Musings on Tottering Lebanese Academia

“Why are Arab universities excluded from international academic rankings?” At least the ones like U.S. News that assess major institutions in the West and worldwide.

I came across that provocative, yet important, headline of a 2016 article published by the Lebanon-based Arab Thought Foundation.

It’s a legitimate question, notably in Lebanon, once considered an education hub in the Middle East where Arab elites attended university, sent their kids to college, and where leaders, doctors, engineers, artists and some infamous characters spent formative years shaped by the learning experience in a cosmopolitan environment envied by geographic neighbors.

There’s been a mushrooming of universities in Lebanon in recent decades, with fierce competition for students and academics.

Interestingly, two Saudi universities are among the higher listed institutions in the U.S. News rankings for 2022. America’s Harvard, MIT and Stanford are the top three, with global scores of 100, 97.5 and 95.6.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University scored 76.3 and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology came in at 70.9.

All other universities up to that arbitrary cutoff point are in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia (beyond the Middle East).

The one-time powerhouse American University of Beirut (AUB) ranked a mere 53.5 on the list and the Lebanese American University was nowhere to be found, while the state-run and government-funded Lebanese University limped at 30.6. The plethora of Lebanese higher learning institutions were completely off the map.

When I turned to the top 10 performing institutions in 2022 mentioned in the QS World University Rankings in the Arab Region , AUB came in fourth after Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz University, Qatar University and Saudi King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals.

Is it because the Lebanese temple came crashing down on everyone’s head in 2019 when a financial meltdown took an immense toll on academia?

What academic and job prospects exist for Lebanon’s youth? (Abu-Fadil)

But a rankings question remains: who sets these standards? Are they tailor made for Western-/Euro-centric institutions that consider developing countries’ universities marginal?

Having served on an academic accreditation committee in Lebanon I remember a template imposed by the U.S. accrediting agency to fit its context and meet requirements that often seemed far-fetched.

At times it felt like an exercise in futility. Decisions were made by committee, whose members had divergent interests and priorities. We wasted much time talking, not enough time doing.

And what happens when the academic rank-and-file slave away to maintain standards, produce good research, and are respected by their students but the university leadership sucks?

Like any organization, a university has good and bad people but Lebanon’s civil war was particularly hard on academia. Its legacy is still felt, although a 32-year quasi-hiatus in the country provided some breathing space.

Sadly, standards dropped, admissions requirements took a dive, with “wasta” (influence peddling) playing a major role, faculty oversight wasn’t as stringent as it should have been, and, top ranking officials adopted corruption as their middle name when their appetite for power and money gave way to countless conflicts of interest.

I often wonder if there’s a mechanism to gauge how frequently university leaders, particularly presidents, fail, and if they’re really held to account. Maybe if their actions are totally beyond the pale, the board of trustees in question takes the appropriate action and sacks them.

But many presidents, provosts, vice presidents, deans and department chairs get away with shocking actions, below par performance, and harassment of underlings, then have the audacity to point out those in lower ranking jobs don’t meet key performance indicators (KPIs).

How many universities in the Arab world in general, and Lebanon in particular, have reached financial settlements with bad “academic leaders” by paying them a bundle and making them sign non-disclosure agreements to keep mum about scandals in which they were involved?

From my observations and experience as a former academic, I’ve come across at least three vice presidents, two assistant VPs, and a dozen faculty members and administrators who were ousted for one form of misbehavior or another.

It was always in hushed tones. The top folks tried to sweep the scandals under the rug but word got out and the grapevine went into overdrive with a dash of spice for good measure.

There’s also the hassle of trying to find replacements. At private institutions, unlike less well-endowed public universities, it often involves hiring a headhunter for the top jobs, forming search committees to go through the filtered candidates, meetings, expenses, and what not.

It’s too much trouble for any university hellbent on cutting expenses. Since Lebanon’s financial demise, it’s been painful. So key administrators try to avoid changes like the plague.

Grievances aren’t all academic and promotions aren’t always tied to performance.

“Wasta” plays a big part in where professors land and how much they’re paid. Public university faculty members usually make less money than their counterparts at private institutions so there’s a bigger bone to pick with their administrations.

I remember reading that public university professors in much of the Arab world had great difficulty climbing up into the middle class based on a salary survey of 12 countries conducted in 2014.

