Trouble in Beirut's oasis: American University

The massive sign over the entrance to American University of Beirut reads, ''That they may have life and have it more abundantly.'' The biblical motto is representative of the philosophy that led American missionaries to open the Middle East's finest liberal arts institution 118 years ago.

Today AUB is a magnificent compound of some 50 yellow, rock-hewn buildings spread among lush, well-tended gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, with balmy breezes blowing through the palms.

A haven amid the often vicious strife of Lebanon, the university has tried to foster the kind of neutral intellectual environment that has been responsible since 1866 for the education of prime ministers and cabinet ministers, nationalist leaders, and top professionals throughout the Middle East, as well as many from Africa and Asia.

The brutal assassination of AUB president Malcolm Kerr Wednesday was an electrifying blow to the university's deepest ideals. And, in its wake, the unspoken question permeating the somber grounds has become: Can AUB continue to operate freely, if at all?

''I don't think we'll ever close,'' says Dr. David Evans, American in the biology department. ''It's in the interest of all factions to keep us open, because this is the one place that treats everyone equally and fairly.

''Historically, the contributions of this university are vast. There is nowhere else in the Middle East where a student can gain an outlook on the whole world, to look beyond this region.''

After emergency sessions, AUB officials rushed to confirm that university schedules would return to normal Monday after the mourning period for Dr. Kerr's passing. There is a deep commitment by the board of trustees, which includes both Arabs and Americans, to keep the institution going. AUB is seen as perhaps the biggest symbol of hope for coexistence among religious rivals as well as being vital to the provision of quality liberal arts training.

But some hard realities face AUB. As student Nada Musa said after the Kerr shooting: ''For the past year many of us here on campus have been worried because of all the attacks on American institutions, the US Embassy, and the marines. AUB is an American institution after all.''

The stark reality of Beirut now is that anything or anyone with an American connection is vulnerable, a potential target for shadowy gunmen and suicide bombers whose high-risk but effective attacks have triggered an unprecedented wave of fear among all Westerners resident here.

''If I moved out, I'd feel I had let them win,'' commented an American faculty member who has recently signed another three-year teaching contract. ''But it has made a big difference in how I feel, in just one day. If they kill another, I think I would have to go.

''I love my work here. I love the people, the dedication of the students, the climate. But it wouldn't be worth it. The dangers of being an American here change almost day by day.''

Only an estimated 10 percent of the 500-member faculty are now American, with the majority from the Middle East and another 10 percent from non-Arab states. The dangers have also scared away US students who previously came in large numbers on junior-year-abroad and summer programs. Although the official bulletin claims students still come from 57 countries, 85 percent are from North Africa and the Arab heartland.

One of the hundreds of posthumous tributes to Dr. Kerr was that he dared to come to Beirut at all.

''He gladly came here with a great deal of courage and dignity at a time when quite a few of us preferred to go elsewhere,'' commented Samir Thabet, AUB's acting president.

After the outbreak of the latest phase of war last fall, the University of California at Los Angeles - where Dr. Kerr taught for 20 years - tried to convince him to return to the US. But the AUB chief refused.

In many ways, Dr. Kerr symbolized the hopes, and struggle, for intellectual freedom in Lebanon, the only country in the Arab world that traditionally allowed freedom of speech and the press.

Colleagues said he was so opposed to the presence of guns on campus that he personally escorted a US marine off the grounds when the American Embassy guard was taking a short cut to work. And in the current academic year he instituted what students dubbed ''the nine commandments,'' which outlined prohibitions against all political activity on campus ''because of the explosive situation in Lebanon.''

AUB has experienced some troubles, including the 1976 assassinations of two deans by an irate student, and subsequent assaults on two presidents. And Dr. Kerr took over in 1982 at the peak of problems, after the kidnapping of then university president David Dodge, who was released in Iran by still unnamed pro-Iranian Shiite captors only after a full year of captivity.

But until Wednesday the American University still ranked as the facility that had best managed to withstand pressure from political rivalries. And the result was evident on the tranquil and comparatively unscathed grounds.

Both students and faculty noted that Dr. Kerr's biggest battle during the recently completed first semester had been with a small core of Shiite fundamentalist students, who demanded many changes in university rules.

The group demanded an end to the playing of Western music on campus because ''it was against God's will,'' a student leader explained. The group also pressed for rules forbidding ''familiar behavior'' between men and women students. The student said the fundamentalists had become ''highly visible'' lately since men wear full beards and women tend toward more conservative dress and head scarves.

As the semester progressed, the fundamentalists became increasingly active. At one point, they commandeered the student auditorium for prayers, and on several occasions they massed on the grounds to shout ''Allah akhbar'' (God be praised), which in turn frequently led to skirmishes with other student factions.

The university, which teaches primarily in English, has always prided itself on taking both Christian and Muslim students, unlike other institutions that have fallen victim to the psychological ''green line'' that divides the capital into separate religious sectors.

In November, however, the Lebanese Army had to be called in to quiet a fight that broke out between leftist and rightist groups after a student debate on Lebanon's future. Dr. Kerr threatened to close the university if it happened again, which seemed to end the open disputes. Although there is still no official evidence, there is a widespread feeling in Beirut that extremists, possibly Shiite fundamentalists, were behind the Kerr slaying. Many feel the target was not Dr. Kerr specifically, but whoever headed the largest independent US institution in Lebanon.

The Kerr murder has also led to a question about morale, evident among groups of students who sat quietly on stoops or garden benches in the sun Thursday, listless and sad. One junior offered: ''If they destroy this university, physically or psychologically, then this country is truly finished.''

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