Call to tear up liberal arts courses to tackle global challenges

President of Lebanese American University explains how refugee focus has made interdisciplinary courses more relevant and engaging

November 29, 2022
Michel Mawad

Rewriting liberal arts programmes to focus on global challenges will improve graduate employability and student engagement, according to the head of a university in Lebanon that applied its interdisciplinary programmes to the country’s refugee crisis.

While many universities have begun to centre their research around the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include clean water, quality education and smart cities, few institutions have remodelled undergraduate courses around the wide-ranging development goals.

However, Michel Mawad, who was appointed president of the Lebanese American University in October 2020, said numerous crises faced by his country in recent years, including Covid and the enormous explosion in central Beirut in August 2020, had persuaded him to take the radical step of remodelling liberal arts courses towards more practical ends.

However, the 1.5 million Syrian refugees hosted by Lebanon since the start of the civil war in 2011 posed a significant challenge that could not be ignored, Professor Mawad, a neurosurgeon, told Times Higher Education’s MENA Universities Summit.

“There are a lot of refugees with a lot of problems – we need to get involved as they deserve our attention as much as anyone else,” Professor Mawad told an audience at the American University of the Middle East in Kuwait.

This year the university revamped its liberal arts and sciences programme to “capture the spirit of the major problems that our world is facing”, which he said would include “life-changing electives” with refugee camps, and curricula and projects involving providing clean water, vaccination and aid distribution, explained Professor Mawad.

The pedagogic reform would be beneficial for refugees but also the quality of education received by students, he told THE.

“Studying history and literature on a liberal arts programme may be excellent in educational terms but it’s not enough anymore – we’ve seen graduates from these types of programmes all across the world struggle to get professional jobs,” he said.

“We have so many problems that we are trying to address – bringing civic engagement and liberal arts together in this way makes sense,” added Dr Mawad, whose university was founded almost 100 years ago, and is accredited by US authorities.

The new programme has been led by the dean of arts and sciences, Cathia Jenainati, who moved to Lebanon in 2019 after founding the University of Warwick’s School for Cross-Faculty Studies four years earlier.

“She said, ‘Enough with this – we need to be more relevant and inclusive’, and it’s been a big success,” said Professor Mawad, who explained that he had also begun to reform other parts of the university to encourage more interactions with society and industry.

“I’ve redrawn the intellectual property rules so they favour industry, which will get the lion’s share [of any future income] but we will get some,” he said, adding: “You cannot get companies interested in academia unless there is some benefit for them.”

Professor Mawad, who spent 40 years working in university hospitals in New York and Houston before returning to the Middle East, said he was keen to build innovation centres on campus, partly to encourage students to engage with industry earlier.

“Our students are starting to work with industry at a very early stage, even in their first year – we want that experiential learning to start very early,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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