BEIRUT: Students at the American University of Beirut held a strike Tuesday to protest a hike in tuition fees and to call for greater transparency over the college’s finances.
Many professors canceled classes in apparent support of the students, who held placards and shouted slogans defying senior management, and said they would keep up the pressure on the university to roll back the six percent fee rise.
“I don’t know if they’re going to budge but I still do think it’s a pretty big effort that we’re doing,” said Maya Ayache, a second-year student who took part in the protest.
“We’re not going to take it lying down. We’re doing our part to show that we’re strong.”
“We want a zero percent increase,” she added.
Between 300 and 400 students gathered around noon in front of College Hall, just inside AUB’s main gate.
They carried signs that said: “Do I look like I’m made out of money?” and “Will accept donations to pay next year’s tuition.”
Another sign read: “Raise costs, we raise hell.”
The fee hike is scheduled to go into effect next year. Hundreds of students attended the first demonstration in February, but there have been few indications that the university authorities intend to grant the students’ demands.
Students also shouted slogans calling for student unity in the face of the measure, and demanded that AUB President Peter Dorman accede to their demands to reverse it. Dorman’s Wikipedia page was edited in late February to include a claim that his salary was close to that earned by U.S. President Barack Obama.
Earlier in the day, students marched around campus and urged those who were attending lectures to leave their classrooms, chanting, “shame on you.”
The students hope they can influence the authorities ahead of a meeting between the board of trustees later this month in which the fee increase will be addressed.
“I think our movements are putting pressure on the administration and board of trustees,” said Weam Dalal, a final-year chemistry student and one of the strike’s organizers. “Our step today was just another message: We can boycott classes and we can stop AUB.”
Students said their demands were not limited to quashing the fee increase, but also included greater transparency with respect to the university’s budget and the provision of a seat at the table with the board of trustees, in order to vote on proposals that affect them academically and financially.
Dalal said the students had been encouraged by the results of the previous demonstration, which prompted AUB’s president to create committees tasked with evaluating the tuition fee increase.
Expressions of support were also voiced by faculty members. AUB’s dean of student affairs last week signed the petition demanding a reversal of the fee increase, and a quasi-union of professors called Faculty United added its backing to student demands.
A faculty member who attended the demonstration as a show of support said that many people backed the students’ demands and wanted to know how the university spends its money.
“Whenever they want to fund anything at AUB it’s on the back of the students,” said Dalal, who added that transparency would shield the university from financial corruption. He added that the protests would remain peaceful and non-obstructive.
Ayache, the second-year student, said it would be challenging to sustain the strikes, as students have to balance their academic commitments with the demands of the protest movement.
She said students who go on strike will continue to pay tuition fees and may have to retake classes if they miss too many of them.
But others said the protests would continue until the demands were met.
“Everyone deserves a good education,” said Tarek Shehab, a student and editor-in-chief of Outlook, AUB’s campus newspaper. “It’s not a privilege, it’s a right.”
Shehab said professors who dismissed classes were acknowledging that “students have the right to gather and to express their own opinions on the way the university is run.”
He warned that the students were prepared to continue the demonstrations if the university is unresponsive.
“We’ll see how they respond to this, and in case they don’t, we’re fully prepared to take the student demonstrations to the next level.”