It’s doubtful conditions have improved, given economic hardships those countries have experienced in the interim, as well as coronavirus setbacks and crackdowns on academic freedoms.

A 2021 article said “Arab professors despair of poor working conditions,” so it’s no surprise their universities slip through the rankings cracks.

An oppressive environment also exists where learners have harassed professors with complaints about “offensive” syllabi, curricula and course contents they disliked or considered unethical and immoral given their conservative backgrounds.

In extreme conditions, students have resorted to violence, or threatened it, against professors who gave them bad grades based on poor academic performance and disruptive classroom behavior.

Such students often got away with it because they were backed politically and university administrators were cowed into submission.

Was there fear on campus? Does it still exist? Have academic freedom and free expression become points of view rather than rights?

Are students and their families treated as customers who university administrators don’t wish to offend? Where do presidents draw the line between academic freedom and subjugation by influential students’ repressive priorities?

Although several universities in Lebanon were founded (in principle) as liberal arts colleges to teach Lebanese and regional students how to think critically, how to tolerate differences and accept diversity, many learners following the 1975–90 civil war came with excess baggage.

They were conflicted.

Should they follow their families’ (and very often political parties’ or religious leaders’) strict rules, or throw caution to the wind and bend to the university’s mission statement of free thinking, pursuing their dreams and possibly breaking societal taboos along the way?

On the flip side, students’ burdens were, and still are, augmented by university harassers and enablers, in the form of unwanted physical and mental abuse and cover-ups.

An attractive former female student of mine was harassed by one of her professors with the very broad hint that if she didn’t succumb to his advances her grades would be affected.

She was a good student and didn’t need this unwarranted pressure from a sexually frustrated instructor. She eventually passed with a B rather than an A grade in his course.

He got away with it because the university feared losing him as a full-timer. He was the second professor in the department charged with sexual harassment of female students.

The other one was nonchalant, which eventually landed him in trouble. As a part-timer he was expendable and replaced. I felt sorry for students who enrolled in his courses.

Ironically, both of them landed much better jobs elsewhere and are thriving.

Meanwhile, publishing outside the staid halls of academe created a stir for professors who were members of the International Studies Association and objected to being barred from blogging, when that form began to attract writers over a decade ago.

It was infuriating because universities’ “publish or perish” dogma means professors have to produce papers in refereed journals and write books of a certain caliber to get promoted. Anything below those academic outlets is considered rubbish.

When journals’ editors rejected studies, professors turned to blogging about their research findings to promote them and gain recognition.

As the proposed blogging ban emerged, younger faculty members said it was because older professors were retrograde and not tech savvy.

In 2008, Montreal-based Hugh McGuire, founder and CEO of Pressbooks, wrote “Why Academics Should Blog” in the Huffington Post.

He noted academics needed to improve their writing; some of their ideas were dumb; the point of academia was to expand knowledge; blogging expands readership; blogging protects and promotes their ideas; blogging is reputation; linking is better than footnotes; journals and blogs can (and should) coexist; and, asked what journals had done for them lately.

Someone once tweeted that “publish-perish also keeps new profs from innovating.”

So, who’s reading all that research in peer-reviewed journals, and does it really matter?

It could make a difference if scientific research, technological innovations or social science contributions are adopted by national decision makers. In Lebanon, it’s doubtful.

I was amused by an opinion piece in Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper in 2015 entitled “Prof, no one is reading you.”

The sub-headline read: “An average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. To shape policy, professors should start penning commentaries in popular media.”

Here’s what the authors said:

Many of the world’s most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today’s public debates or influencing policies.

Indeed, scholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media. “Running an opinion editorial to share my views with the public? Sounds like activism to me,” a professor recently noted at a conference, hosted by the University of Oxford.

The absence of professors from shaping public debates and policies seems to have exacerbated in recent years, particularly in social sciences.

Here’s the clincher:

Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioners’ decision-making.

However, practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals. We know of no senior policymaker or senior business leader who ever read regularly any peer-reviewed papers in well-recognised journals like Nature, Science or Lancet.

No wonder.

Most journals are difficult to access and prohibitively expensive for anyone outside of academia.

