BEIRUT: Young people hold the key to the country’s survival, according to Lebanese American University President Dr. Joseph Jabbra, who urged politicians from rival camps to set aside their disputes and focus on this critically important part of society.
Speaking during an interview at his office at the LAU Beirut campus, Jabbra also praised the wave of Arab Spring uprisings, saying it would benefit Arab young people, but warned against pro-democracy movements being hijacked by extremist groups.
Jabbra said LAU, which has 8,300 students enrolled at its Beirut and Byblos campuses, has faith in young people’s leadership abilities.
“My message to Lebanon’s political leaders is that you may disagree on a variety of things, but there is one thing you should never disagree about, and that is to take care of our young people. Lebanese youth [are] very important for the survival for this country. If we forget about them, they will forget about us and about Lebanon,” he said.
“This institution [LAU] has faith in the ability of young people to take charge and to be responsible for this country,” he added.
Jabbra, who has presided over LAU since 2004, sounded upbeat about the future of the country and its educational institutions amid the turmoil and instability in the Arab world.
“I am very optimistic about the future of Lebanon. The Lebanese have been smart all the time and they will manage to really keep Lebanon together, not only to keep it together, but to keep it prospering and succeeding,” he said.
“Lebanon has been known for its top-notch educational institutions even in the darkest of moments. Lebanese higher education, institutions, Lebanese schools have always been successful in terms of graduating the best possible graduates.”
Young people have played a dynamic role in popular upheavals that have led to the overthrow of authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the LAU president was confident that the so-called “Arab Spring” would be beneficial to Arab youth.
“I think there is no doubt about it [benefiting Arab youth]. Anytime you have something like the Arab Spring, it gives Arab youth the opportunity not only to question what’s going on, but to contribute in a very positive way to nation-building,” he said. “It’s very, very important.”
“I hope that this process will not be hijacked. I have faith in the common sense of the Arab people. They have common sense they will never allow the process anywhere in the Arab world to reach an extreme situation. They will always bring the pendulum to the middle, which is very important,” the president added.
Jabbra, who holds a doctorate in political science from the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., said LAU’s expansion plans have not been affected by the global financial crisis.
“We have not been really affected by the international financial crisis ... First, we are a private institution and we depend to a great extent on tuitions that come to us from our students,” he said. “Of course, we are engaged in fundraising for the university in order to make sure that the parents don’t take the brunt of the cost of education.”
“A second reason that the international financial crisis did not affect us is because we are very responsible in terms of our finances. We watch the bottom line very carefully. And thank God, in the past eight years we’ve never had a deficit in the operating budget of the university,” he said.
Jabbra expressed gratitude to donors to LAU, both in Lebanon and abroad, who offer both “financial and moral” support to its “full board” fundraising effort, because they have faith in the university’s mission.
“The people believe in the mission of LAU, and therefore, they’ve given for financial assistance and for scholarships. For example, this year the operating budget included $15 million for financial aid and scholarships ... Next year’s budget will include an $18.8 million for scholarships and financial aid,” he said.
As for the university’s expansion plans, Jabbra described a multi-faceted strategy.
“The growth both in standing and in numbers has necessitated the growth in capital projects on the three campuses. For example, in the Byblos campus we have three massive projects that we’re engaged in the Gilbert and Rose Mary Shakhouri science, health sciences center. And this project, which is unique throughout the region, is about to be completed,” he said.
“Another project consists of a major building for our engineering school in order for us to pull together all the labs for the five programs we offer in civil, mechanical, electrical, computing and industrial engineering. And excavation has begun on this project,” he added.
Jabbra said renovation was a round-the-clock process at the Beirut campus, where the buildings are older than those at Byblos.
In the capital, LAU has purchased the neighboring Al-Jazaeri building in Qoreitem, which will be renovated in order to accommodate a new fashion design program with the support of famous Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab. In New York, meanwhile, LAU bought a three-story building that is now being renovated, and it’s hoped it will be ready for an inauguration in September. Plans for that facility, located near the United Nations, include housing LAU’s headquarters and offering courses in Arabic.
Jabbra said the Gulf states’ decision last year to warn their citizens against traveling to Lebanon for security reasons had little effect on the number of Gulf citizens enrolled at LAU. He noted that there were Saudi, Kuwaiti, Emirati and Jordanian students at the university, adding that a number of Syrian students had also enrolled because of the bloody conflict in their country.
“Certainly, warnings like that would make people think twice before they come to Lebanon, but they know that LAU is an island of peace. And they know that if their sons and daughters come here, they will be protected because we treat them as members of our family. We care for them.”
Jabbra said the university administration tolerated students talking politics on campus, as long as things remained peaceful. “It is one of the values that we cherish so much: to instill in our students a sense of democracy. That applies across the board, including politics.”
“As long as they resolve their disagreements by peaceful means, I think this [should] be encouraged. But we will not allow violence to take place because of disagreements,” he added.
“We want to avoid violence because it is a university where you have the freedom to speak out and also the obligation to respect someone who may disagree with you and not to resort to violence in order to force people to agree with the way you think,” he said.