Action and Impact: Dr. Fadlo Khuri Speaks on Leadership in Academia Amidst the Syrian Refugee Crisis
In the midst of political and economic turbulence, Lebanon is navigating the challenges of serving as a refuge for Syrians fleeing the violence that began in 2011 and has continued through the decade. As the president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), Dr. Fadlo Khuri has stepped into a leadership role on national and global levels, balancing the goals of fostering a rigorous program of study for the college’s civically-minded student body and advocating for action and policies at the government level. On Tuesday, November 5, 2019, Dr. Howard Koh sat down with Dr. Khuri in the Voices in Leadership forum to discuss his experiences, situating today’s challenges within the context of the history of the university and region (Lebanon is on the Mediterranean sea and borders Syria and Israel) and highlighted leadership lessons learned for the path forward.
Action and Impact in Leadership
Action and impact were the themes underlying Dr. Khuri’s discussion of AUB’s response to the shifting needs within the country in light of the influx of displaced persons. Summarizing some sobering statistics, Dr. Khuri described the displacement of half of the Syrian population (one-fourth displaced internally and one-fourth displaced externally), primarily relocating to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt.
Lebanon has a population of about 4 million Lebanese nationals and 2 million people from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. Dr. Khuri described the cultural and economic challenges Lebanon faces when “a third of the inhabitants of the country are displaced persons”. He noted the ongoing inequities faced by people displaced within Lebanon, including lack of access to education (less than a quarter of school-aged children are going to school), poor working conditions, vulnerability to abuse, and high rates of child labor. At the same time, Lebanese nationals experience increased anxiety and perceive increased competition for jobs and resources. Economic instability and political unrest, along with the populist trends shaping the public’s political thought, have left refugees vulnerable to marginalization.
Context for Dr. Khuri’s assessment of the current political situation in Lebanon can be found in the article he wrote for The Atlantic in late 2019. The country is in the midst of what he describes as a truly “pan-Lebanese outcry” in response to the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the government (ignited in response to — of all things — a tax on Whatsapp).
In leading AUB’s response, Dr. Khuri sees not just the need to study the problem, but also to foster beneficial relationships with refugees, envisioning Syrian guests and Lebanese communities working together to “strengthen capacity and opportunity”. Now, the university is establishing collaborative relationships and implementing projects, such as studying the mental health impact and child labor patterns of Syrian refugees, and engaging in efforts to expand access to education. In this challenge, Dr. Khuri sees opportunity. He explained:
“This is the kind of opportunity for us to all work together to study the problem, to build capacity in these folks, while perhaps creating opportunities, as we’ve been doing, for host communities and Syrian guests to work together. So it’s not win-lose, but it’s more win-win… you gain enlightened, educated, empowered citizens for the future by not marginalizing these folks [displaced persons].”
In taking these steps as the leader of AUB, he hopes individuals and communities can benefit from this outward-looking approach. Dr. Khuri sees his mission in part as encompassing the education of students in the setting of supporting and empowering them to engage in civic activities.
Understanding History While Taking New Steps
The history of AUB has been one threaded with war, conflict, and loss, including the assassination of one of its presidents in 1984. Now, Dr. Khuri shapes AUB’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the current political landscape in contrast to what he describes as the too-cautious “classical” educational institutions’ responses where the scope of the university’s role was limited to teaching and research, hampering the university’s ability to truly make an impact in the region. Instead, Dr. Khuri advocated for the university and its leadership to mount an apolitical response to the unrest, serving as “knowledge generators” with a focus that encompasses the entire community and region. He felt the university could lead by “calming fear, reducing tension, and growing opportunities”, while staying strong in its mission as an educational institution.
Personal Ties Motivate Action
Dr. Khuri’s leadership in this effort stems from his understanding of the historical context of the university in Beirut and his own childhood connections to the city. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, Dr. Khuri was raised in Beirut, Lebanon and returned to the country in the capacity of AUB’s president, in part because of these deep personal connections. Before taking on this administrative role, he was a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, building on his expertise as a clinician, professor, and researcher.
Dr. Khuri’s discussion of academic and administrative responsibilities were couched in the context of the “unprecedented humanitarian crisis” and the uncertainty and instability of the dynamic movement of people. Though the challenges presented by the refugee crisis are urgent, Dr. Khuri saw his work at the university as an opportunity to serve at an institution with impact in the region. “I could make a difference there at a time when there was a need for such a difference”.
Lessons for Leadership
Dr. Khuri distilled the lessons learned from his work at AUB into advice for leaders in the audience and everywhere. His key themes were collaboration, trust, willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, and fostering learning and critical thinking.
He was intentional in articulating that leaders need to do more than learn from individual struggles. “It’s important to have people you trust and to support others through mistakes”, he stated. It is not enough to be willing to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes, but your team or your community needs to feel they are supported in making their mistakes, too.
“I don’t think I know of a leader through history who was successful — whether it’s a department chair, or university president, or on the political stage — who didn’t pick good people, trust them, let them make mistakes, and didn’t send them to the bench the first time they fumbled the ball… pick good people and trust them.”
Collaboration and building on past practice and experiences were other essential building blocks Dr. Khuri identified in his own work. These partnerships have been instrumental in mounting AUB’s response to the pressing refugee crisis.
In the theatre of academia, professors and administrators are charged with the balancing act of educating students, ushering in the vanguard of strong leadership for the years ahead, while supporting students’ political and civic engagement. A pattern that emerged in Dr. Khuri’s conversation was his focus on fostering critical thinking, learning, and dialogue paired with a reluctance to let blame settle on any single target.
A Call to Action
Dr. Khuri recognized the desire of those in the audience to effect change in the face of the enormity of the refugee crisis. He concluded his discussion with Dr. Koh with a call to action, outlining steps students and leaders can take.
First, individuals should learn the facts, Dr. Khuri advised, claiming: “In this post-truth era, where there’s so many versions of the truth being put out there, there are raw facts. There are things that we can learn”.
For leaders looking to make an impact, he suggested slowing down and thinking critically:
“Under pressure, slow down. Break things up. Figure it out. And don’t make too many rushed decisions.”
Dr. Khuri also advocated for direct civic engagement and active participation with the university. Undaunted by the challenges of the work ahead, he instead sees his mission as motivating:
“If you have the opportunity to serve those less fortunate, it’s incredibly energizing. It’s something that I find sustainable.”
Finally, active engagement in community and political structures includes participating by voting. So, go out and vote.
Dr. Khuri’s call to action to foster civic engagement, build collaborative and trusting connections, and take an expansive outward-looking approach to leadership stems from his experience as a clinician and researcher, in addition to his current role as AUB’s president. His advice is rooted in both his personal experiences and understanding of the historical and cultural context of the region. Although healthcare and education are central foci of his efforts, his advice for leaders can be broadly applied.
Story written by Meg Salvia, MS, a first-year doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is studying Population Health Sciences with a concentration in Nutritional Epidemiology. She earned her Master of Science in Nutrition Science from Boston University and is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Her research interests include health outcomes and eating behaviors, especially in diabetes and eating disorders.
Story edited by Sherine Andreine Powerful, MPH, a second-year Doctor of Public Health student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A Diasporic Jamaican, she received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin American and International Studies from Yale University and holds a Master of Public Health degree in Population and Family Health, with a concentration in Global Health, from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Her interests, centered around the English-speaking Caribbean, include feminist global health and development leadership; gender and sexual health, equity, and justice; and pleasure, healing, and liberation.