NELC chair elected to presidency of American University in Beirut

By Mischa Fierer

Peter Dorman, chairman of the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department (NELC), was elected president of the American University in Beirut (AUB) by AUB’s Board of Trustees on March 21.

Dorman will teach a final class at the U of C this quarter and then fly to Beirut in the summer, he said. He will replace John Waterbury, who resigned as president after serving for 11 years.

The NELC faculty has not yet begun to search for a successor.

“Since the announcement is so new, the department is just getting into the conversation,” Dorman said.

Dorman, who was born in Beirut, will continue a family tradition of involvement with AUB. Dorman’s great-great-grandfather, Daniel Bliss, founded AUB—then called the Syrian Protestant College—in 1866. His great uncle, Howard Bliss, was also a president of the university.

AUB has some of the strongest graduate and undergraduate programs among Middle Eastern institutions of higher learning and has recently received accreditation for a number of its programs, Dorman said. Many alumni, such as former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, have become important policymakers in the region.

Dorman was initially contacted by a search firm in New York, where AUB was chartered and has offices.

“I actually didn’t have an immediate impulse to apply for the job,” Dorman said. “But in thinking about it, the job kind of grew more and more interesting.”

After a trip last February to Lebanon, Dorman decided to pursue the position. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on March 12 that he had accepted the job offer, and he was officially elected March 21.

Lebanon’s complex political situation has sometimes caused tumult for the university, especially during the country’s 25-year civil war that ended in 1990. In 1982, AUB’s then–acting president David Dodge was kidnapped. Two years later, then-president Malcolm Kerr was murdered, according to the AUB website.

“AUB was considered, I think, as a prime American target,” Dorman said. “That perception has hugely changed at this point. It’s not associated with American foreign policy.”

During the July War in 2006, when Israel locked horns with the Lebanese group Hezbollah, AUB’s hospitals treated over 8,000 injured Lebanese, further improving its image in the community, Dorman said.

When he spoke to students during his visit, he found that they had many universal concerns, such as problems registering for classes online, complaints about tuition, and smoking areas on campus. Dorman said he plans to spend his initial years as president learning about the university rather than making sweeping changes.

“I don’t have any specific ideas at this point,” he said.

AUB leaders expressed excitement about Dorman’s hiring last week.

“AUB is in the midst of an exciting period of change and transition, and we look forward to working with Peter to capitalize on the energy and amazing growth that has been building at the University in recent years,” said Thomas Morris, chair of AUB’s board, in a press release.

“The chance to go back to Lebanon, where I think a lot of my interests originated, is absolutely very exciting. It’s a marvelous country,” Dorman said.