Originally posted July 2010

In October 1970, Newsweek magazine christened the American University of Beirut (AUB) “Guerrilla U” because “politics at AUB today is tied directly to the Palestine guerrilla movement.”[1] In the 1950s, students conducted large-scale protests in support of Palestinians and Algerians and against the Western-led Baghdad Pact. Going back even further, what was possibly the first student protest in Arab history occurred in 1882 when medical students at the school’s predecessor, the Syrian Protestant College (SPC), rallied in support of a professor who had praised the work of Charles Darwin in a graduation speech. AUB’s students are not unique in their desire to protest on behalf of political goals; with the exception of the events of 1882, these other eras saw similar protests all over the Arab world. AUB’s experience does, however, highlight how the American liberal education system intersected with an increasingly politicized Arab world.

Regardless of what specifically sparked a particular protest, every conflict between the American administration of AUB and the students addressed the parameters of the American liberal education system itself. The Americans set forth a structure that encouraged students to be active participants in their own educational experience, to seek to learn the tools necessary for validating and producing knowledge on their own rather than merely memorizing a text or lecture. While the many AUB administrators and students over the years embraced this concept of student participation as an integral element within the educational process, conflicts arose repeatedly over the level of authority students could actually wield over their campus and curricular lives.

Exacerbating the issue, American universities have never fully codified the rights students should hold specifically as students. Although they assuredly have the right to be admitted without discrimination, to choose speakers to invite, and to publish school newspapers, they have not been provided, as faculty members have, with clear-cut guidelines for academic freedom. Mario Savio, leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) in 1964, criticized his university because “students are permitted to talk all they want so long as their speech has no consequences.”[2] By this statement, he claimed that American university leaders praise freedom of speech as vital to educational growth but often block attempts by students to act on their political convictions. From the student perspective at AUB, this problem has often meant that the method of open inquiry ostensibly defining liberal education could be arbitrarily withdrawn whenever other administrative goals took precedence, limiting the freedoms student sactually hold while on campus.

The founders of SPC opened the school in 1866 as an institution for proselytizing for Protestantism; the earliest student protests opposed this framework and demanded that a freedom to learn coincide with a freedom to worship. In 1882, the medical students walked out of class in protest against President Daniel Bliss’s prohibition of the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. For the students, the most egregious mistake was the forced resignation of one of their favorite professors, Edwin Lewis. However, connected to this grievance was the belief that Bliss was curtailing their educational growth by pushing a proponent of Darwin’s ideas off campus. The students lost the initial battle but new scientific ideas could not be kept out of the curriculum indefinitely; by the 1890s, the theory of evolution was required reading in the geology class. In 1909, Muslim and Jewish students protested against obligatory Bible class and church attendance, building on a regional discussion of religious freedom catalyzed by the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Despite the cogency of the arguments put forward by the students, then President Howard Bliss refused to change what he considered the school’s basal element: its Christian evangelicalism. In 1920, however, when the Board of Trustees changed the name to the American University of Beirut, obligatory religious requirements disappeared from the school’s statutes. In neither case did the students see an immediate redress of their grievances, but their complaints helped move the school gradually away from its religious parochialism and toward an educational curriculum that valued discussion and analysis over the search for religious truth.

While student protest served as a potent pressure point for curriculum changes during SPC’s existence, succeeding generations of students found themselves struggling to bring the Arab world inside the Main Gate. Rapid changes in the political, economic, and social life of the 20th century Arab world meant that education was necessarily political, that students naturally involved themselves with political events whenever they interacted with their own societies. Students argued that they could never truly be helpful to their societies if they could not engage the political world as part of their educational experience; the freedom to act equated with the freedom of expression for these students. They also wanted the Arab world, rather than Western experience, to form the core of their curriculum. Students articulated these demands using the language of liberal education, demanding that the school recognize their authority to determine the parameters of their educational lives.

Repeatedly, students came out in protest because the American leadership of the school did not want the politics of the Arab world to seep into campus life; in this administrative perspective, politics had to be kept outside of the campus walls because they could only disrupt the educational process. University life was a training ground for what students would do in the professional and political realm after graduation; they should not engage these elements as students. In a pointed critique of the administration’s policy on political activism, a 1955 editorial in the schools newspaper, Outlook declared, “It is the university’s function to train us, its students and future spokesmen of our countries, to face the problems of everyday life ... how can we be the future liberators of our respective countries if we are not taught how to practice the basic important factors that lead to freedom from oppression?”[3] In the late 1960s, frustration with what students considered an outdated curriculum led them to establish a “Free University” so they could teach courses they deemed relevant to their lives. Simultaneously, they introduced a Speakers’ Corner to serve as a weekly forum for open discussion about any and all issues. Large groups of students occupied campus buildings on two occasions, in 1971 and 1974, demanding that they have an institutional voice regarding any decisions concerning their campus lives. When President Stephen Kirkwood suspended the 1970-1971 academic year as a result of the occupation, Student Council President Maher Masri declared, “this is just what we expected. From now on this is our university, not Kirkwood’s university.”[4]

In the case of this 1971 protest, the administration regained control of the school during the next academic year, but the statement reflected long-standing student claims that liberal education necessitated the institutionalization of student voices. The system itself encouraged student participation in the educational experience, and the history of student activities at SPC and AUB shows that students took up the challenge and pressured the administration to constantly widen the scope of student agency. Students served, as a result, as influential actors helping to embed AUB into Arab political life; the school became of Beirut rather than merely existing in it.


[1]. “‘Guerrilla U,’” Newsweek, Vol. 6, No. 15 (October 5, 1970), p. 68.

[2]. Mario Savio, as quoted in E.G. Williamson and John L. Cowan, The American Student’s Freedom of Expression: A Research Appraisal (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1966), p. 88.

[3]. “We Want to Learn,” Outlook, Vol. 12, No. 4 (November 19, 1955), p. 2. American University of Beirut/Library Archives. Hereafter AUB.

[4]. “Academic Program Is Suspended Following ‘Not Vote’ to Proposals and Occupation of Jessup, Fisk Halls, Including Office of the Dean; Masri: ‘It’s Just What We Expected!’” Outlook, Vol. 27, No. 15 (May 25, 1971), p. 1.