It’s the same ossified attitude of a vice president I dealt with back in the day and to whom I’d proposed introducing online courses — still in their infancy — that would later become the norm, notably during Covid-19 lockdowns and beyond.

He was adamantly against the idea and discredited any learning not conducted in a traditional classroom. Fast forward to today, the university is raking in money from online courses.

The problem of academia as home to navel gazers more than outside world engagers is as true today as when I spent 17 years in it. While it’s not fair to generalize, and there are innovative souls within those walls, the drudgery of faculty members can be painful.

I came across a 2013 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which author Jill Lepore wrote that history professor Russell Jacoby at the University of California in Los Angeles believed no serious American thinker under the age of 45 was writing for anyone other than academics, or able to, and blamed higher education for that predicament.

The growth of the modern research university in the decades following the Second World War nursed a generation of intellectuals who had hardly lived off campus, barely knew anyone who hadn’t earned a Ph.D., and couldn’t hold a decent dinner conversation with an ordinary reader, much less write for one, Lepore said.

I saw lots of that in Lebanon. Not just among expat American professors but Europeans and a whole bunch of locals. Out of touch with reality and marketplace needs.

If I had hundreds of dollars for every time an employer asked me why academics didn’t provide students with real life skills, the ability to write coherently and succinctly, and to think critically in a fast-paced environment like the media world from whence I came, I’d be filthy rich by now.

The online course offerings were just a case in point.

There have also been mental health issues.

The Guardian newspaper nailed it in 2014 when it published an article stating pressure on overworked and isolated academics fuels mental health problems.

I was shocked decades ago as a university student when one of my professors took his own life.

Heavy workloads, lack of support and isolation are key factors contributing to mental illness, according to The Guardian survey’s respondents, who ranged from PhD students to vice-chancellors.

While the analysis focused on the UK, the results could have applied to Lebanon. More so since the financial collapse began in 2019 and academics’ salaries hit rock bottom after the local currency tanked against the dollar.

Academic writing, believe it or not, is a bane for academics.

I can’t forget a university head who asked a faculty member down the hall from me to write up his scattered thoughts into a book that was later promoted widely as a great work.

The poor slob who wrote it confirmed what cartoon character Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) once said of the academic genre: “I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning and inhibit clarity.”

Screenshot of Calvin & Hobbes on academic writing

No wonder they call them diploma mills. Some are more exclusive with shinier veneers to cover for what’s obviously a mercantile game of “give me your money and I’ll bestow a piece of paper upon you saying you’re educated, even if you’re below par and functionally illiterate”

Otherwise, how could they justify low admission standards catering to the son or daughter of so-and-so, while arduously maintaining a sectarian quota balance of those they accepted?

The sectarianism, part of Lebanon’s DNA, was/is equally flagrant in the faculty and administration hires.

A former vice president welcomed me on board, teaching qualifications and extensive media work experience notwithstanding, because I belonged to the right religious denomination.

Or so it was assumed, and it was a wrong assumption.

None of that had even crossed my mind, coming from abroad with tons of ideas on how to create a vibrant and modern program after years of civil war. Speak of naiveté.

I also hadn’t realized education was, and still is, a business, albeit one with hifalutin standards.

The higher the tuition fees, the more “exclusive” the institution, regardless of baggage.

Those in charge had no reservations about hiking fees almost yearly citing expenses and salaries as primary causes. Plus, the university was offering scholarships and financial aid, they said. But that aid came from donors, not the administrators’ pockets.

The greater tragedy today, as the Financial Times headlined, is “Lebanon faces (an) exodus of its most educated citizens.”

Forced to grapple daily with hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages, many Lebanese have little confidence in the future. They have lost hope their fractious leaders will take action to reverse the country’s catastrophic financial collapse. Two years after the onset of a fiscal and banking crisis, little has been done to salvage the sinking economy in what the World Bank has called a “deliberate depression . . . orchestrated by an elite that has captured the state”.

The French daily Le Figaro echoed that with “Lebanon is emptying of its youth.”

“I have just returned from the land of the Cedars, and the observation is overwhelming: Lebanon is gradually emptying of its youth,” wrote Franco-Lebanese professor Samir Ayoub of the above normal and speedy exodus. “Struck by a multidimensional crisis, the country has become a cemetery for young people in search of opportunities and a better future.”

So, you can kiss those rankings goodbye.

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.