Homegrown, Transformative and Crisis-Proof: The President’s Strategic Vision for University Sustainability

Dr. Mawad sets in motion a series of initiatives that will contribute to LAU’s continuity, impact and core mission.

By Raissa Batakji

“This is not just about renewable energy and tangible material, but also about becoming an institution that can offer sustainable resources from human capital to research,” said Dr. Mawad.

Based on hard-learned lessons in recent years, LAU President Michel E. Mawad is pursuing a number of initiatives that would advance the university’s impact beyond its academic offering and help shield it from future turbulence in a fast-changing higher education landscape. While some have already launched, others are set to begin over the course of the 2023-24 academic year.

Immediate steps that were taken amid the crisis have helped the university achieve financial stability. Namely, shifting to a dollar-based tuition structure and expanding beyond the geographical confines of Lebanon.

The challenges persist, nevertheless. In this interview, the president speaks candidly about his vision for these initiatives, the circumstances that necessitated their inception and the prospects that they will offer to the university community and beyond.

A major pillar of the university’s strategic plan centers on expanding LAU’s scholarly footprint. What is your vision for creating a culture of sustainable research?

We need to make this university a research powerhouse, for us to compete in a fast-growing higher education landscape. This is crucial for creating and disseminating knowledge, as well as attracting good students and faculty.

Last year, for example, and despite the challenges, we gave 40 grants for research through the President’s Intramural Research Fund (PIRF), and they amounted to $1 million. One of the grant conditions was that within a year of obtaining it, the faculty on the receiving end must apply for an extramural grant. In due time, these 40 faculty members who have entered new research are bound to create a multiplier effect. As such, in the coming years, we hope to have extramural grants approved and this will contribute to a culture of sustainable research.

What about students’ job-market readiness? How are we preparing them to compete as they graduate into grave economic challenges?

By giving them early exposure to the industry, whether through experiential learning – which is growingly present in our curricula across the different programs – or through industry collaborations. We believe that they should have exposure to the industry as early as their first semester on campus. They need to build an understanding of their future field of work, the challenges that come with it and what is expected from them, so they can prepare accordingly. Our LAU Industrial Hub has already embarked on several collaborations for this purpose, and, as another example, we are currently setting up a Bioequivalence Lab. Pharmacy students in their first or second years will be able to gain a head start in the field and understand what it lacks. Such a platform can also plant seeds for students to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors in the future, fill market needs and even contribute to major breakthroughs, as research and development will become embedded in the curriculum. This falls under pedagogical innovation, where we not only revamp our curricula but also innovate through their delivery.

Empowering and supporting faculty, healthcare providers and staff at the university has long been integral to the university’s ethos. How will LAU advance this effort?

Investing in our people is a form of investing in the institution. In other words, we have a vested interest in improving the skills and education level of every single person who works at LAU – whether on university campuses, its medical centers or its health clinics.

Through these programs, we can elevate the university culture from a managerial to a leadership culture. The purpose is to create a cadre of people who are interested in becoming leaders, and that will create a homegrown succession program.

This vision will manifest in the form of two distinct programs: The LAU Leadership Program which caters to university faculty and staff, and the LAU Healthcare Provider Management Program, which is aimed at physicians, nurses, healthcare providers and staff at the medical centers. Both programs are intended to grow the leadership and management competencies among participants from various units of the university, and they will be delivered by experts in the field in the form of short, didactic sessions and then followed up with LAU-specific case studies, simulations and role modeling exercises.

Where did the idea for the Center for Public Good come from, and what type of endeavors will it take on?

We are mobilized by the current bankrupt governance of the country and the complete collapse of most sectors – particularly the banking, education and healthcare sectors. As a comprehensive university with highly skilled and educated individuals in our ranks, we have a shared responsibility to treat and find solutions for the ills that plague our society. 

This is where the idea for a Center for Public Good came from – an additional purpose for the university. I think of LAU as not only a hub for learning but also an agent for change in our community.

Following are some of the areas that we are equipped to cater to: promoting public health, advocating for K-12 education, fighting for environmental protection and preservation, advancing urban planning and public transportation and addressing the systemic deficiencies of the energy sector, among others. 

The LAU Center for Public Good will rally the efforts of LAU experts toward building an advanced think tank with community engagement capacity.

An Office for Sustainability in Lebanon is a first. What will its work entail and how will it impact the output of the university?

In recent years, sustainability has become more pronounced as an indicator that evaluates and affects university rankings. It is important to note here that this is not just about renewable energy and tangible material, but also about becoming an institution that can offer sustainable resources from human capital to research. One example is viewing the university as an incubator for leaders, not just for Lebanon, but also for the region and the world.

Another example is ensuring the continuity of our research, and the aforementioned PIRF is one of the modalities that will help us achieve it. The aim is to find a sustainable way to secure resources for scholars to stay in the country and to undertake research programs.

We are also keen on instilling a culture of sustainability through our curriculum, that aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, the LAU Insignia is a signature pedagogy at the School of Arts and Sciences, where the new Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum was launched. 

What is the purpose of the Office for Ethics, Integrity and Professional Conduct?

Scientific integrity and ethical conduct at an institution of higher education is a must – and there is no doubt about that. This endeavor will combine existing, university-wide efforts under one office that will field and address any cases of harassment, academic bullying, nepotism, conflict of interest, discrimination and others that may arise.

I believe that it is much easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble. As such, this office will also be tasked with training the university community and onboarding newcomers on the codes of ethics, integrity and professional conduct that the university has long upheld.