Op-ed: Should our responsibility stop at the gate?
Faculty members Jennifer Skulte and Makram Ouaiss explain how we can intensify our efforts toward a culture of peace and democratic values beyond campus.
The deplorable fight at the upper gate of Lebanese American University that lead to injuries among students and staff and the cancelation of classes Tuesday afternoon is a stark reminder of the responsibilities LAU has towards its students, the larger society and the political system in Lebanon. LAU has strongly condemned the incident and has launched an in-depth investigation to better understand its causes and how to best address them.
Year after year LAU and its sister universities throughout the country, in response to periodic student fights and conflicts, are investing considerable resources to enhance security systems and improve student election processes. More importantly, LAU has led by working to build strong relationships within the student body and across the country through numerous activities. While we analyze what happened and study our response to the incidents of Tuesday, the question that looms large is what is our responsibility toward our students and where does it stop?
Repeated student incidents at LAU and elsewhere over the past years have not shaken the university’s resolve to provide a safe environment for democratic practice, free speech, the celebration of diversity, and the emergence of young leaders despite often extremely tense national politics. Many have argued—and continue to argue—that politics and student elections should be banned from campus altogether. The university’s response—which we support wholeheartedly—has been that we should not ban politics, but rather do more to provide students with the right tools, habits and skills to address their political differences in a peaceful and constructive way.
If politics is the art of governing and serving the public, then the university is the first laboratory where adult students can practice such skills and assume responsibility for their future. LAU has expanded students’ direct engagement in governance and leadership by having student seats on all the university’s governing bodies and by availing students of a variety of extra-curricular activities such as the Global Classrooms initiative that is run by LAU students and brings over 1,200 Lebanese high school students from around the country together to learn about human rights, negotiation skills and United Nations practices; yearly participation in Model United Nations simulations around the world; the regular organization of workshops and trainings in the fields of conflict resolution, negotiation and human rights as well as the offering of courses on these topics.
Clearly, these efforts are commendable but not sufficient given the difficult and highly volatile context that we live in.
Witnessing student clashes inside and outside the gates of the university is a call not to throw up our hands and stop trying, but rather to redouble our determination to build the resilience of our student body and the community at large. These clashes are a symptom of a wider national problem that has deep economic, confessional and political roots. LAU’s students, faculty, staff, administration and students’ parents should be called upon to work together to address how these problems affect our campuses and what can be done to improve the situation.
Universities have proven themselves time and again as key to building societies in which we all want to live: societies that offer opportunity, prosperity, fairness and security to those who seek it. LAU is rightly proud of its historic and current role in Lebanon but it must do even more. Looking ahead, LAU must further develop its civic outreach program, strengthen its offering of conflict resolution courses and engage others outside the university in the process to help defuse tensions and reduce and prevent conflict on and off campus. While further security preparedness is likely to be part of the overall plan, it must be everyone’s responsibility on campus to ensure that such incidents do not repeat themselves. And as we continue our responsibility to teach and spread a culture of peace, democracy and respect for human rights, LAU ought to investigate the possibility of having a more focused dialogue with political party representatives on and off campus to ensure their commitment and capacity to reduce inter-party and inter-communal tensions between students for the good of society and the future of the country.
Jennifer Skulte and Makram Ouaiss are political science and international affairs faculty members at Lebanese American University.