Makram Rabah

A campus at war: the 1974 strike


Researcher, Lebanon

In the main picture, Pierre Gemayel- leaning over- referees an AUB soccer game in 1975. To the right, FAS captain wears a jersey which reads why 103 in reference to the 103 students suspended.

The start of the academic year 1973-74 coincided with the outbreak of the fourth Arab-Israeli war. The newly-elected Student Council at AUB, with Mohammad Mattar as president, mobilized the student body by creating four committees to support the war effort: a medical committee, a fund-raising committee, a follow-up committee and a ‘popular work’ committee. These committees turned AUB into a beehive of activity involving blood donation drives, fund-raising activities, and the digging of trenches and building of shelters in the Palestinian refugee camps. The Council also organized a series of lectures for the boosting of student morale. Later when the UN imposed a cease-fire bringing the war to an end seventeen days after it had started calling for the establishment of a just and durable peace in the Middle East, the PLO accepted the cease-fire but was reluctant to participate in any peace negotiations because such a move on its part would imply recognition of Israel. At AUB, however, the Student Council, now dominated by the Maoists, took a far more radical position. The Council organized a march through the streets of Beirut to denounce the cease-fire and call for the continuation of the ‘armed struggle’. In a further defiance of Fateh authority, the Council invited two outspoken critics of Fateh policy, Salah Salah of the PFLP and Tareq Ahmad of the Iraqi-backed Arab Liberation Front, to lecture on the occasion of Balfour Day. Furthermore, many AUB students joined in country-wide student demonstrations against the visit of US Assistant- Secretary of State Joseph Sisco, who was touring the area to set the ground for peace. In this connection, Rabi` al-Asir, first Vice President of the Student Council, was arrested by the Lebanese authorities at Beirut International Airport for verbally assaulting Sisco. Clearly, the student discourse at AUB under the new leadership of the Student Council was going to be radically different from previous types of communication.

The 10% Increase…Again

On 26 November 1973, while AUB students were still preoccupied with the aftermath of the ‘October War’, the AUB Board of Trustees announced a 10% increase in tuition fees for the upcoming year 1974-1975. Normally, the student reaction to such unilateral decisions would go through stages, often to end with a compromise. This time however, the decision to increase tuition was interpreted by the Leftist student factions to be part of a more sinister scheme which involved the transformation of the University into an elitist institution restricted to the upper bourgeoisie of the region. It is significant to question the reason why the AUB administration chose that particular moment to announce this increase: was this decision to raise tuition simply a poor decision on the part of the administration or was AUB actually facing financial complications? In fact, the AUB administration was aware that the Fateh leadership on campus had been handed over to unpredictable radicals with whom it was necessary to have a showdown at the earliest opportunity. Although the University authorities knew that a change had taken place in the nature of the Fateh leadership on campus, they chose the issue of tuition increase as a ploy to test the new grounds. However, the early and untimely announcement of the intended tuition increase indicated that the administration, for one reason or another, was looking for trouble.

First, before the Student Council started serious negotiations with the administration over the issue of the tuition increase, it launched through Outlook a ferocious attack against AUB for its alleged connections to the American imperialist policy. Next, on November 29, it met with Kirkwood who reaffirmed the University’s decision on the tuition increase as final, while the students argued that the pursuit of such a policy by the University would disfranchise students of the “lower socio-economic sector of society.” Shortly after, the Council demanded to review the AUB financial records which, they maintained, would prove that the true cause for the deficit was not the increasing cost of education but the extravagant expenditures resulting from the mismanagement of the budget. Kirkwood responded to the demands of the Council in a letter dated 18 December. In it, he elaborated on the questions of the cost of education and budget management to reaffirm the University’s need to raise tuition. Simultaneously and in reply to Kirkwood, Outlook published an article entitled “AUB and its Role in the Arab World Since 1948” by a group calling itself ‘Concerned Students’. This article attacked the AUB administration as “hysterically campaigning to convince the public of its fake financial crisis,” and proceeded to accuse the administration and the Board of Trustees of serving the CIA and American oil companies. In conclusion, the article declared:

Since 1948, AUB never was nor is now a private institution but rather an institution controlled by the government of a foreign country which pays one-third to one-half of its yearly budget…. AUB should not be free to offer an education geared towards the political, economic and perhaps military needs of a foreign power at the expense of the overall development of the people of this area.

