21ST CENTURY INNOVATORS

Lebanon 2015 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Dr. Joseph G. Jabbra, President of the Lebanese American University (LAU), on the role of innovation and research at the university.

LAU has always invested heavily in innovation and technology. What major advances have been implemented in the past year?

Universities are just as heavily affected by globalization and technological developments as any industry. As institutions of higher learning, we have had to adopt new technologies in order to provide our students with an education that is second to none. Bringing the fields of technology and education together is a challenge, but we have taken the lead by connecting all of our campuses, departments, and offices through dramatic innovation. We now have four campuses in Beirut, Byblos, the University Medical Center in east Beirut, and an academic center in New York. They are all connected through state-of-the-art technology. Our classrooms are all smart, interactive, and always connected to the internet. In addition to utilizing technology, our research in IT is ongoing. We are constantly innovating, especially when it comes to databases, data storage, and data availability and accessibility.

What is the role of R&D at LAU, and what are the most significant ongoing research projects?

We take R&D very seriously. In order to be a faculty member at LAU, you have to be involved not only in teaching, but also in research. The quality of our faculty and their research was made evident when LAU was ranked second in the region for research impact by Times Higher Education. Our priority is the learning process rather than the teaching process, whereby professors and students come together—facilitated by technology—to study, learn, and conduct research. For example, faculty and students in our School of Engineering are working on the development of a unique, unprecedented exoskeleton suit that will enable paralyzed people to maintain their balance and regain mobility. As a testament to our sense of family and community at LAU, a team of students and staff recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in order to raise funds for this innovative project. Further collaboration can be seen in the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Pharmacy, which are all working together with the doctors at our University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital, conducting research on coronary diseases with top notch cardiologists who are interested not only in theoretical research but in applying it to practice. The Hospital is a hub for the application of theories to practice and vice versa, enabling them to feed each other and strengthen the process of research. Research, technology, and innovation are an integral part of all our departments, and are accessible to our entire student body. A fundamental part of our methodology is the involvement of students in research so that they are immersed in technologies they can then use with ease when they become faculty members themselves.

“We take R&D very seriously."

How would you describe LAU's relation with the Lebanese business community?

We have a multitude of examples showcasing the University's strong cooperation and collaboration with the business community. We have partnered with an industry leader to manufacture the exoskeletons, and we bring business practices into the classroom to ensure that our research is valuable and meets specific industry goals and needs. Many of our programs include internships at companies and organizations in Lebanon. Once our students graduate, we maintain contact with alumni and their employers to ensure that our programs are responding to societal needs, be it at an undergraduate or graduate level. We also bring business practices into the classroom in such a way that you have research that remains applied research, and research that meets specific and important goals and needs. One of the major areas of research at our School of Business currently focuses on family businesses, especially with regards to the problems those businesses are running into in terms of succession. Most businesses in Lebanon are family businesses, which don't as a rule consider succession, or don't want an independent and elected board. So we are doing a lot of research and holding many conferences in this area in order to respond to the needs of the Lebanese business community. We have also launched an LL.M. in business law that is unique to Lebanon and has attracted many business professionals seeking to expand their knowledge and acumen. Moving on to architecture and design, we connected with Elie Saab, one of the world's leading lights in fashion design. Our fashion degree program is unique, bringing us together with the London College of Fashion and an internationally acclaimed couturier. We are also proud of our impressive faculty of economic experts, who regularly appear on TV to discuss issues affecting the world, such as the effects of globalization in such areas as the movement of capital, employment, entrepreneurial funding, national interests in economic planning, and so on. Our School of Medicine has recently moved into a new state-of-the-art building on our campus at Byblos, and our faculty members and doctors are connecting with practitioners at the University Center Rizk-Hospital to see how they can research issues of use to the healthcare delivery system of Lebanon. In short, we can say that LAU is not an ivory tower; it is where the action is. We meet the needs of society, helping that society in turn meet the challenges of globalization.

What importance does LAU give to international exchange programs?

We have sent our students on exchange programs all over the world, and students from all over the globe are coming to our university in Lebanon and New York. Exchange programs are very important for us. We also have numerous joint research programs with other universities around the Mediterranean, many of which are funded by the European Community. Our School of Medicine has an agreement with Harvard Partners Medical International, and also with the University of Iowa, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois Medical School at Chicago, and we are seeking linkages with St. Jude's Hospital, which was established by Danny Thomas, a famous American of Lebanese origin. We are also exploring the possibility of association with the Miami Project, which is focused on the brain and seeking to cure paralysis. We have a strong network globally and a plethora of exchange programs and opportunities for students, faculty, and researchers.

Lebanon's status as the educational capital of the Middle East is being challenged by ambitious projects in the Gulf region. What steps should be taken for Lebanon to retain this well-earned title?

A lot is being done in this regard. Lebanon is prominent in terms of the quality of education it provides. There's a lot of competition here in terms of quality educational institutions, and that keeps us creative and innovative. As an American institution, we thrive on competition. At the same time, we have deep roots here, considering that we were established in 1835 as a school for the education of women during the Ottoman Empire, a time when Europe and the US were ignorant about the role and the rights of women in society. We are deeply rooted here, but with an American mindset, which makes us a formidable institution. The 21st century belongs to innovators. To stay ahead of the curve, it is not enough to simply provide students with an education; we have to be creative and innovative and demonstrate new ways of thinking and doing things. We are sure that competition will increase, and as a result so too will the level of education here. We are accredited by a leading agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), and our accreditation is on a par with institutions like Harvard, Yale, and all the Ivy League schools. Our School of Engineering is accredited by the Accreditation Bureau of Education & Technology (ABET), the leading accrediting agency for engineering education in the world. There is a lot of competition, yes, but this only makes LAU and the overall educational sector in Lebanon and the region stronger.

© The Business Year - February 2015