January 24, 2007: Features

John Waterbury ’61

John Waterbury ’61, president of the American University of Beirut, was in New York in mid-November for a meeting of the school’s trustees when the phone calls started coming from campus. (Ben Eden/courtesy AUB)

An American in Beirut
John Waterbury ’61 helps interpret the Middle East to Americans, and America to the Middle East

By Katherine Zoepf ’00

Student elections had just been held, and in Lebanon’s volatile environment just after last summer’s war, the threat of violence was growing. “They were on the phone with me saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of people out on Bliss Street with megaphones, and the Lebanese army is here, and the results of these elections aren’t ever going to make anyone fully happy,’” Waterbury recalls. His decision: Lock up the ballots and postpone the announcement of the results until noon the next day, giving the tension on the campus a chance to ease. Though students protested, the strategy worked: When the results were announced — 39 votes to groups that support the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and 28 to groups that support Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and its allies — there was quiet.

When it comes to jobs in universities, there are war stories, and then there are war stories. And then there are the stories of Waterbury’s campus in Beirut.

Waterbury, a political economist specializing in the Middle East, taught at Princeton for nearly two decades and directed Princeton’s Center of International Studies until he moved to Lebanon in 1998 to become president of the American University of Beirut. His move was momentous for the Lebanese campus: He was the first president of the university to live in the city since 1984, when then-president Malcolm H. Kerr ’53 was assassinated on campus during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Two years before that, another president, David S. Dodge ’45 *49, was kidnapped and held hostage in Iran. Other AUB presidents have faced bomb attacks and near-constant demonstrations outside their homes and offices. Waterbury has never been threatened and has not experienced the protests that dogged other presidents, but attackers hurled dynamite over a campus wall within hours of the 1997 announcement of his appointment. He is trailed by a campus security officer on the AUB grounds and by an armed guard from the Lebanese military whenever he leaves campus.

On top of the fundraising and academic responsibilities that are the domain of all college presidents, the job in Beirut comes with an extra dollop of crisis-management tasks. Waterbury led AUB through last summer’s 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, which forced the suspension of the university’s summer session, and through weeks of anxious negotiations to ensure enough fuel to keep the American University Hospital — one of the most important hospitals in the region — functioning during the Israeli naval blockade. He deals regularly with student political groups that are effectively pared-down versions — different in name only — of Lebanon’s actual political parties, including the most militant ones.

Still, he says, “It is hard to think of a Lebanese institution that is more solid than AUB. Our ability to function in difficult circumstances gives hope to many Lebanese.”

aterbury’s arrival in Beirut was only the most recent example of a warm but informal Princeton-AUB connection that dates nearly to AUB’s 1866 founding as an independent college administered in the United States (trustee meetings still are held in its New York City offices).

One of AUB’s six founders, and its first treasurer, was William Earl Dodge, father of Cleveland Hoadley Dodge and William Earl Dodge, both members of the Class of 1879. Cleveland Dodge roomed at Princeton with Woodrow Wilson 1879, and the family’s deep interest in the Middle East and support for Mideast studies have strengthened Princeton for generations. Bayard Dodge 1909, the son of Cleveland Dodge, served as AUB’s fourth president between 1923 and 1948; David Dodge is his son.

Over the years, the AUB founders and their friends at Princeton recruited other trusted friends to the Lebanese university, explains Betty Anderson, a Boston University historian who is writing a book about AUB. Even today, Princetonians serve as trustees and lead AUB advisory groups.

Waterbury was recruited to AUB by former Princeton president and AUB trustee Robert Goheen ’40 *48, whose own life and work have centered on international affairs. Waterbury “wasn’t known to be one of the more flamboyant men on the Princeton faculty,” Goheen recalls, but he and other AUB trustees weren’t looking for flamboyance. Rather, Waterbury was “known to be a good administrator with a strong interest in international affairs,” Goheen says. “His work on water in the Middle East was highly respected. Plus, he had a spark.” For years, Goheen tried to convince Waterbury to take the AUB job, and Waterbury turned him down: Since the spate of kidnappings in Beirut in the 1980s, the U.S. government forbade its citizens to live in Lebanon, and Waterbury did not want to be an absentee president. When American law changed to permit citizens to live in Lebanon, Waterbury agreed to take the job.

From his office in Ras Beirut, a historically diverse pocket in predominantly Muslim western Beirut, where AUB’s campus lies, Waterbury slowly has been carving out a role for himself as an interpreter of the Middle East in the West, and vice versa. In person Waterbury is friendly but deeply serious, with the occasional flash of sharp humor.

After an academic career spent writing about such topics as water-resource management and the role of public enterprises in economic development, he now regularly addresses much more emotional questions about the Arab world. All university presidents put their faith in higher education as a salve for great problems, but surely few do it to the extent — and perhaps from the necessity — that Waterbury does. He is known for his devotion to maintaining high ethical and academic standards and for providing a haven for ideas and real debate in a region where universities often are established to impart particular political and religious positions. During his tenure, AUB has hosted controversial speakers from all sides of the political spectrum, including linguist and critic Noam Chomsky, who spoke on “the culture of empire,” and Sadek Jalal al-Azm, the Syrian philosopher who famously defended Salman Rushdie’s publication of The Satanic Verses.

