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AUB Alumni Take Over Manhattan!

New York City was the site for the 11th National Biannual Convention of the AUB Alumni Association of North America. May Farah joined in and discovered the important role of AUB and its alumni in North America.


It had all the necessary ingredients for an outright successful event: attendees from across North America and Lebanon; captivating panel discussions and keynote speakers; plenty of socializing and catching up; and New York City in all its unseasonably warm and sunny glory.
When hundreds of alumni from the United States and Canada descended on Manhattan at the end of November to attend the 11th National Biannual Convention of the AUB Alumni Association of North America (AANA) at the New York Marriott East Side, the event turned out to be a huge success—all made possible by the tireless efforts of the AANA Convention committees and the Metropolitan New York Alumni Chapter.
They came to see fellow alumni and friends, to exchange ideas and listen to AUB’s top brass—from the administration and faculty to the Board of Trustees—as well as to Arab and international experts who had been invited to speak on a variety of topical issues. The issues they addressed, all falling under the convention’s umbrella theme, “Shaping the Middle East: The Impact of AUB,” included medical health sciences, engineering, traditions and innovations in the humanities and arts, politics and social change, and business and financial trends. “This convention, through its five different panels and keynote speakers,” said Ara Tekian, the AANA president, “is all about discussing the real impact of all the professions on the changing dynamics of the Middle East.”
For Wael Chehab, head of the Alumni Association’s Metropolitan New York Chapter and the convention chairperson, hosting the event was also a way of bringing AANA back home to New York, to where it informally originated in 1925, when a group of 25 alumni wanting to reconnect with their alma mater met in Brooklyn. “Almost eight decades later,” said Chehab, “we are doing the same—rediscovering old friends, meeting new ones, supporting our university, and engaging in productive discussions on some of the most important current issues facing the world and on the significance of AUB’s vital role in the region.”
In considering the ambitiously dizzying list of convention events, it was apparent that the drive behind it all had something to do with matching the hurried pace of the Big Apple. Here are some of the highlights: receptions on Friday night and breakfasts Saturday morning; a day of panel discussions, punctuated by a luncheon sponsored by Intel that featured a keynote address by Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); a gala dinner Saturday evening at the historic Waldorf Astoria Hotel, at which Joseph Jacobs and Hasib Sabbagh were honored and a keynote speech was delivered by Ambassador Edward Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
On Sunday afternoon, to cap off a weekend of meetings, discussions, and the rekindling of old friendships, there were—for anybody who could still muster the energy—scheduled sightseeing tours, shopping expeditions, or just a walk along the city’s grand avenues to soak in the excitement of New York’s unique sights and sounds.
It all began after the inaugural receptions on Friday evening, when AUB President John Waterbury got things going with a brief presentation of the proposed Campus Master Plan, the ambitious and recently inaugurated long-term project to enhance and expand the University’s increasingly teeming facilities. The plan, said Waterbury, also includes buildings and infrastructure earmarked for rehabilitation to bring them up to 21st-century standards. “The new Charles W. Hostler Student Center and the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business are to be completed by 2007 and will represent the first major additions to the campus,” he said, noting that a proposal to freeze enrollment figures for a few years—“until some of the new buildings are near completion”—had been made to the Board of Trustees.
Architect Rudolfo Machado, whose firm Machado and Silvetti won the competition to design the new Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, presented their cutting edge design to a crowd of highly interested alumni and friends. Vincent James, principal of the Vincent James Associates firm in Minneapolis, also showed his winning design for the Charles W. Hostler Student Center.
Members of the Daniel Bliss Society, AUB’s special donor club, also came together Friday evening at a reception held
in tribute to their long support of the University. President Waterbury and the society’s president, David Dodge, presented awards to those members who had contributed funds to the University over the past 5 to 9, 10 to 14, or more than 15 years. On their part, the more than 100 AUB alumni and friends who attended added much to the overwhelming expression of appreciation that marked the festive event.
Later during the weekend, President Waterbury also announced another major initiative, one he hoped the University would soon be able to introduce: doctoral programs in a number of disciplines. The issue is currently under study and the administration is expected to present
its recommendations to the Board of Trustees next spring. “We’re almost certain PhD programs will be launched, but we aren’t yet sure of how many or in what areas,” the president said. “A major concern is the financial burden.” So, what AUB would certainly welcome is more donations from alumni and friends—very much like the gift bestowed on the sidelines of the convention by the Naef K. Basile Foundation, which pledged a donation to AUB of $5.7 million to establish a cancer center for adults.
Saturday’s program started bright and early with a “breakfast” reunion of North American medical alumni. Over 100 MDs came from around the United States and Canada to catch up with friends and acquaintances and to get an update on AUB’s Medical Center from Dr. Nadim Cortas, dean of the AUB Faculty of Medicine and vice president for Medical Affairs. What made the reunion unique was the enthusiastic response received by the MDs who served as class representatives in contacting their fellow alumni to attend the convention and support AUB. Awards were presented to the classes that raised the most monies. First place went to the class of ’72, represented by Dr. Nabil Husami and Dr. Najwa Mirhij Shammas. The class of ’58, led by Dr. Muhammad Salaymeh, took second place; and the class of ’74, represented by Dr. Rashid Baddoura and Dr. Adel Totoonchie, was awarded third. Together, all the MD classes raised $150,000, in what the University hopes will be the first of many reunions.
In between the diverse panel discussions that were held on Saturday, UNDP’s Rima Khalaf Hunaidi captivated her fellow alumni and guests with her address at the convention luncheon. She began with a nostalgic trip to AUB and the region of her past, then followed with a sober realization of what the future may hold.
“Wherever AUB alumni gather, the scene is more cosmopolitan, the talk richer, and the flow of ideas more vigorous,” Hunaidi noted in acknowledging that the AUB of the 1970s was “much more than an academic institution.” It was also a place for human empowerment, she said, where the youth of yesterday aspired to make the world—the Arab world—a better place.
Today, three decades later, Hunaidi seems distraught. “A cursory look at our present will not satisfy even the most complacent,” she told the crowd gathered for the luncheon, adding that if the peoples of the Arab world are to have a strong, healthy, and free future, then the changes must begin from within. “We Arabs must define our own strategies, identify and implement our own reforms, and design our own future,” she said.


