12° Nicosia,
24 May, 2024

AUB Mediterraneo Paphos: Shaping the future of education in the Mediterranean

An exclusive interview with Philip S. Khoury, Chairman of the Board of American University Beirut, on AUB's expansion, AI in education, and the power of diversity

Shemaine Bushnell Kyriakides

As the anticipation builds for the opening of the American University of Beirut - Mediterraneo in Paphos scheduled for September 2023, Kathimerini had the privilege of sitting down with Philip S. Khoury, Chairman of the Board of American University Beirut (AUB). In this exclusive interview, we explore the rich history of the renowned university, its profound impact on education and leadership, and the role of artificial intelligence in shaping the future of higher education worldwide.

For 157 years, AUB has stood as a beacon of knowledge and excellence, attracting individuals from around the globe to pursue their studies within its prestigious halls. According to Mr. Khoury, this venerable institution has been a true gem of the region, nurturing presidents, ministers, intellectuals, and aspiring leaders who sought to receive a world-class education. Its remarkable journey began on December 3, 1866, with a modest inaugural class of 16 students. Notably, the opening of the university's medical school the following year further solidified AUB's reputation as a leading institution in the Middle East and beyond. Over the course of over a century, it has become an integral part of the fabric of the Mediterranean region, attracting numerous students seeking an American-style liberal arts education.

As an American-funded university, AUB conducts its academic programs in English, while the degrees it awards are officially registered with the New York Board of Regents. However, what truly sets this institution apart is its steadfast commitment to inclusivity and diversity. From its very inception, the guiding principle has been that this college is open to individuals of all backgrounds, regardless of color, nationality, race, or religion.

Philip S. Khoury, born on October 15, 1949, in Washington, D.C., is an esteemed scholar and academic leader. He completed his education at prestigious institutions such as the American University of Beirut, Trinity College, and Harvard University, earning a PhD in 1980. Khoury joined MIT in 1981 as an assistant professor of history and later became a professor. From 1991 to 2006, he served as Dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, where he made significant contributions to doctoral and master's programs, international studies, and fundraising efforts. Khoury also played a pivotal role in establishing and chairing the Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar and the John E. Burchard Scholars Program at MIT. He has been recognized with numerous prestigious fellowships and awards for his outstanding achievements and contributions to academia.

Mr. Khoury very nice to meet you and welcome to Cyprus.

So, why did AUB decide to set up shop in Cyprus? And why Paphos?

Cyprus is an integral part of our broader plan, and our connection to it is deeply rooted. At AUB, as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, our role is to ensure fiduciary responsibility and contribute to the strategic direction. We do not manage or run the university; that responsibility lies with the President and their team, whom you have just met. Our task is to evaluate their ideas, determine the most viable options, and make decisions regarding what we can support and what is not feasible.

Together, we developed a comprehensive strategic plan called 'Vital 2030.' This plan was crafted collaboratively by a joint group of trustees, senior administrators, and deans to ensure a unified approach and garner agreement. One of the key objectives of this plan is to thrive and succeed in the region where AUB is located. To achieve this, we recognize the importance of going global, a trend followed by countless institutions. Throughout its history, the university's mission has been to serve Lebanon and the broader region. Beirut, as a hub for international capital, education, and research, attracted individuals from all over the world. However, the war-shattered this dynamic, causing an exodus of people. While the global players couldn't sustain themselves, AUB and Lebanon persevered. The university, particularly its medical school and hospital, remained resilient, providing ecumenical care to all those in need.

In summary, going global was a necessary step for us, and the timing was right. Even without the economic collapse in Lebanon around 2020-2021, we would have pursued this direction. Cyprus, Lebanon's neighbor, shares many similarities with us. While the population is smaller, the land mass is comparable. Moreover, Cyprus is an open and democratic society, situated within the Mediterranean basin, making it a part of our region. So, we thought, why not explore this opportunity? In the city of Paphos, we discovered a Mayor and a team who were genuinely enthusiastic about developing their intellectual capital. They aimed to attract, recruit, and nurture talent in this charming little city, which strikes me as an ideal college town. Our inaugural cohort of students will commence in September, although it will be relatively small. However, over time, we plan to expand to accommodate up to 2,000 students across various programs. This mutual agreement aligns with our goal of admitting the best possible students, equivalent to our standards in Beirut.

So would you say that the current crisis in Lebanon was one of the factors influencing the decision to establish AUB's twin campus in Cyprus?

Absolutely. The crisis in Lebanon prompted us to accelerate our plans outlined in 'Vital 2030'. Opening a campus in Cyprus presented itself as a valuable opportunity. While exploring options, we also considered global expansion through online education. The advantage for us is that we can offer high-quality education in both English and Arabic, meeting the demand for improved educational standards in the entire Arab world.

And did the freezing and devaluation of funds in Lebanon play a significant role in the decision to open a campus in Cyprus? Was it a way to withdraw funds held by banks in Lebanon?

No, that wasn't the primary motivation. As an American university, our endowment is located outside of Lebanon. While we do have some cash in Lebanon for specific expenses, that wasn't the main concern. The collapse of the financial situation and the economy in Lebanon did impact us, as students have to pay in Lebanese Lira, which has significantly devalued. To address this, we are gradually shifting towards dollarization. By 2025, our goal is to have all faculty and staff paid in US dollars and to charge tuition in US dollars as well. This helps to balance the financial aspect. Additionally, we have expanded financial aid to accommodate students who may face difficulties in affording education in the current situation.

Do you believe that the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon will survive after nearly 200 years?

