The American University of Beirut, founded in 1866, is distinguished for being the top ranked university in Lebanon, and among the top 250 universities in the world. Its graduates reside in more than 100 countries.
Currently, AUB is working on various initiatives, including environmental conservation, refugees, civic engagement, social entrepreneurship, actions against COVID, and more. The Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences (FAFS), being the lead institution of the Transforming Higher Education project is a founding member and promoter of many of those initiatives.
We have recently met with Professor Ammar Olabi, FAFS’ Interim Dean at FAFS for his views on AUB’s role in Lebanon and the region and the university and faculty’s contribution to the five elements of success of the Transforming Higher Education project.
Can you please tell us why does AUB consider the leadership for the Transforming Higher Education project important?
Dean Olabi linked the significance of AUB’s role in leading the Transforming Higher Education project with the university’s positioning as one of the 250 top universities worldwide, and that excels in learning, research, outreach, and engagement in alignment with the Key Elements of Success embedded in the project. AUB’s leading role in societal advancement through multi-disciplinary development projects, knowledge production, and education to serve and empower marginalized communities, and address crucial environmental challenges has rendered it a beacon of innovation in the region, and one of the most prominent institutions to graduate agents of change, serving both the region and the world, in pursuit of graduating socially driven ethical leaders and entrepreneurs vested in serving their communities.
What does AUB envision as benefits of instituting these educational changes at the university and within FAFS?
On the benefits of instituting these educational changes at AUB and within FAFS, Dr. Olabi believes that collaborating with other universities that share the same vision in transforming higher Education through this project means that AUB can impact a larger community, as well as benefit from a mutual learning experience with partnering institutions by getting to observe how they implement experiential learning, social entrepreneurship, and community engagement in pursuit of graduating socially driven ethical leaders and entrepreneurs vested in serving their communities.
Through involvement in this project, AUB and FAFS will be able to build on already existing key elements of success to improve teaching and learning models, so that graduates will be better prepared for integrating problem solving, entrepreneurship, environmental consciousness, ethical leadership and decision-making, and community and citizen engagement in service to the graduates’ countries and communities. Professor Olabi adds, “For example, engaging students in projects, where their entrepreneurial thinking is instated, and inviting them to think outside the box, while planning, implementing and ethically leading initiatives that ensure sustainability and financial viability within the realm of teamwork will give students a strong grasp on how to apply the theory they are learning, and think as leaders of change”.
Can you tell us more about AUB’s work with the community?
Community engagement is very important at AUB.
Dean Olabi continues with concrete examples of how the Transforming Higher Education project links well with specific initiatives at the university and faculty, indicating that back in 2014, AUB founded the Center for -Civic Engagement and Community Service, and since then its role has been instrumental in supporting many vulnerable communities in the country.
At the faculty level, the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) has been very active in various community projects funded by international organizations. Only last year, ESDU worked with small-scale farmers, producers, SMEs, cooperatives, startups, and more, reaching up to 3000 direct beneficiaries. One of these initiatives is Ardi Ardak (it means my land your land in Arabic), which aims at improving small plots of lands owned by rural women and youth.
Additionally, AUB has augmented experiential learning through the WEFRAH initiative that offered students from all majors a chance to get hands-on multidisciplinary experience/internship at the Advancing Research Enabling Communities Center (AREC), a multi-functional and inter-disciplinary center devoted to teaching, research, training, and outreach activities.
Moreover, the GDT (Global Design Team, offered by FAFS) and Humanitarian engineering (offered by the Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture and the Faculty of Health Sciences) courses continue to offer students opportunities for practical experience and real-life problem solving/service learning.
Dean Olabi highlighted that in addition to encouraging undergraduate research activities, the faculty is known for supporting the philosophy of ‘learning by doing’. Experiential learning, critical thinking, and teamwork are elements deeply embedded in all disciplines at the faculty, which has encouraged AUB alumni, investors, and entrepreneurs to contribute to continuous funding opportunities for student led projects targeting underserved communities.
How does the university identify society’s needs?
Professor Olabi indicates that AUB considers one of its leading duties, as an institution of higher learning, is to have a leading role in pushing the SDGs agenda forward. He continues that its geographical location, and its reach to serve various communities in the region make it possible to explore projects that tackle and positively contribute to the societal and environmental challenges of the 21st Century, with a breadth that extends from nature conservation and food security reaching to more specific topics such as using artificial intelligence data to support farmers, and the creation of more sustainable historical trails.
What are the benefits of implementing the methodology given by the Transformation of Higher Education project?
Dean Olabi explains that this is a unique project that encourages knowledge and experience sharing between various universities, with implementation in various parts of the world. In his opinion, this definitely adds a cultural advantageous component to the project, notwithstanding, the ultimate benefit of empowering students with skills that can be used not only for deriving insights for better financial security and business planning, but also for the social good.
What do you envision for the future and the Transformation of Higher Education?
Dr. Olabi shares his aspiration that more universities and institutions worldwide may be impacted by the project, as higher education institutions will continue to graduate the leaders of the future, and it is their role to make sure these leaders are ethical and positively contribute to world challenges, at all levels. He continues, “We hope to build on what is achieved so far and take it to the next level to make the project more comprehensive and reach a wider geographic area”.