Ready for the Battle

For the next two months, negotiations between the Student Council and the administration continued monotonously without achieving any breakthrough. Finally, on 28 February 1974, the Council issued an ultimatum announcing that it is “ready to go to battle,” as it had done in 1971, unless its demands were met by 18 March. This time, the Council summarized its demands in a leaflet distributed to the student body and cabled to the Board of Trustees in New York, calling effectively for the following:
• The cancellation of the 10% increase in tuition fees
• Student participation in the Admissions, Scholarship and Curriculum Committees as well as in the Senate
• The augmentation of scholarships and in particular those granted to new students
• The preservation of departments and schools that were due for closure or merger
• The amendment of the new entrance exam
• The appointment of a genuine Arab Dean of the school of Arts & Sciences

This last demand only appeared in the telegram sent to the Board of Trustees, and clearly involved a slur against Elie Salem, who was being considered for the deanship at the time, and who was considered by the Student Council to be an agent of the administration. Salem (an American citizen by marriage) was actually appointed Dean of the Arts and Sciences later in the same month.

The willingness to ‘go to war’ over these demands was reflected in Outlook, which published a series of articles, dwelling on the lessons learnt from the students’ previous encounter with the administration in May 1971. One such article, entitled “Cleavage 1971: Bitter Lesson,” dealt with the implications of the 1971 Rabita walkout, which ended the occupation of buildings, and warned of the need to avoid such a predicament in the future. Another article entitled “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” also appeared in the same issue of Outlook, stressing the importance of a united student front against the administration that can “receive and deliver blows effectively.”

While waiting for the administration’s reply to their list of demands, AUB students joined those of other universities and high schools in calling for a reform of the Lebanese educational system. On 5 March 1974, as students in Beirut attempted to march to the House of Parliament, they clashed with the Lebanese security forces. The brutal manner in which the protestors were manhandled unleashed a succession of student protests which swept the capital for the next week.

On 16 March, two days before the end of the Student Council ultimatum, Kirkwood communicated the negative response of the Board of Trustees to the Council demands in a letter addressed to “all the AUB Faculty and Students.” In this letter, Kirkwood justified the Board’s action as being necessary for the academic and financial survival of AUB. The letter concluded by wishfully appealing to the students that:

The Faculty and Staff, the administration and, I am sure, students themselves and the people of the Middle East do not want to see AUB drastically changed in structure or forced to close for either financial or academic reasons. I believe that I can count on the support of all concerned in helping to prevent these dangers. I pledge also that the academic standards of the University’s program will not be allowed to fall nor its degrees to lose their value.

Kirkwood’s reply to the demands of the students seemed to have intentionally disregarded the position of the student activists who, by now, were uncompromising in their demands. Furthermore, the prevailing attitude among these activists, as most of their statements reflected, was extremely anti-establishment, some of which went as far as to call their university “Hamburger U.” This being the case, the reply of the Student Council (to Kirkwood’s appeal) which Mohammad Mattar sent him the following day was remorseless:

The Council became more convinced than before that this [tuition increase] does not aim at meeting the critical financial position of the University, but rather at making AUB more an elitist university in accordance with the aims of section 214 of the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 [to demonstrate to the people on a very selected basis American ideas and practices and advances in the fields of education and medicine], under which AUB gets about one-third of its yearly budget…. You asked for our help to support this institution. The manner in which you, the Senate, and the Board of Trustees responded to our demands shows your primary purpose was NOT to support this institution to serve the needs of the area but rather to fulfill the aims of Section 214.

Then in its first act of escalation, on 18 March the Student Council convened in a general assembly, where Mattar reaffirmed the refusal of the tuition increase and called for a one-hour sit-in at College Hall. The students next proceeded to the third floor of College Hall, where the offices of the senior administration and the president were located. They chanted: “No to the 10 %! No to Imperialism!” It was obvious by now that the scene was set for a full-scale confrontation.

