Beirut's American campus pins hopes on new tower

February 4, 2000


The College Hall bell tower at the American University of Beirut was a landmark for the city for almost 120 years, until a bomb blew the building apart in November 1991.

Throughout Lebanon's 15-year civil war, the university managed to stay open, only to have its oldest and most prominent building razed a year after the war ended.

But the day after the bomb, the AUB's alumni groups swung into action, launching a worldwide fundraising campaign. About $22 million (Pounds 14 million) was raised in eight years, enough to rebuild College Hall, which re-opened in June last year.

"It is easier to start from scratch than it is to renovate an old building," said building manager Orhan Saadeddine. "We've been able to introduce disabled access, we have extra auditoria and we have rebuilt College Hall 25 per cent bigger."

The latest technology has been used to make automate the building - from air conditioning to security cameras. The floors and staircases have been changed and a basement has been added, giving the building six floors.

Shehadi Abboud, director of extension programmes, said: "We love it, everything is really handy and modern. For eight years, all the administrative offices were scattered all over the campus, but now we're all back here under one roof."

College Hall houses the history and Arabic faculties and the administrative offices. It is the first building students pass by from the main gate and it has resumed its role as a campus meeting point.

AUB president John Waterbury hopes to revive the college's pre-war reputation, but faces funding problems. "We are trying to attract good people, which means costs are going up," he said. "Tuition fees are prohibitive," he said, but added that he intends to double the amount of financial aid available to students from $5 million to $10 million. A recent 6 per cent hike in fees led to student protests, but Mr Waterbury blamed the rise on inflation in Lebanon.

He said the university was seeking out new revenue sources. "We are developing sponsored research in fields such as engineering, agriculture and public health. We hope that in the future, sponsored research will make up 25 per cent of our funding."

About 80 per cent of AUB's students are Lebanese, with small numbers of Jordanians, Syrians and Palestinians. The civil war caused a drop in enrolments from abroad, but Mr Waterbury plans recruitment drives in neighbouring countries in an effort to combat people's wariness of Lebanon's reputation for instability.

"In Cyprus, they ask us if Lebanon is safe. They have real concerns about security," Mr Waterbury said. "They also tell us they thought the university had closed down during the war. These are big obstacles to get over."

Although Lebanon is going through a period of relative stability, security remains a concern - Mr Waterbury has one guard by his house and one outside his office. He is the first American president to be based in Beirut since his predecessor, Malcolm Kerr, was killed in 1984.

"Since I have come here, many Lebanese have said that having the president here has sent a very powerful message to the world. We want to see more students coming back on campus. Re-opening College Hall also sends out a very positive message."

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