The next leader of the American University of Beirut will move across an ocean to take up his post in September, exchanging the sprawling Atlanta for the relatively compact Beirut.
The incoming president, Fadlo Khuri, a physician, is departing his job as deputy director of Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute. Fadlo Khuri has helped the center secure $24 million in research grants and has played a leading role in hiring sought-after talent to work at the institute.
The outgoing president, Peter Dorman, has been president since 2008, and it has been difficult to find a replacement for him, says Huda Zoghbi who was the co-chair of the presidential search committee.
Nevertheless, Zoghbi is confident they’ve made the right decision in choosing Khuri. “He’s a very accomplished scientist and has been published in very respected journals,” she says, “But I think his achievements as an academic leader are more important.”
“He invests in people, not just programs,” says Zoghbi.
Dorman’s administration is handing Khuri its legacy of trying to make the university a better, more ethical place to work. The university became the first institution in Lebanon to put procedures in place to cope with discrimination, corruption and sexual harassment. During Dorman’s tenure, the university raised $420 million through philanthropic donations, grants and contracts. Some of that money was invested in building new centers of research and scholarship, including an engineering complex, expansions to the medical center and the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship.
The most recent score was a $2-million grant from the Mellon Foundation to promote the arts and humanities, which are often neglected in the region.
The incoming president seems modest and matter-of-fact about his credentials. But when it comes to talking about the team he’s put together at Winship, he’s not shy. “I have recruited 95 faculty members and built a department,” he says, “And frankly, I enjoy the intellectual atmosphere, it’s probably the most collegial place that I’ve worked.”
He’s been at Emory since 2002. His research has focused on the standard of care for patients suffering from tobacco-related cancers—be it prognosis, chemotherapy or other means. He is also the editor-in-chief of the journal Cancer. Before that he worked at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and he finished his medical residency at the Boston City Hospital after obtaining his medical degree from Columbia University.
The director of Winship, Walter Curran, has known Khuri for over 20 years. He says Khuri’s research at the cancer center emphasizes collaboration. “He’s been great at putting teams together,” says Curran.
That’s something that Khuri says he enjoys doing—growing teams, getting a group off the ground, and then stepping back and watching it flourish. He doesn’t like when one person in the team has an inflated sense of self-esteem and bullies the other members, which is something he’s occasionally had to deal with.
“I get frustrated with people who want to be the star all the time,” he says.
His experience in building successful research teams at Emory is one of the qualifications that helped him secure the presidency at American University of Beirut, according Zoghbi.
“There are two main things that the president needs to do immediately,” she says. “Hiring for new positions and elevating the level of research to coax international staff and students back.”
Khuri is quick to say he won’t neglect the university’s humanities and liberal arts departments in favor of medical research. But he confesses that he’ll have some catching up to do in the humanities. “Most people go into academia because they like to be perpetual students, and I’m no different,” he says. “I have a lot to learn.”
In the years after and during Lebanon’s civil war students and faculty members from other countries lost interest in coming to the American University of Beirut, says Zoghbi. “It needs to become a hub for the entire region again,” she added.
Born to Lebanese parents in Boston, Khuri spent most of his youth in Lebanon. He was studying for his undergraduate degree at the American University of Beirut during the country’s turbulent times, but he left after his first year when he was accepted into Yale University—it was more the draw of an Ivy League school than the instability in Lebanon that made him go, he says. Now he says he is looking forward to coming back to the country after a long time away, though he has been going back frequently ever since he left. He was recently elected to Lebanon’s prestigious Académie des Sciences du Liban, a nonprofit institution founded by the government.
Khuri has lofty aims for the university. “I don’t think we should be satisfied with being a great regional university,” he says, “My vision for AUB is not an easy one.” He wants to see the university soar in university ranking systems to be among the top 100 institutions in the world. That would be no small feat; QS World University Rankings placed it 249th in its most recent evaluation.
It’s easy enough to have a vision, says Khuri’s mentor and former boss at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Waun Ki Hong. “The challenge is knowing how to articulate it and make sure it happens. Fadlo can do that,” he added.
Hong oversaw hundreds of faculty members at Anderson, but he says Khuri—with whom he has collaborated ever since—stood out from the crowd. “I’m very proud of him,” says Hong, “His skills make him a joy to work with.”
The only thing holding Khuri back, says Hong, is his enthusiasm, which can sometimes mean he spreads himself too thin. Khuri says he’s going to achieve his goals by increasing the university’s endowment and slowing down the rate at which tuition rises. “That’s contradictory I know and it’s going to take time,” he admits.
He also wants to restore tenure, which was put on hold during the civil war. Rather than chase better rankings by pressing professors to frequently churn out research papers, he wants to focus on bettering the conditions of scholarship and emphasize a quality-over-quantity approach. “Tenure gives the freedom for intellectual pursuits and allows academics to answer difficult questions without worrying about getting a paper or a book out,” he said.
Curran says if anyone can achieve this, it’s his friend and colleague. “He’s very energetic, very engaged and personally active. When he takes a project on he fulfills them most of the time,” says Curran, “Under his leadership, the institute has become one of the top programs of the country.”
While Khuri is moving from the West, he hopes to connect the American University of Beirut to the East in China where he has fostered a number of institutional alliances for the Winship Cancer Center. He thinks that China’s attitude towards education in general could be a lesson for the American University of Beirut and the region as a whole.
“It’s appropriate for us to compare ourselves with other universities in the region, but we should be comparing ourselves to the best,” he says, “That’s what I like about China, they compare themselves to the best. We can and should be competing with the best.”