Occupation! Occupation!

The next day, approximately 1,000 students marched on campus, ostensibly at their own initiative, and they started shouting, “Occupation! Occupation!” as they reached Jessup Hall. Once the building was occupied, the march continued to the Agriculture Building and the Physics and Biology buildings which were occupied in the same manner. Although it was obvious that the Student Council was behind these moves, it denied the fact to the press. It is worth noting here that, on the previous day, students at Beirut University College (BUC) (now the Lebanese American University (LAU)) occupied university buildings after the failure of negotiations with the administration over an 8% tuition increase.

After the student occupation of buildings at AUB and BUC, the student unions of all Lebanese universities and institutes of higher learning issued a statement on 19 March calling for a demonstration which would start from AUB and head for the Ministry of Education. The following day, 5,000 students marched to the Ministry of Education and attempted to storm its building, but they were stopped by the security forces who dispersed the demonstrators with considerable brutality. This was only the beginning of a succession of similar clashes which erupted that day in the streets of Beirut, ending with the arrest of 80 students, among whom was the Student Council president, Mohammad Mattar. The next day, AUB students occupied West Hall and the Security Office and took control of all the university gates (Main Gate, Medical Gate, Sea Gate, Faculty Gate and the International College Gate). Once these measures had been taken, the Student Council sent a letter to the faculty requesting their support in their “struggle for cultural liberation and freedom.” In that same letter, the University administration was accused of concealing the fact that it had recently purchased half a million Lebanese pounds’ worth of real-estate in the vicinity of AUB, which proved that the claims of a budget deficit where to be doubted.

The ongoing strike, however, and the accusations hurled by the Student Council at the AUB administration do not appear to have provoked any reaction on its part, except for the successive communiqués it issued. In these announcements, the administration reminded the students and their parents of the necessity of resuming the University’s academic functions so that the semester would not be lost and AUB would not be compelled to be close down. It is also further worth noting that although the University Senate considered that the survival of the University was allegedly at stake, it did not convene once during the first week of the strike. The only official meeting that was held that week, on Sunday 24 March, was between the Student Council and the Deans of the faculties, yet nothing was achieved at this meeting. On the same day, the Harrington Committee, commissioned by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), arrived in Beirut to review AUB’s academic program for the purpose of funding, as it had done in 1966. According to the Student Council, however, the purpose of this committee’s visit was to check if AUB was still “applying on a very selected basis the American ideas and practices in the field of education and medicine.” Consequently, the Harrington Committee was given a very “warm welcome”, the striking students attacked it because of United States support to Israel:

We are striking because we do not want to be divorced from the problems of our society. This concern is what the administration calls “politicized.” We refuse the ivory towers. We refuse section 214. We do not want help from those who gave 2,200 million dollars to Israel.

Faculty Mediation

The absence of dialogue between the Student Council and the administration paved the way for some members of the faculty to mediate between the two sides, but the mediation failed because the administration refused to show any flexibility. In retaliation, students occupied Fisk Hall and the School of Medicine on 25 March. The Student Council had earlier attempted to rally the support of the Lebanese political factions to its side by arranging to meet Camille Chamoun, the President of the right-wing National Liberal Party (NLP). There is no record, however, of what transpired from that meeting. Next, the Council met with Kamal Joumblatt, the President of the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) which was represented in the cabinet by two ministers. Joumblatt showed half-hearted support for the student occupation of AUB buildings and proposed that either the tuition increase be restricted to the students who were wealthy, or that the government subsidize the tuition increase without otherwise interfering in the affairs of the University— a major departure from the position he had taken in 1971. The members of the Student Council were naturally disappointed with the outcome of this meeting. Perhaps, this might explain why the PSP newspaper Al-Anba` made an attempt to placate them when it stated shortly afterwards that the “AUB policy of education was directly connected to that of the United States which is attempting to stifle the Progressive National Movement.” Furthermore, it is possible that Joumblatt was aware that Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership did not support the decision taken by the youth chapter of Fateh to confront the AUB administration. According to Fathi al-Biss, he and other senior AUB student leaders of Fateh were summoned at the time by Yasser Arafat and warned quite openly that if they got themselves into trouble with the AUB administration or the Lebanese authorities, the PLO would not “lift a finger” to help them.

