Graduate students at the American University of Beirut told me that "hundreds" protested against the university's administration today at 11:00 AM Beirut time, renewing calls for stipends in graduate assistantship (GA) programs.
Graduate students under the name Boldly G-AUB negotiated with administration for fourth months, a student told me on the condition of anonymity, before they told they "would no longer be included in any conversation on this issue." "As recently as last week, they said in a presentation that we were considered 'key stakeholder' on the issue," the student explained, adding that identifying the students as a 'key constituency' was put in writing.
Six graduate students involved in Boldly G-AUB were notified that their scholarships were revoked.
Students protested by tents they pitched nine days ago, before they were forcibly removed later that night. The students were told that the tents were against AUB bylaws as they were not an “approved student activity." Prior to dismissing students to the negotiations, they told me that the students were not confronted about the tents, and were only asked by campus security to make sure they don't obstruct students from walking.
Prior to the revoking of stipends, AUB graduate students on assistantship programs were waived of tuition, except for certain fees, and were given a monthly stipend that equates to roughly US$100. Students that worked less than 20 hours a week made less than that.
The collective has three key demands which are:
"1. Stipends indexed against the cost of living in Beirut (minimum $400)
2. Two-year GA contracts [as opposed to contracts per semester] (subject to conditions)
3. Waiver of university fees (technology, social activity, HIP)"
"I feel terrible," the student told me. "This my third semester at AUB and I have one more to go..."
"I can't do my thesis because I can't pay my fees, and now I can't get my masters degree."
Since speaking to the student, another six graduate students were revoked of their scholarships, making it a total of 10 thus far. The students who were open to speaking me all told me that they can no longer afford to continue their studies at AUB and earn their masters degree.
Institutionalized Restructuring of AUB
What other outlets thus far haven't done is link this series of incidents to what the American University of Beirut has been going through for years now. And it would be unfair to exclude it, considering that the university is branded and seen as the best in Lebanon (and the MENA region). In 2014, AUB students protested on campus against tuition hikes, a 37% tuition increase over a three-year period.
But even before that was the university administration's announcement of 2020 Vision for the expansion of its medical services, the AUB Medical Center (AUBMC) back in 2011. Looking at the details of the vision one things comes to mind: money. In January, AUB launched its "Boldly AUB" campaign to raise US$650 million, part of which was to provide more financial aid.
"Adversity abounds, and AUB is the refuge,” said President Khuri during his speech. “That is why we are launching this capital campaign, called Boldly AUB, the Campaign to Lead, Innovate and Serve. That is why we are aiming to raise $500M so we can educate ever-greater numbers of deserving students who cannot afford our tuition,"
The revoking of - already measly - stipends of less than $100 for students who work at least 20 hours a week is clearly not a sign of those values. But more importantly it's about looking at what a university is. Is it a community or a corporation? Students who contribute to the university, be it tuition, or research assistance projects, or simply just being students, are part of that community. To punish them - including by hitting them where it hurts the most like their scholarships- for their right of non-violent protest and activism is a worrying sign for generations to come.
Then there comes to issue of labor rights and justice. A reasonable stipend and scholarship in exchange for work, considering that the student earned the scholarship, is not a farfetched idea. Just take a look at similar programs in the United States, which is not exactly known for having the best assistance programs and tuition fees.
Senior administrators at AUB have often said in the dozen or so events or conferences I've covered there describe the university as a refugee in a region of turmoil and promotes values that Lebanon as a whole could look up to.
This isn't reflective of that. The university should indeed be a refugee; a safe space for students of all backgrounds and identifies to explore ideas and continue raising the bar in their expectations when it comes to their passions and interests - to say the least.
Based on these developments let's try to apply that to recent events at the American University of Beirut.
Let's take a buzz-word like "active citizenship." If we take that from AUB and put on a national scale, it can arguably be paralleled to state repression; banning non-violent demonstrations, stifling dissent to those asking for better conditions (in this case labor rights), and banning them from a right (in this case education.)
This all happens while Lebanese establishment political parties chant ultra-nationalist and sectarian slogans when running their campaigns, who are not penalized for turning the campus into a reenactment of the Lebanese civil war, be it Hezbollah and Amal, or the Lebanese Forces and Future Movement.
What about student groups like the Insight Club that hold homophobic and transphobic events about so-called conversion therapy (canceled due to public pressure) and media campaigns blaming women for being "too friendly" platonic relationships with men
Something is wrong. Something is very wrong.