Waterbury guards the standards of AUB zealously — its aim to keep the Middle East’s raging politics at bay, its expectations for open but civil communication, its insistence on high-quality scholarship — and is determined not to let his university fall victim to low standards that have become common in higher education in the region. Admission standards at AUB are famously high, and striving middle-class families all over the Arab world dream of sending their children to study at AUB’s lush, historic walled campus, with its graceful, red-roofed buildings, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Higher education “can have a role in shaping the way conflicts are conducted, the rhetoric of the debate itself, and the analysis of what is at stake,” Waterbury wrote in a 2003 Foreign Affairs article called “Hate Your Policies, Love Your Institutions.” “It can promote a broader understanding of the route to certain impasses and of alternative roads past them.” But he said that most institutions of higher learning in the Mideast instead “act as degree mills, not centers of analysis and debate. Students may graduate with some skills, but they tend to either keep the values they brought with them or imbibe those of the religious groups to whom university politics have been ceded.” Waterbury ended his article with an argument for supporting American institutions, much like AUB, that engage the Arab world and help to train its leaders.

He has not shied away from sensitive issues and language that can be difficult for both Americans and Middle Eastern-ers to hear. He has talked to AUB students about the divide — and the similarities — between “red” and “blue” America, and about the dangers he sees in U.S. efforts to weaken the legal protections of its citizens as it fights terrorism. In the 2003 Foreign Affairs article, he wrote bluntly that “those who so vehemently deny any linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader crisis must pull their heads out of the sand.” He dismissed analyses that the Muslim world had a hatred of America’s democratic institutions, its economy, and its wealth. “That is a more comforting explanation of Muslim rage than the notion that the United States has violated its own norms, elevated conflicts of interest to crusades against evil, and dismissed entire peoples as hopelessly corrupt, violent, and mired in medieval cant,” he wrote.

At AUB’s opening ceremony in 2001, Waterbury recounted how he had been in the United States three weeks earlier, and had planned to spend the beautiful fall day on Sept. 11 at AUB’s offices in New York City. He took the train from Princeton, where he still has a home, early in the morning.

Waterbury told the AUB students and professors of the train ride — from Princeton Junction through New Brunswick, and then on to Newark, where more than half the passengers got off to transfer to the train that would take them to jobs in or near the World Trade Center. He recalled disembarking in Manhattan himself, and seeing firefighters outside their station drinking coffee and sharing jokes as he walked to his office; the next day, he learned that the company had lost 10 of its members. He remembered his journey home, passing the mosque on Route 1 near Princeton, with a huge American flag hanging on its exterior wall and police officers posted outside.

“Why do I tell you all this? I am not exactly sure myself, but I think it is because all these events and scenes that we have witnessed from near or from afar make me feel our common links, our shared fears and hopes, our common humanity,” Waterbury said. “The sacred texts tell us that it is human to hate, human to crave revenge, indeed human to kill. But a university, like a mosque, or a church, or a temple, must lift us above our humanness and connect us to our humanity. A university — this university — can never condone, no less encourage, blind appeals to violence, vengeance, and hate.”


Waterbury likes to point out that he leads the American University of Beirut rather than the American University in Beirut. The university is, he says, a Lebanese institution as much as it is an American institution; it is very much a part of the community in Lebanon, and it is a leader of that community.

Through long years of political turmoil, AUB has remained an oasis of relative calm in Beirut. “Relative” is key — think of the late 1960s at an American university, drawn out over decades, says Anderson, the historian, who notes that militia units were on campus during the 1970s and 1980s, and political parties often have made their presence known on campus. “There are always questions to be negotiated,” she says. “Can the police come on campus? Can the militias? It’s always been a sticky situation. But the respect that AUB engendered has always allowed for compromises.”

“Every generation of AUB students can tell its war stories,” Waterbury says. “It’s almost part of the culture of being a student at AUB. Every generation says, ‘Oh, do you remember when [Lebanese patriots] were hanged on Martyrs’ Square [in 1916]? Remember when we occupied Marquand House?’ All this is part of the experience here. It’s not like going to Iowa.”

Waterbury was referring to experiences during Lebanon’s turbulent last century. But even today in Lebanon, everything — all public speech and action — is political, and in such a small country, all politics have national implications. The recent student elections were a case in point. Though the university does not permit student political groups to exist under the direction of national political parties, in reality they do, under different names, explains Maysam Ali, the editor-in-chief of Outlook, the official AUB student newspaper. She says the situation had become provocative and potentially dangerous until Waterbury defused it by postponing announcement of the results.