The AUB Administration Hits Back

As the strike entered its second week, AUB launched a campaign to de-legitimize the Student Council by showing that its actions did not represent the majority of the student body. A student group calling themselves “the Nucleus,” and believed to be acting in compliance with the administration, issued a communiqué reminding the students to speak up for themselves, express their own ideas, and not “let others think on their behalf.” Another move of this kind was made when two separate groups calling themselves ‘Concerned Graduates’ and ‘Concerned Parents’, and also believed to be serving the interests of the administration, petitioned Kirkwood to immediately end the strike regardless of the students’ demands. Yet, the Student Council dismissed the attacks by these groups as attempts to divide the student movement and urged students to give unconditional support to the Council.

Then the Student Council, undeterred by the faculty’s earlier failure to resolve the ongoing crisis by mediation, approached Kamal Salibi, former advisor to the Rabita, and asked him to intervene on their behalf. Salibi, known to be a “die-hard” Lebanese nationalist, surprised many when he suddenly turned to championing the student cause. As he explained, he accepted to help the students after he had observed the degree of organization that had gone into the running of the strike, which was in itself “an education which ought to be encouraged regardless of whether right or wrong.” On 27 March, Salibi, along with Abu Haydar and other faculty who felt that the ongoing crisis must be resolved “in a manner that preserves the dignity of the students,” met with the Student Council in Abu Haydar’s home and drafted a motion of four items to be presented to the University Senate:
• That an appeals Committee on Admissions be established within the framework of the Student Council with the right to study the files of rejected, worthy students and recommend reconsideration by the Faculty Admissions Committees
• That student membership in the Faculty Scholarship committee be admitted, the students to be chosen by the administration from among a panel of Senior students of good academic standard presented by the Student Council
• That as much as necessary of the income accruing from the 10 % increase in fees be made available to supplement current scholarship funds, specially for worthy new students
• That upon the suspension of the strike and the evacuation of the University buildings by the students, the cabinet of the Student Council be immediately invited to the Senate to discuss the future of the University.

On the evening of the same day, Salibi presented this motion to the Senate. However, it was tabled and later removed from the table and defeated. What passed instead was a substitute motion reiterating the position of the administration “that it will not consider any issue under the condition of a strike or threat of a strike or the use of force of any kind, and reaffirms its support for the president in his implementation of this policy.” After that, the Student Council responded to the vote taken by the Senate by issuing a statement accusing Kirkwood of refusing to negotiate even after the students abstained from escalating the strike for two days. The statement ended by throwing the ball into Kirkwood’s court: “as students, we can do no more than this. As the President of this university, how much more can Dr. Kirkwood do?”

The firm position both sides took on this matter prompted 22 professors, most of whom were senate members, to issue a collective pledge that same evening to the following effect:
We the undersigned, members of the faculty, fully conscious that the AUB students have the genuine interest of the University at heart, and that they are concerned in a proper student representation on Faculty Admissions and Scholarships Committees, pledge ourselves, as soon as the situation on campus is normalized by the evacuation of buildings and the call off of the strike, to pursue the considerations of these questions, in the proper university bodies, in the most positive and receptive spirit.

Two days later, on 29 March, an open meeting (at which at least ten senate members were present) of students and faculty was held in West Hall. In a moving speech, Constantine Zurayk reaffirmed to the student body that the pledge he and 21 other faculty members had signed was the best possible solution to the deadlock between the students and the administration, and that the students had “his personal guarantee that their demands would be met.” Taking the floor to respond, Mohammad Mattar assured the faculty present that the Student Council had the utmost respect to the pledge presented by his esteemed professor. As it stood, however, this pledge was incomplete because it responded to the demand regarding the concept of student participation only. In fact, Mattar reminded his audience of a similar 1971 A&S faculty initiative which, according to him, only led to the dissolution of the Student Council and the suspension of 22 student activists. Mattar wondered, in conclusion, what would make the Senate and the administration that had refused to consider the student demands before the start of the strike suddenly take a different position on the issue once the students call off their strike.

