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Looking back at a remarkable year for AUB
Martin Asser and Dana Abed  |  Offices of Communications and Advancement  |  | 

​​Inauguration ceremony of Fadlo R. Khuri as the 16th president of AUB which coincided with the launching of events celebrating the University’s milestone 150th anniversary (Jan. 25, 2016)

Twenty-sixteen may be remembered around the world for unexpected political upheaval, with Brexit and Trumpquake entering the lexicon, but in a small corner of Ras Beirut it will go down as a year of proud tribute to glories past and boldly looking ahead to an even brighter future.

The American University of Beirut reached its 150th birthday on December 3, the day in 1866 when the first class of the Syrian Protestant College (as it then was) met for lessons in rented rooms under the benevolent and visionary stewardship of the first president, Daniel Bliss.

As the anniversary approached, the university administration agreed early on that this great occasion merited not just a day, or a week, of celebrations, but was rich and resonant enough to warrant a whole year of events linking 2016 to 1866, with every corner of this diverse institution encouraged to participate.

This decision was accompanied by a determination not to put a penny of operational budget, student tuition fees or university endowment, towards the ambitious program of events that was being planned.

That determination was realized by the Office of Advancement, which sought out strategic partnerships with commercial and other entities from AUB's wide circle of friends and supporters, raising from each partner a very effective total sum to put some real sparkle on the sesquicentennial calendar.

A new era

The celebrations started on the day of the inauguration of AUB's 16th president, and the first Lebanese to lead the University, Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, on January 25, with an official anniversary opening ceremony following his investiture and the launch of a special AUB150 website to mark the event.

Three presidential symposia were hosted on either side of the traditional inauguration and a gala dinner at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL) on the same night.

These packed-out sessions were entitled Defining Moments of AUB, Cancer in the Molecular Era, and Higher Education in the Region, reflecting both the new president's academic specialism and AUB's leadership as an institution.

The inauguration ceremony in Assembly Hall was a grand affair, beginning with a procession of university presidents and institutional delegates from around the world, trustees, and distinguished academics in academic robes. 

President Khuri envisioned a new mission for AUB in a turbulent world. “We can and must model a fair, just and pluralistic society, that is secular and that is transparent and that is open at AUB."

“When we do that we will be capable of achieving truly global impact. If we enhance and support the pluralism that exists, and we turn our focus to innovation, empowerment, enlightenment, tolerance, coexistence and engaged citizenship, but especially the pursuit of excellence, we can make a difference in the world," he said.

Impactful initiatives

After the inspirational success of the joint inauguration/anniversary launch, anniversary-themed initiatives and events came thick and fast during the year, starting with a campus-spanning mass dabke organized by the Organic Chemistry Club and the Dabke Club with Melhem Zein providing the vocals.

March saw the launch of One Hundred and Fifty, an ambitious attempt to tell the histories (sic) of the University, from its inception to its recent years, edited by then Associate Provost Nadia El Cheikh (now dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences), Professors Lina Choueiri and Bilal Orfali.

The book was AUB's principal published academic work related to the sesquicentennial celebrations, and included 26 chapters highlighting various aspects of the history of the University, its unparalleled impact and some of its most memorable personalities.

A few days later saw the opening of a special exhibition organized for AUB's 150th, called the Arab Nude: Artist as Awakener, featuring Arab artists regarded as founders and pillars of fine arts traditions in their respective countries, or as truly modern artists in the sense of their personal and professional autonomy.

April saw the first of a series of faculty-centered occasions marking the anniversary, fittingly hosted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which was the founding faculty in 1866, being joined by the Faculty of Medicine a year later in 1867.

FAS celebrations incorporated keynote speeches by invited guests, symposia, and artistic events, including a recital by operatic soprano Rima Tawil.  Special sessions were held to celebrate the works of Arab poet Adonis and AUB academician Wadad Qadi.

The Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, the Hariri School of Nursing, the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences, the Olayan Business School and Faculty of Health Sciences all held special celebrations under the 150th banner, while the Faculty of Medicine held back for its own landmark celebrations in 2017.

These were just a few of innumerable enthralling events which came thick and fast during a packed year. They range from AUB's campus being declared a botanical garden, to a student project to install solar lighting to a remote Lebanese village, to a time capsule devised by editors of AUB's student newspaper Outlook. 

Alumni were not to be left out either: a significant number of WAAAUB chapters held gala gatherings around the world, while ​​the Philadelphia/Delaware Valley Chapter, in collaboration with alumni volunteers, produced with a new cookbook, ABUNDANCE​, full of toothsome Mediterranean recipes nominated by generations of gifted AUBite culinarians. 

Special events

Great University occasions of 2016 all took on a feeling of significance thanks to the anniversary. The perennial luster of the Commencement exercises was added to with the addition of special banners that featured the stylish anniversary logo proclaiming AUB150 (which also became a well-used hashtag on the social platform Twitter).

The bedecked Green Field was also the scene for an unprecedented international sports tournament with guest teams from Egypt, the UAE, and Greece, as well as seven Lebanese Universities.

The imposing Assembly Hall stage and the famous West Hall staircase were both decorated by elegant embroidered hangings specially designed for these locations. Meanwhile, College Hall had perhaps the most striking livery, three banners soaring to the gables of the iconic building saying “AUB 150, We Make History."

Meanwhile promenaders along the Beirut Corniche were treated to a very popular history lesson all year with tens of prominent AUBites showcased on banners attached to the street lamps. ​​​​​​

At the Opening Ceremony in September, President Khuri delivered a powerful address entitled the Legacy of Service in which he reminded the audience of AUB's role in creating societal change by foregoing entitlement to help those less fortunate.

On a similar theme, some of the greatest servants and pioneers connected to AUB were celebrated during the year, including symposia honoring Constantine Zurayk, Charles Malik and Makhlouf Haddadin, and dramatic re-enactments of historical speeches at AUB by May Ziadeh, Anbara Salam and Wadad Cortas.

A climactic finish

The anniversary came to its climax in December, with the 150th Founders' Day, which featured Dr. Eve M. Troutt Powell, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Pennsylvania as keynote speaker.

“That you would honor me with the task, as a historian, to give some perspective on the significance and power of the liberal arts, at this moment in AUB's history—I wrote it's 'almost overwhelming'—in fact it's quite overwhelming", she said.

Among a plethora of special tributes that had been planned around Founders' Day were the issuing of a commemorative AUB stamp by LibanPost, a production of King Lear in colloquial Lebanese Arabic (a world first), an open air concert outside College Hall with the Zaki Nassif Ensemble headlining, and a Distinguished Lecture by the Bahraini politician and thinker Dr. Ali Fakhro.

But it wasn't over yet, the anniversary swansong saw a stunning collection of silver commemorative coins issued by Lebanon's Central Bank, the release of a documentary film about AUB, a whole year in the making, entitled On the Edge of Time – The Story of AUB and as part of the same project a haunting trilogy of songs, recorded live in Assembly Hall, released by the AUB-originated rock band Mashrou' Leila.

For those involved, it feels like a long time since the anniversary kicked off on a chilly January day one year ago.

President Khuri wrote, “the unmistakable highlight has been how the different constituencies have engaged with the wide variety of initiatives that have been undertaken in the last 12 months."

So here's to another successful 150 years for unquestionably the Middle East's greatest seat of learning!

Story Highlights
  • ​Twenty-sixteen may be remembered around the world for unexpected political upheaval, with Brexit and Trumpquake entering the lexicon, but in a small corner of Ras Beirut it will go down as a year of proud tribute to glories past and boldly looking ahead to an even brighter future.
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