Just as AUB students follow national politics very closely, Waterbury says, the nation follows AUB internal politics, including student politics, with remarkable attentiveness. Lebanon’s national political parties haven’t pulled strings directly on campus since the early 1990s, Waterbury says, when Hezbollah organized campus sit-ins after several student Hezbollah members were banned from taking their final exams (though the decision was said to be apolitical — the students had not paid their fees). AUB students are, without question, Lebanon’s elite, rich and socially liberal, though American labels of “liberal” and “conservative” don’t easily apply: A socially liberal student, for example, might well support Hezbollah because of its much-vaunted lack of corruption and because it takes a strong anti-Israeli stance.

Waterbury says that his time as AUB president — with responsibilities not just for its research and teaching functions but also for its hospital — has had a steep and difficult learning curve. He never bought into cultural explanations of behavior, preferring instead the “rational-actor” explanation of why people do what they do. But that’s not the Lebanese way, he says. “Lebanese often reach instinctively for cultural explanations of behavior — right now I am hearing non-Shi’ites assert confidently that Shi’ites love death,” he writes in an e-mail. “This has led me to reflect ... that I need to take cultural explanations more seriously, because if people believe they are real, then, in a sense, they are.”

For their part, students view Waterbury as a concerned if somewhat distant presence. “He sends lots of e-mails telling us about his travels,” says Zeina Chaanine, an architecture student. Ali, the Outlook editor, says she frequently received notes from Waterbury commenting on articles appearing in the student newspaper. And Carla Saad, a recent AUB graduate who captained the women’s soccer team, says Waterbury and his wife were big supporters of women’s athletics, turning up at games and inviting student athletes to their home.

Waterbury stopped by choir practice shortly after Hezbollah demonstrators began appearing in downtown Beirut in the fall, reassuring students that music and art remained important pursuits, even while civil war seemed perilously close, notes Paul Meers, the choir director. And Marjorie Henningsen, an assistant professor of mathematics education, gives Waterbury high marks for returning to Beirut during the war last summer. “He came back before the ceasefire was declared,” Henningsen recalls. “No one expected it. But he came back during the war, and he began making serious attempts to mobilize the AUB community toward outreach and assistance for people affected by the war.”

Because AUB is so closely watched in Lebanon and in the rest of the Arab world, Waterbury says, leading the institution — especially through such a fragile time in Lebanese and regional history — is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate American academic values like tolerance, and to participate at a high level in discussions of the political, social, and educational future of the region. AUB is helping to found new American-style universities in other Arab countries, and Waterbury notes proudly that one of these, Dhofar University in Oman, forbids face-veiling, which can hinder communication between students and professors. Face-veiling is common in Oman, and its prohibition is being hailed as a progressive move.

Lebanese writers have long been fond of comparing Beirut to the phoenix, the beautiful golden bird that rises again and again from the ashes, resisting all attempts to destroy it. More recently, Western pro-democracy advocates have taken to comparing Lebanon to the canary in the coal mine, whose death would be a signal of real disaster for the Arab world. If democracy in Lebanon fails to produce a functioning government and the country descends again into civil war, the reasoning goes, democracy movements throughout the region may be set back years.

“This city is seen as a playground, but also it has traditionally been seen as the place in the region where you can speak your mind,” Waterbury says. “Not with impunity, because, my God, the string of assassinations goes way, way back. Some people come and they speak their minds and they pay a price. But Lebanon has never had a very conservative, repressive regime like you see elsewhere in the Arab world. The Lebanese have always been able to express themselves artistically. The relations between the sexes are much more open and unfettered than they are anywhere else.”

Beirut is seen elsewhere in the Arab world as a space of freedom, experimentation, and hope, a place for new ideas and ways of living to be tested. The Lebanese media are scrappy and vibrant, the most free in the entire region. The first openly gay bars and nightclubs have opened here within the last year, despite the fact that homosexuality is still illegal.

Many Lebanese analysts are pessimistic about the future. In November, Lebanon’s “national dialogue” — a series of discussions over governmental power-sharing that included all of Lebanon’s major political parties — collapsed, and Pierre Gemayel, the scion of a prominent Maronite Christian political family and thus a symbol of Christian power in Lebanon, was shot to death in his car. December saw massive Hezbollah demonstrations in the center of the city, threatening a coup d’état. By the middle of the month, Lebanon’s opinion writers were discussing the possibility of renewed civil war.

But Waterbury believes Lebanon will pull through, along with AUB. The university has prepared contingency plans for a number of emergencies, including civil war, but the plan is to remain open unless it becomes completely impossible, and then to close only on a day-by-day basis. And emergencies, Waterbury points out, are really part and parcel of the AUB student experience.

“This canary’s never stopped singing,” Waterbury says. “We’ve always graduated a class, come hell or high water. This show goes on.” end of article

Katherine Zoepf ’00 is a writer living in Beirut, where she is working on a book about young women in the Arab world for The Penguin Press.



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