Following this meeting, the idea of the faculty pledge was pursued no further, and it seemed clear, in retrospect, that the days when AUB students could be swayed by faculty charisma were over.

On 1 April, the Student Council called for a general assembly to update the student body on the on-going events and brief them on the latest talks with the faculty. Addressing the assembly, Mattar commended the AUB faculty for their understanding and solidarity with student demands and attacked the administration for closing all channels of communications with the students. Mattar declared that “the administration’s inflexibility will in no way affect our struggle to improve the University” and that “the students’ mission is still in its beginning and will be followed through to the end.” Upon the adjournment of the assembly, the students proceeded to march by College Hall and in the same manner as before started shouting, “Occupation! Occupation!” The students stormed the building and evicted the employees from their offices. Shortly after, the students withdrew, leaving the Occupation Committee to guard the building. According to Fathi al-Biss, the occupation of College Hall was not planned by the Student Council, but was a spontaneous reaction to the inflexibility of the administration.

The institutionalization of the Strike

What was worth noting, and in fact admiring, was the efficiency with which the strike became institutionalized so that within two weeks the Student Council was in virtual control of the University. Under its leadership, the students had organized themselves into subcommittees, each of which having a specific function. Receiving their instructions from a Central Command, the Occupation Sub-Committees directly supervised the occupied buildings, each of these committees having a codename which would be used to pass instructions via the internal telephone network or via the megaphones. The Security Committees guarded the access points to the campus, controlled entries and patrolled the grounds. The Rations Committee supplied all the committees on duty with food and refreshments, sometimes donated by some restaurants on Bliss Street. The Media Committee, equipped with a mimeograph machine and typewriters was alone responsible for replying to official correspondence and issuing circulars. This committee also operated a small radio transmitter which broadcast over megaphones strategically placed around the campus, and it was frequently used in campaigns to harass the members of the AUB administration residing on campus.

The radio station made life on campus unbearable, as it would start its uninterrupted daily broadcast at five o’clock in the morning with a daily wakeup call to the President and his wife, “Good Morning, Dr. Kirkwood! Good Morning, Mrs. Kirkwood! or Good Morning, Samuel! Good Morning, Sunny!” Occasionally, the students went so far as to throw firecrackers at Marquand House or to make prank phone calls to the President and the Deans in the middle of the night. Although such actions were perceived by members of the University community as juvenile and irresponsible, the fact remains they were carried out upon instructions from the Student Council to achieve desired effects.

Thereafter, the complete breakdown of communication between the students and the administration paved the way for other parties. The AUB Alumni Association and a free-lancing Committee for Educational Reform headed by Abdullah Mashnouk was called upon to intervene in yet another attempt to resolve the University crisis. After a series of meetings with the parties concerned, these two bodies declared that they intended to establish a special fund which would be used to pay the fees of any AUB student affected by the 10% tuition increase. The Student Council, however, refused to accept this initiative because it was a decision by a party which had no influence over the administration and no power to guarantee that the administration would accept the remaining demands of the students.

Thus, on 5 April, after this last effort at mediation failed, Kirkwood announced the suspension of the academic program for the year 1973-74, especially that it was no longer possible to make up for lost time. The Student Council did not respond directly to Kirkwood’s decision to suspend the semester, but instead published one of several classified documents that the students had seized during the occupation of College Hall. This particular document, published in the Leftist daily al-Muharrir, was a memorandum addressed by the AUB Comptroller Edwin Crocker to John Gill, the Director of Operations. This document proved that the AUB was indeed covering up its profits so as to remain eligible to receive US government funds.