Yes, I do believe that AUB will survive. What is remarkable about our board of trustees is their deep concern about the so-called 'mothership' being abandoned. When news spread that we were establishing a campus in Paphos, Cyprus, some people in Lebanon expressed worry that we were leaving the country behind. It's hard to find another university that has had the same level of influence on a single country as AUB has had on Lebanon. We are the crème de la crème, and this has been the case for a long time. Many of Lebanon's leaders, including prime ministers and business figures, are AUB alumni, so the concern is understandable. However, we have taken great care to ensure that AUB's presence in Lebanon remains strong.

Nevertheless, the uncertainty lies with Lebanon itself. We are deeply rooted in the fabric of the country, but it is undeniable that we are probably the most stable institution within it. The strength of our institution comes from our long-standing tradition of 155 plus years, our esteemed reputation in the region, and our status as an American institution. We actively seek and receive funds from the US government, and we work tirelessly in Washington to advocate for continued support. This support is crucial for various areas, including the hospital and medical school, as well as scholarships for Palestinian and Syrian students in need, including refugees. We have accelerated these efforts in recent times.

Did you experience a significant decline in the number of students as a result of the crisis?

Initially, yes, we did experience a loss of students. However, we are actively working to rebuild our student cohort. We had approximately 9,500 students, including both undergraduate and graduate students, and we are currently at nearly 8,000 students. So, we lost around 1,000 students during this period.

Is the decrease in student enrollment at AUB and the potential shift towards alternative paths in education driven solely by the crisis, or are there broader factors at play? Additionally, do you believe that the emphasis on technical and professional fields may compromise the quality of education, particularly in terms of humanities and foundational aspects of undergraduate programs?

Yes, I think there are multiple factors at play. The core of a liberal arts and sciences education is essential. This undergraduate education is not solely focused on professional training but encompasses values and critical thinking. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that any education platform we establish, whether here or elsewhere, incorporates these foundational elements. Students need to grasp and engage with these principles. However, it is not enough on its own. They also require practical skills and preparation for the so-called real world. This includes gaining practical experience, participating in internships, studying abroad, and experiencing different cultures and languages. The United States, being predominantly English-speaking, has a deficit in language learning compared to other countries.

In the American education system, there is a concern regarding the increasing focus on specialization and careerism, driven largely by economic factors. Students are anxious about their future and employment prospects. Additionally, many of the jobs they will be trained for do not even exist yet, leaving them uncertain about their career paths. As a result, there has been a decline in students pursuing humanities and social sciences, which worries universities that have invested in tenured faculty in these areas. Instead, students are gravitating towards business schools, management programs, and engineering. This trend can be observed across the United States, even in prestigious institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, where humanities departments are experiencing a decrease in enrollment.

This concern arises from the possibility that if students overwhelmingly prioritize technical and professional fields, it may compromise the quality of education. The erosion of humanities and foundational aspects of undergraduate education could become a reality if this shift persists.

Are you aware of the proposal in England where students interested in pursuing a medical degree can apprentice at an NHS facility instead of attending traditional medical school in order to reduce the cost of medical education? What are your concerns about such an approach and its potential impact on the delivery of high-quality healthcare?

I am concerned about the suggestion and its potential implications. While it may seem cost-effective for both medical schools and hospitals, we need to carefully consider whether it can deliver the level of high-quality healthcare that the world requires. It is essential to monitor the situation closely and ensure that the standard of healthcare is not compromised.

So moving on to AI and education. How do you envision the incorporation of AI into the fabric of education?

As a historian, I must exercise caution in making predictions, as historians struggle with predicting even the past. However, I have dabbled with generative AI and have encountered both promising and underwhelming results. Plagiarism concerns associated with AI-generated content should not be overlooked. It is likely that counter-AI technologies and programs will be developed to identify instances of AI usage, as is typically the case with technological advancements. In a broader context, AI has the potential to positively impact research and the delivery of education. It could create a transformed workforce that liberates individuals from mundane jobs, paving the way for more fulfilling career opportunities for graduates. While there are numerous benefits to consider, it is crucial to proceed with caution, as even the creators of AI express apprehension about its implications.

At AUB in Lebanon, we are forming a team to explore the integration of generative AI into our education system. With the guidance of three prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs on our board, we are working towards building a dedicated platform for AUB. This endeavor will take time, but we believe it is essential to be at the forefront of this technological advancement.

Finally, Mr. Khoury, with AUB Mediterraneo being established and the university's motto emphasizing diversity, do you believe it will contribute to stability in the region?

The concept of having a network of interconnected institutions in the Mediterranean basin resonates with me. The region is home to a vast population of people who, despite their differences in language and familiarity, share many similarities. From Cyprus and Greece to the Balkan areas and North Africa, the countries surrounding the Mediterranean form an ecosystem. Cyprus, located just a 30-minute flight away from Lebanon, is an integral part of this ecosystem. AUB, with its longstanding history and reputation, stands as a prominent university in the region. Our success can be attributed not only to our ties with the US government but also to our connections with US higher education and research institutions.

In the United States, the top schools have excelled by recognizing that great teachers go beyond delivering lectures; they integrate their own research and the research of others to inspire students. The integration of research and teaching is crucial, and AUB follows this model. Paphos, where AUB Mediterraneo is located, shares this vision. During my recent meeting with the dynamic Mayor of Paphos, we discussed his aspirations to attract talent, encourage the return of skilled individuals, and foster an ecosystem that amplifies Paphos' influence beyond its modest population of 40,000.

Therefore, I believe that AUB Mediterraneo, with its focus on diversity and collaboration, has the potential to contribute to stability in the region by nurturing intellectual exchange, attracting talent, and fostering an environment of growth and influence.

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