 

According to Hunaidi, the Arab world must guarantee its people a number of basic and fundamental pillars, including freedom of expression and association, access to high-quality education, stronger national institutions, and, an “authentic enlightened Arab knowledge mode that delivers religion from political exploitation and encourages scholarship that not only tolerates but appreciates the other and protects the right to differ, and that fosters critical thinking and promotes the Arabic language and openness to other cultures.”

It is this key pillar, insisted Hunaidi, that speaks directly to the principal values of AUB. She urged her fellow alumni to take on the challenge of realizing this pillar, which is “the foundation of any knowledge society, the bedrock of the Arab identity, the source of responsible civic behavior, and a meeting point with the rest of the world.”
The various panels that were held not only discussed the political and social atmosphere of the Middle East; they also considered the significance of the University and its alumni in the fields of medicine and health sciences, education and the humanities, engineering and science, and business. A wide range of experts came from around the world to address these topics. Several of them were AUB administrators and academics, such as Dean George Najjar of the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, Dean Huda Zurayk of the Faculty of Health Sciences; Dean Nadim Cortas of the Faculty of Medicine, Dean Ibrahim Hajj of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, and Dean Khalil Bitar of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The AUB alumni participating in the panels included Salim Jabr, May Rihani, and John Makhoul, as well as AUB trustees Noel Lateef and Thomas Q. Morris, and Samir Khalaf as the AUB faculty representative.

As Saturday’s panel sessions drew to a close, one thing became clear: throughout the day’s speeches, dialogue, and the often heated exchange of views, there was a recurring
recognition that the world had changed, was continuing to change, and that consequently an expanding fissure between East and West had been created. As a result, the University now had a more pressing role to play in the United States.
“AUB’s mission to serve in bridging the gap between the United States and the Arab world is more critical now than
it has ever been in its last 140 years,” said Richard Debs, chairman of the AUB Board of Trustees. “The level of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and misinterpretation is
so extensive, it has created a split of unprecedented proportions.”
Debs considered the important contribution AUB alumni could make in this regard. “The alumni especially need to work toward bridging that gap, as they know more about the Middle East than most Americans and most American government officials, and they know more about the United States and its people than other Arabs,” he said. “So, it’s time for all AUB grads to act as individual bridges. We have to bring forth a rational dialogue—regardless of individual views—which we don’t have now.”
The convention organizers were clearly thinking along the same lines. For Saturday’s discussions they had arranged the participation of US government experts and representatives. Principal among those invited were the State Department’s Alina Romanowski, former CIA official Graham Fuller, and Ambassador Edward Djerejian—to reveal official and public views on the situation in the Arab world. “Especially after Sept. 11 and the Gulf war, we wanted more of an explanation from the current administration, to comprehend their understanding of the Arab world,” said Tekian, AANA’s
president. “We didn’t want it to be too political, only to offer more explanation.”
One of those explanations came from Ambassador Djerejian, the convention’s keynote speaker, who noted the absence of any real understanding of the United States in the daily discourse taking place in Arab world and the subsequent need to fill that gap.
According to Ambassador Djerejian, the United States currently dedicates approximately $1 billion a year to public diplomacy, with half going into public broadcasting and half into education. “But of that, only about $25 million goes into discretionary programs in the Arab world,” he said, speaking to a full house gathered at the Waldorf Astoria for the gala dinner. “That is absurd and has to be rectified.”
For Djerejian, change must come at the policy level, more specifically as it concerns education. “Effective public policy means to listen and act accordingly,” he said, acknowledging that perhaps this is where the United States has been failing. “Education is the key. It’s one area where Americans and people of the Arab world are on common solid ground. But it’s also an area where the Americans haven’t done enough… We need to recognize and act on this… The most effective instrument for bridging the gap is education,” he emphasized, as he called for the establishment of a center devoted to strengthening the US-Arab dialogue.
For AANA chairperson Chehab, universities like AUB and the forums they organize are extremely important in offering platforms for discussion and better understanding. “Such a convention is the ideal forum for alumni and friends to get together, discuss current issues, be exposed to different ideas and exchange their views,” he said. “It demonstrates that AUB’s role is a necessity for our society, and not just for our alumni.”
The convention was deemed a success not only by its compelling educational program and festive social atmosphere, but also by its notable fundraising effort—bringing in $200,000 from sponsors that will go into funding academic programs at AUB. “The convention proved again that AANA is seriously committed to providing support to AUB,” said Chehab. “We are building on the past success of the November 2002 gala with Queen Rania of Jordan that was held in New York City, and we plan to see at least one major fundraiser each year.”
As the convention ended early Sunday afternoon, it was clear that the alumni reveled in all things AUB—and indeed took a bite out of the Big Apple.