The Rabita Walks Out Again

The Rabita had halfheartedly joined the strike shortly after it was announced, when its president, Mounir Karam, issued a statement on 20 March calling on all students to “rally around the syndical means at their disposal” to prevent the tuition increase. As far as the Student Council was concerned, the Rabita was a puppet in the hands of the AUB administration, externally backed by the Kata`ib and the NLP while internally manipulated by Charles Malik and Provost Samir Thabet. Nonetheless, probably in an attempt to keep the Rabita on leash, the Student Council assigned to it the occupation of several university buildings such as Bliss Hall, the Engineering Building and the Pharmacy Building. This arrangement, however, only lasted until 9 April when the four Rabita members of the Student Council resigned, handing over the occupied buildings to the Council and then appearing on TV to accuse the Student Council and its president of having “deviated from the aims of the strike.” The following day, Mounir Karam, the Rabita President, flanked by these four members, declared in a press conference that the Rabita had walked out on the strike because the Student Council did not honor its obligation to consult the student body on every action it took, as was customary. Furthermore, Karam accused the Council of refusing to accept the offers made by the Alumni Association and the Mashnouk Committee which, according to him, presented good terms for a settlement. The response of the Student Council to these allegations came on the same day when Mohammad Mattar described the Rabita resignations as “intentionally serving the administration’s plan to divide the student body.” Mattar also noted that the theatrical appearance of these four Rabita representatives on TV to explain why they had resigned was not a live interview but a recording produced prior to the actual resignations.

The plain fact was, however, that the Rabita walkout did not affect the course of the strike in any significant way. In fact, the Rabita’s change of strategy after 1971, whereby it began to seek representation in a Student Council that it could not control (rather than maintain its status as a free agent) placed it at an overwhelming disadvantage in a campus dominated by the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. Moreover, the Student Council had been careful to take the necessary precautions against a possible Rabita walkout. It succeeded in having the buildings that the Rabita had vacated quickly reoccupied.

Later, the unannounced arrival of Howard Page, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, in Beirut on 15 April did not break the stalemate between the Student Council and the administration. Contacted by Mattar, Page refused to meet him, declaring that he did not have on his itinerary “a solution to any crisis,” and that his trip was for fundraising only.

Forbidden Games

The next day, in its continuing attempts to rally public support for its cause, the Student Council announced that a National Convention would be held on 23 April, in which a number of public figures, political parties and syndicates would participate. On the day assigned for the convention, al-Muharrir published another set of classified documents seized by the students from College Hall. These documents confirmed AUB’s collusion with US government agencies through the intermediary of the US embassy in Beirut. One document, written by Professor of History Joseph Malone, was a response to a request by the assistant military attaché at the American embassy Alfred Brados, for an evaluation of four US military officers enrolled at AUB in the Middle East Area Program (MEAP). Another document, addressed by Kirkwood to the US cultural attaché in Beirut, warned that the possible closure of AUB would mean “an end to US financial interests in Beirut and in the region.” According to Fathi al-Biss, the decision to publish these documents was taken by the Student Council after the complete breakdown of the communications with the administration and the realization that Kirkwood was acting in compliance with the US ambassador and the Lebanese President Suleiman Frangieh. Was the Student Council, finally going into the realm of the forbidden?

Perhaps it was the next day, on 24 April at 2:45 A.M., 800 Lebanese security men stormed the campus and arrested 61 students who were occupying the University buildings. This crackdown was carried out with the utmost precision and accuracy after the security forces knocked down the Medical Gate while simultaneously breaking through the other AUB gates. The end of the 37-day occupation of AUB buildings, however, did not put an end to the strike, for some members of the Student Council escaped arrest and proceeded to launch a campaign to rally public support for their cause. Some even attempted to reoccupy some of the buildings, but they were stopped by the security forces who were still stationed inside AUB. Meanwhile, the day following the student arrests, the AUB administration announced the suspension of the Student Council, Outlook and the Campus yearbook. Approximately two months later, on 19 July, 103 students were informed by mail that they would not be allowed to register for the next year because their “actions have shown they no longer wish to be associated with AUB.”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *