President Kerr outside his office in College Hall on January 18, 1984, AUB presidents were for several years unable to travel to Lebanon, and no inauguration celebrations were held until this year. (When John Waterbury became president in 1998 he opted against an inauguration ceremony.)

Over the years, the installation ceremonies have been held in the Chapel (later to be known as the Assembly Hall), on the Green Field, and, in the case of President Stephen Penrose in 1948, on the Green Oval in front of Fisk Hall. Three installation ceremonies were held in conjunction with commencement exercises. The inauguration of President Samuel Kirkwood coincided not only with commencement exercises, but also with celebrations to mark the centennial year of the University in June 1966.

With inaugural lectures, concerts, and exhibitions continuing throughout the months of May and June, the inauguration of President Dorman ranks among the longest and most elaborate in AUB’s history. However, the events of the inauguration of President Bayard Dodge, lasting a full week in June 1923, were marked by equal, if not surpassing variety, innovation, and student participation.

Bayard Dodge’s personal report of the week’s events gives a vivid account of the “Cosmopolitan Night” held on the evening of June 27, 1923, “one of the most if not the most spectacular event that the campus has ever witnessed.” “Around the World” performances were held every half hour at various places on campus, and the college bell, rockets, and fire balloons gave warnings from the tower on the half hour. “Hundreds of Japanese lanterns adorned the campus.”

Students themselves created the entertainment. Armenian students presented the Royal conference at Ashdishad in the fifth century and St. Mesrop receiving the Armenian alphabet at the north side of College Hall. Egypt claimed the area between Post Hall and the then Chemistry Building with a ditch representing the Nile, two small pyramids, and “the tomb of King Toot-and-Come-in.” Greek students exhibited in front of Marquand House and

Bayard Dodge, 1923
Stephen Penrose, 1948
J. Paul Leonard, 1957

the “Mesopotamians” had a Tower of Babel to the east of the tennis courts. Palestinians offered a threshing floor with a real ox and donkey and a flock of genuine sheep in the angle of Bliss and Fisk Halls. Persian rugs, fire worshippers, and Persian music marked the Persian students’ pavilion at the west end of College Hall, while Russian students displayed music and dancing at the east end. Lebanese students built a temporary mountain house on the tennis courts west of Marquand House. Cosmopolitan Night, Dodge wrote, brought “probably the largest crowd that ever gathered on the campus.”

Serious conferences and lectures on the state of the university and education in the Middle East formed a part of most inauguration festivities. A typical installation ceremony included the procession of robed members of the faculty and invited visitors representing many universities around the globe. The Dorman inauguration in May added to the traditional procession 69 international students, each carrying the flag of his/her country.

Early inaugurations reflected the original religious orientation of the University and the dominating rule of the Ottoman Empire. The first inaugurations included lectures such as “The Foundations of Religious Belief” and “For What Should the Degree of Bachelor of Arts Stand in the Colleges of the Turkish Empire?” The May 22, 1903 issue of the Greek Orthodox newspaper, Al-Mahabbi, commenting on Bliss’s inauguration, was “particularly indebted to the College for the respect in which the Ottoman Empire is held within its walls” and for honoring “his Imperial Majesty our lawful liege and sovereign, the victorious Sultan Hamid Khan. The faculty is so careful in this respect that the College is more Ottoman than American.”

Special circumstances occasionally marked the traditional inaugural ceremonies. The oldest living alumnus, Khalil D.Tabit (BA 1892), father of Samir Thabit, a professor of chemistry who later served as acting president in 1984, attended the inauguration of Norman Burns in 1961. At the end of the combined inaugural and centennial events for the investiture of Samuel Kirkwood in June 1966, the University conferred on President Emeritus Bayard Dodge its first honorary degree since 1920. Later, Calvin Plimpton, chairman of the Board of Trustees and also president of Amherst College, granted President Kirkwood Amherst’s degree of doctor of laws. Plimpton said that Amherst College wanted to see the second hundred years of AUB launched, as were the first, under an Amherst man. The first president of the Syrian Protestant College, Daniel Bliss, was a graduate of Amherst College, as is President Dorman.

J.M.C.
With thanks to the Jafet Library Archives