Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4
Times of Triumph
An Interview with Frederic Herter
Dr. Frederic Herter was president of AUB during one of the most difficult periods in the university’s history. With US sanctions in place, he was forced to manage university affairs from the AUB New York Office with frequent trips to Cyprus, Jordan, Syria and the Gulf. Then, on the 125th anniversary of the University, he suddenly learned that College Hall had been destroyed.
MainGate: When did you arrive at AUB and what were your first impressions?
Dr. Frederic Herter: The first time I heard about AUB was when I was an intern in surgery at Columbia [Presbyterian] in 1945. The chair of the department then was Dr. Allan Oldfather Whipple. Occasionally I would help him in the operating room, and as we scrubbed together beforehand, we would exchange briefings about our backgrounds. Whipple was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1881, and he reckoned that his father had done 25 thousand miles on horseback selling bibles throughout the Middle East. Whipple knew the region, and had been to AUB—that was my first introduction.
Then, in 1958, Dr. Joseph McDonald, who had trained as a plastic surgeon under Dr. Whipple and had been appointed dean of the School of Medicine at AUB, called me and asked if I would consider taking over the surgical department at AUB for a year, allowing the chairman to take his sabbatical leave at his alma mater, Stanford. I had only been on the faculty of Columbia for three years, but I was fascinated by the idea, largely because of what Whipple had told me. I consulted Whipple, and then saw George Hoppin Humphreys, then chair of surgery. Both Whipple and Humphreys said, “You’ll never know about yourself and that part of the world if you don’t do this; it will influence your life in a number of ways.” I was married and had two very small children. But I sold my house in Dobbs Ferry, NY to the husband of Elizabeth Taylor and was ready to go. Then, the day before I was to leave for Beirut, I got a call saying that the Marines had just landed on the shore because of a possibly serious altercation between the Christians and Muslims. That put a kibosh on that trip to AUB, but I got my house back.
And the next year, in 1959, Dr. Calvin Plimpton was running the Ninth MEMA [Middle East Medical Assembly]. He knew I’d done some experimental work with cancer at Columbia, and he asked me to come, give two presentations at the meeting, as well as make rounds at AUBMC, and even take some trips with him. It was an honor, and I agreed, and when I arrived in Beirut, I soon fell in love with AUB and spent three weeks there as opposed to the planned two.
Did you visit the campus during the war?
The Lebanese civil war began in 1975, and I joined the Board of Trustees in 1977, when I was living in New York. I visited campus with my wife-to-be that same year, but during the next three years, our visits were as legitimate mates. Then two important things happened in 1982: first, David Dodge was abducted [the first American abductee] and held hostage for one year. When they learned that he was taken, the trustees were wild. David was the acting president. When I became president in 1987, the one thing that I wanted to do was get David back into the administration because he was so familiar with the Middle East. He knew Beirut and had spent years in the Gulf, working for Aramco. The second notable event of 1982 was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The demography of the country rapidly changed as a result. The
Shiite population was pushed north from its traditional homeland in the south. Many had never been to Beirut and had no place to go. They set up tents in the streets, on the beach.
All this time I was based in New York. Nineteen eighty-four was the last year I went to campus. Najeeb E. Halaby was chair of the Board of Trustees at that time, and there were six of us on that trip. Our goal was to approach all the armed militia groups and plead for guarantees of AUB’s safety. Was it successful? It is hard to say, but the University was never attacked overtly.
How did you become president?
When Halaby retired I became chair of the Board of Trustees in 1985. I was scared to death, not only because I was a neophyte at university administration, but because I was unable to visit Lebanon. Then somehow I convinced Cal Plimpton to come aboard as AUB president, but he hated the restraint on travel. He did try to get to Beirut, but he was turned back at Damascus. When he resigned in 1987 I had to find another president. I tried. I did try. But there were no takers. By this time I had gotten more and more involved in AUB affairs and at 65 surgery was no longer an option for me. So I put the book I was writing on the shelf, and in 1987 I was in the president’s office on Third Avenue and there I stayed until 1993.
How do you manage a campus 5,622 miles away?
We did remarkably well in the New York Office. The first thing I had to do was to appoint a deputy president who could handle the daily operational problems in Beirut, of which there were many. I went to Amman with two other trustees to meet three candidates for the job, and decided on Ibrahim Salti, a skilled, bright physician. In the beginning telephone correspondence was unreliable at best. But in 1989 and 1990 the phone lines improved, and I got through to Beirut almost once a day. The big issues were shared, and Salti would bring me up to date on the local scene on short notice.
But there were myriad problems. AUB, by necessity, had divided into two campuses—that was our biggest problem, although it was also a solution. It was too dangerous for students from East Beirut to cross the Green Line and come over to Ras Beirut. We had to set up a representative institution, called the Off-Campus Program (OCP), on the Christian side. It started with 15 students and grew to 1,500. There was virtually no communication between the main campus and the OCP, and pressures grew to make the east campus permanent. To my mind, that would have sealed the fate of the University. The OCP operated until 1989-90. My best day as president was when I sent word through the local newspapers that AUB was ready to welcome students from the OCP back to the Ras Beirut campus. Six hundred students came back safely and with joy. Everyone was enormously excited. It was a wonderful moment.
In contrast, I attempted prematurely [to set up] a system of internal and external reviews within our six different units, because this was something I was familiar with at Columbia. But engineers weren’t ready to be critiqued by doctors (or vice versa), and that failed. Soon afterwards in 1990 the violence ended, and people started easing their way back into Beirut. All but the Americans—they were prevented from travel to Lebanon by State Department sanctions. I had to wait until 1996 to return to Beirut.
How did you learn that College Hall was destroyed?
On Friday, November 8, 1991 we had a large 125th anniversary party planned at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The First Lady of Lebanon; Professor Constantine Zurayk of AUB; one of the first Bush president’s sons, and US Senator George Mitchell, were all slated to come and talk at the dinner. Early that morning, around three in the morning in New York I got word from Acting Deputy President Makhluf Haddadin that someone had driven a weapon-filled car through the Sea Gate and exploded it at College Hall in the middle of the night. To my knowledge, one person was killed. I informed the trustees of the event and held an emergency meeting of the board at breakfast the next morning before the regularly scheduled Board of Trustees meeting at the Princeton Club. We decided to hold the anniversary party that night so that we could make clear the resolve of the trustees, that come hell or high water, we would rebuild College Hall in its original form.
Subsequently, we spent years working with architects and contractors in the United States and Lebanon. The architects—Haines Lundberg Waehler (HLW), who had done previous work on AUBMC, wanted to build a totally new building, but we insisted that the AUB community in Beirut wanted a near-exact replication of the old College Hall. We worked on that from 1991 until College Hall reopened in 1999 as a slightly enlarged by infinitely more useable replica of the original building. Cheers!
Despite the war, there must have been good times.
Good things happened every year in Lebanon and without, despite the war. Social, sporting, and educational activities on the campus remained for the most part alive and contact with the AUB faculty was maintained throughout. At least four times a year the NY administration would meet for a week or so with members of the faculty at sites considered safe by the US government; most frequently this would be Cyprus, only 20 minutes away from Beirut by plane. But meetings were also held, though less frequently, in Damascus (where students could be bussed up from Beirut for the day), and rarely, in Amman.
I cannot speak more highly of the AUB faculty members and administrators who held fast to their posts throughout [the war] and never failed to greet their New York counterparts with humor and friendship. They were a wonderful lot. The same could be said of the trustees, many of whom volunteered their service abroad despite the danger. And, of course, [for] the trio at Third Avenue and 51st Street in New York: Eileen O’Connor, Bill Rice, and Landry Slade, without whom I, and others, would have been powerless.
We never closed the doors to the University, even though for a short time only the School of Medicine was accessible. And the number of students in the University never varied to any degree. AUB started with about 5,000 students and ended the civil war with that same number. Not so the faculty, which suffered major losses.
And the most difficult times?
Violence reached its peak in 1988 and 1989. In a 13 month period we treated 23,000 war casualties at the university hospital. It is estimated that the civil war in total claimed 123,000 lives. Eighty-three bombs were dropped on university property—but generally on the periphery, where Syrian units were located. There was little destruction from these explosions.
You spent a lot of time meeting alumni in the Middle East and North America.
Trips to the Middle East were always interesting. We went to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and especially the Emirates. We were able to raise more money [for College Hall and other needs] than we thought we would be able to. There were very active alumni from all over the Gulf. They didn’t know what philanthropy was, but we tried to teach them. So it worked in its own queer way.
Part of my job was to go through the United States and meet the alumni groups and help set up chapters—that was exciting. In that entire time I never met a single graduate of AUB who was needy or without work. They were remarkably resourceful. Though their education was somewhat abbreviated by the war, they were useful citizens wherever they went or whatever they did. Many of them went to the Gulf. They weren’t the emirs or the presidents, but the second level of administration—the key operators—were from AUB. A lot of them still are. It was a remarkable testament to the Lebanese culture and the value of an AUB education.
Are you still in touch with many friends from that time?
Yes, but not as many as I would like.
What are the most significant changes you’ve seen on campus in 51 years?
A lot has happened. The rebuilding of College Hall and the renovation of the library were memorable. Then there is the new Charles W. Hostler Center and the Chemistry Building, as well as the Olayan School of Business, and academic institutes such as the Center for Advanced Mathematical Studies (CAMS). [My wife] Solange and I knew some of the donors well [Charles Hostler and Mamdouha Bobst] and had a hand in their generosity. But the most exciting change was in the quality of the academic program. AUB had clearly regained its reputation as the finest education institution in the Middle East. President Waterbury deserves major credit for this.
When did you leave AUB? Have you been back?
I was president until 1993. I went back in 2001—there was the photo of three AUB presidents—Plimpton, Waterbury, and myself. I’ve been there three or four times since we’ve been allowed to go back. It is heartening to see how alive that place is, with all that it’s been through.
Dr. Frederic P. Herter
Trustee (1977–87; 1993–96)
Chair of the Board (1985–87);
Trustee Emeritus (1996 to the present).