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Forward Thinking

Last Glance: The AUB Mace

Honorary Doctorate Ceremony 2009

Time Flies

Beirutis Set One Fine Table

Inaugurating the Diya Mutasim Dermatology Library
Incoming:  Welcome to new VP and FM Dean Dr. Mohamed H. Sayegh and FAS Dean Patrick McGreevy.
 

Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4

Forward Thinking

In his inaugural address on May 4, 2009, President Dorman highlighted three critical priorities for the University: expanding and enhancing faculty research; creating an even more dynamic and diverse student body; and cultivating a responsive campus community. 

During the faculty symposium, a number of speakers explored the role of AUB past and present and looked ahead to the future as well.  They debated the validity of a liberal arts curriculum; assessed the potential impact of competition from new universities opening throughout the region; and explored the future role of AUB in the region.

Recently appointed Provost Ahmad Dallal will be tackling these and many other issues when he assumes his post this summer.  Dallal recently met with MainGate to share his initial thoughts on some of these key issues.

Ahmad Dallal- Let me start with the challenge of regional competition:
The establishment of universities throughout the region, some of which are satellite branches of first rate US universities, does present a challenge of sorts to AUB.  We can also, however, think of this phenomenon as an opportunity in several respects:

To start with, it is clear that high quality education is in demand throughout the region, which means that the establishment of new institutions is not necessarily a threat to AUB, but potentially an invitation to invest more in academics. And while many countries are starting from scratch, AUB has a long experience to build on and much to offer in response to this increasing demand. Among other things, for a variety of historical reasons, AUB’s environment is relatively more favorable to academic freedom, a vital ingredient for successful educational institutions. Moreover, AUB has played a central role in the development of higher education in the Middle East.  It is fair to say that few other regional institutions have had an experience or impact similar to AUB.

This increased demand for quality education coupled with AUB’s experience suggests the possibility of cooperation with emerging  regional universities, whereby AUB can provide guidance, training, and technical support to these young institutions.

Furthermore, the new competitive environment in which we find ourselves provides us at AUB with added incentive to think creatively and innovatively and to exert more effort to maintain our competitive edge. To do so, we need to ask what makes us distinctive, historically and in the current environment; we need

to reflect on our academic mission and identity and about the nature of our curriculum and academic programs; and we need to reexamine our role and direction and rethink our organizational structure, curriculum, and modes of instruction. Our students are confronting new challenges and we need to ensure that the education we offer equips them with the tools they need to face these challenges.

This then brings me to the question of a liberal arts education:
From the very beginning, professional schools have been central to AUB’s mission, but so too was the emphasis on a liberal arts education. In contrast to many new universities in the region that have a narrow specialized focus, AUB has always coupled professional learning with broad liberal arts education, and this model has proven to be effective. Of course in doing so, AUB follows in the footsteps of some of the best universities in the world.

Simply put, a liberal arts educational model helps students develop creative mental habits, the ability to make sound judgments, the capacity for critical thought and analytical inquiry, and empathy. To be sure, we need to equip our students with a variety of skills that are essential for any successful career: these include writing and communication skills; command of languages and intercultural awareness and competence; scientific and quantitative literacy and basic analytical skills; problem solving skills; and the ability to think critically and creatively. The objective of this sort of research and inquiry-based education is not just to train students who can apply the skills they acquire mechanically, but who can also explore, reflect, and innovate; students who can face the problems and challenges of a crisis-ridden world and come up with creative solutions to these problems.

The general education requirements of a liberal arts model are not and should not be thought of as a burden, but as an opportunity for students to expand their horizons, experience the nature of various disciplines and methodologies, and discover new perspectives beyond their narrow areas of expertise. As such, liberal arts education endows the professional skills with meaning and purpose and enables students to engage with the world in which they live, to reflect on broader connections between their areas of expertise and the problems and needs of their societies, and to think of learning as a life long process in which they fully embrace the knowledge they acquire in ways that impact their own formation and the world in which they live.

These traits are attractive in their own right, and are most appreciated at times of crisis, when informed and socially responsible citizens are called upon to innovate and to chart the path towards sustainable growth and development. However, it is important to note that what constitutes liberal arts education can and should adapt to changes in the world of academia. The insistence on liberal arts education does not preclude the need for ongoing curricular and pedagogical innovation. Furthermore, I think it is not useful to conceive of the relationship between liberal arts education and professional education as a zero sum game. We should be able to respond to the traditional public demand for professional education while trying to convince our students and parents of the merits of liberal arts education. AUB’s record and the record of the leading universities of the world provide compelling evidence for the success of this educational model. But we should do more to explain AUB’s strength and distinctive character and how these shape expectations for the curriculum. In other words, we should continue the efforts to rethink the relevance, coherence, and effectiveness of our curriculum, articulate clear goals and transparent procedures, and spell out what we and our students expect to achieve by taking a particular course or enrolling in a particular major.

How to address the president’s priorities:
Our mission as an academic institution is clear: the production and transmission of knowledge. Very few institutions enjoy such clarity of mission; yet the challenge for us is how to channel the resources available to us in an optimal fashion in order to achieve these clear objectives. In this undertaking, the two primary resources are faculty and students.

In the current competitive environment, we need to double our efforts to attract and retain scholars who are up to date on the latest developments in their fields of study. But the ability of our faculty to produce knowledge hinges on providing them with opportunities for intellectual development. We should recruit faculty with the hope and intention of retaining them; to achieve this objective we should provide them with proper mentoring and create an environment conducive to their scholarly production. We should also identify the fields in which our faculty is likely to excel, and encourage and mobilize support for innovative programs and research in these fields. In particular, I think that we should give special attention to programs that address the needs of Lebanon and the region while deploying cutting edge methodologies and approaches. Expanding the research base of the faculty will give AUB an edge over most new universities in the region. More importantly, it is a realistic objective that fulfills the University’s mission.

Of course, expanding research should not be at the expense of students, but it hardly ever is. In most cases, an active scholar and researcher is an interesting and engaging teacher and an inspiring transmitter of knowledge. As such, students stand to benefit from the expansion of research. Students also benefit from a diverse and dynamic learning environment. The quality of our programs depends on the quality of the faculty but also of the students we are able to recruit. Therefore, it makes sense that attracting the best students should be one of our top priorities, irrespective of their socio-economic background. Simply put, we must do all we can to provide the opportunity for academic excellence to all deserving students. Towards this end, President Dorman has identified the need to expand our financial aid packages as a priority, and I will do all I can to support this strategic direction.

Of equal importance is regional, national, and international diversity. Universities all over the world are devoting substantial resources to enhancing their international profiles. This emphasis reflects an emerging consensus among educators that in an increasingly globalized and interdependent world, fostering cross-cultural understanding is not a luxury but an indispensable imperative for good education, professional development, and human wellbeing. The intellectual horizons of our students will be enriched by opening up to the world and building a truly diverse community. It is thus important to coordinate our efforts to enhance international education at AUB. This will require deliberate initiatives that target international students interested in the kinds of educational experience that we offer at AUB. We also need to consider multiple models for recruiting international students either as regular students, exchange students, or students interesting in study abroad.

As attested from AUB’s history, when we succeed in expanding the research capacity of our faculty, and in enhancing the diversity and dynamism of our student body, we will undoubtedly serve Lebanon and the region and help shape generations of conscientious citizens and leaders. In fact, an important manifestation of our commitment to serving our environment is our ability to faithfully represent this environment, and to encourage and mobilize support for innovative programs that cater to the needs of the region. In turn, the success of these efforts depends on the cultivation of an intellectual community that takes ownership of, and is actively engaged in, promoting AUB’s mission and objectives. To promote higher levels of engagement and accountability within the AUB community, we need to double our efforts to achieve greater coherence and clarity in our practices, and transparency in our governance.