AUB marks 100 years since the passing of its visionary founder

BEIRUT: This week marks the centenary of the passing of AUB founder Dr. Daniel Bliss, who left a legacy of 60 years of service to education in Lebanon.

By the time of his death in 1916, the elderly Dr. Bliss had accomplished a remarkable set of achievements in the region, including his founding of what was a unique liberal arts school that was open to students of all religions and background – an institution which became the modern-day American University of Beirut.

The early project to build a new school required much of the then-young educator’s energy, which he was more than willing to give. “There is no time for the president of this college to rest. He must work seven days in the week,” Bliss wrote to his wife, whom he sent back to the US with his children to live while the small college was under construction.

As a boy, Bliss had put his own educational prospects on hold – because of tough economic circumstance – and became self supporting at the age of 16 mainly by farming and tanning. He was able to continue his education through scholarships and money earned from tutoring, graduating from Amherst College and later spending two years at Andover Theological Seminary where he became ordained minister in 1855.

He joined the Foreign Mission with a vision to create a better world through service and traveled to the Levant with his new wife, Abby Wood, to teach as part of the Congregational American Mission at the American Academy of ‘Abeih, and later at Souk el Gharb.

In 1862, he returned to New York to meet with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with the idea of establishing a college, and as one of the prime movers, he was selected to be in charge of the project. A certificate of incorporation was drafted on April 18, 1863, and on April 24 that year a charter for establishing the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) was granted by the legislature of the State of New York. Daniel Bliss was unanimously voted to organize the future college and serve as its president.

He returned to Beirut on March 2, 1866 to begin his project. The Syrian Protestant College (SPC) opened its doors on the 3rd of December, 1866. It was a modest beginning with Bliss as both president and teacher.

The “prospectus and program of the Syrian Protestant College Institute, Beirut” asserted two explicit objectives: First, to enable native youth to obtain, in the country, the literary, scientific, and professional education which the exigencies of the community demand; and second, to make the institution indigenous, self-governing, and self-sustaining.

The groundbreaking educator favored a system at SPC whereby “greater effort was made to educate the students rather than simply to instruct them,” as he wrote in his book, The Reminiscences of Daniel Bliss. He expressed in his 1902 farewell address the view that “facts are the seeds of thought and, like seeds in the vegetable world, are of little value garnered up; but under the power of reason, will, and conscience are made into ideals and laws that govern matter and minds.”

He did not want SPC to serve as a theological seminary focusing solely on religious training; rather, he saw literary and scientific studies as compatible with Christian principles as they helped in discerning good from bad. Other departments of study added to the Christian literature curriculum included Arabic Language and Literature; Mathematics; Astronomy and Engineering; Chemistry, Botany, and Natural Science; Modern Languages; and Medicine.

The school’s program was later extended to include Philosophy; Economics; Social Science; Commerce; and other fields, and as the school developed during the first decade, Bliss and some of the faculty members decided that special topics should be taught in English rather than Arabic.

In his most famous speech at the laying of the cornerstone of College Hall on December 7, 1871, and despite his missionary background and the era he lived in, he set the guiding principle of the institution by declaring, “This College is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race, or religion. A man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan, or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four, or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God.”

The legacy of Daniel Bliss lives on. “One thing has not changed since Daniel Bliss founded AUB in 1866: we are determined to make an impact – on knowledge, and on society,” said AUB President Fadlo R. Khuri in his inauguration speech in January 2016.

As a professor, treasurer, and administrator, Bliss guided the growing college for thirty-six years until he retired in 1902 at the age of 81. His son Howard became president. Bliss remained living on campus and after his passing was buried in the same country that he spent most of his life serving, Lebanon.