BEIRUT: The president of the American University of Beirut has denied that the institution has a Zionist agenda after recent such accusations have been leveled at the school. In an email to AUB alumni, students and staff, Peter Dorman also defended the recent decision to award an honorary degree to Donna Shalala, an event which provoked the latest round of criticism, without naming her specifically.
However, he also stated that the university’s Board of Trustees has asked him to “review the process of vetting candidates for honorary degrees,” without elaborating.
The decision to honor Shalala, president of the University of Miami, was criticized before the June 22 ceremony in an open letter entitled, “Can AUB find only those Complicit with Zionism to Honor?” signed by faculty and staff members, due to her support for engagement with Israel. Shalala also has honorary degrees from three Israeli universities.
“This administration at AUB has no normalization or Zionist agenda of any kind. Those who make that claim or imply it are simply wrong on the facts,” Dorman writes in the email.
Last year, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn withdrew from the ceremony in which he was to have been similarly awarded, following an outcry over his own links to Israel.
In meetings which followed, “university administrators assured AUB community members that awarding future honorary doctorates would be a more transparent process,” according to the recent letter, which was signed by students and staff, including Tarif Khalidi, who holds the Sheikh Zayid Chair in Islamic and Arabic studies at AUB.
However, the anti-normalization groups at AUB claimed this promise has not been kept, as evidenced by this year’s announcement of honorary degree recipients closer to the date of the ceremony, and the selection of Shalala.
“AUB’s choice of honoree forces us to wonder whether this is no mere coincidence, whether there is a systematic and structural attempt to turn the AUB, through its administration and Board of Trustees, into a normalizing entity, violating the boycott principles that Palestinians under Israeli occupation have called for and that most advocates of the Palestinian cause have endorsed,” the letter asked.
In his email, Dorman stressed that “AUB has always respected and complied with the laws of Lebanon, and always will, particularly the laws prohibiting the normalization of any kind of relations with Israel.”
With regard specifically to the Palestine Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel campaign, Dorman wrote that, “I defend the right of those who take such a position; it is a principled stance, and one that many feel passionate about.”
However, Dorman denied that this can be applied at a university level. “Yet institutional decisions cannot be subordinated to an absolute litmus test imposed by the demands of outside groups,” he added.
Had AUB joined the campaign, he wrote, the university would not have been able to honor writer Edward Said in 2003 due to his sponsorship of a Palestinian-Israeli youth orchestra.
Of being born in Lebanon, in 1948, the year the state of Israel was created, the AUB president wrote, “like so many of you, I have never lived in the world without the dreadful specter of Palestinian dispossession and an expanding Israeli settlement agenda, which are deeply immoral and ultimately, in my view, self-destructive.”
The president admitted that the faculty delegation with which he will this week meet with, “speak for a good number of you reading this message,” but, he added, “I can assure you that we jointly have only the reputation and good name of our beloved institution at heart, alongside a profound commitment to AUB’s proud legacy, our home country, Lebanon and the region we serve.”
The Daily Star was unable Sunday to reach any members of the faculty delegation for comment.