Alumni Profile: Fadlo R. Khuri’89

Championing Intellectual Rigor and Risk at the American University of Beirut
Photo: Peter Wortsman


By Peter Wortsman

In 2016 the American University of Beirut, the oldest and arguably the most respected institution of higher learning in the Middle East, celebrated its 150th anniversary, a momentous occasion for any school but particularly noteworthy for an institution committed since its founding to free and open dialogue, critical thinking, and intellectual rigor in a region of tumult. Looking ahead, the pedagogical challenges and opportunities remain formidable, according to Fadlo R. Khuri’89, an oncologist by training and committed educator, who took office as the school’s 16th president in September 2015. 

“A full half of the population in many Arab countries is under the age of 25,” Dr. Khuri points out. “Young people are not yet set in their ways. They’re open to new ideas. The risk is that they can be turned toward ideological extremism, but they can also be influenced to do great good.”

Dr. Khuri characterizes the institution, of which he is an alumnus and to which he has longstanding familial ties on both his mother’s and father’s sides, as “a beacon of openness and transparency and secularism and a force for reason” in a country and a part of the world splintered by rivalries between conflicting religious and political factions. “What we needed to do early on in my term was to gain trust on all sides,” he says. Having won that trust from board members, faculty, students, and parents, he is seeking consensus to steer the school toward making a sustainable positive impact in the region and beyond. “As a small university, we need to take intellectual risks and focus on courage.” 

Courage is definitely a required quality for any academic leader in the Middle East. One of Dr. Khuri’s predecessors at AUB, Dr. Malcolm H. Kerr, an American national and the third president to be born in Lebanon, was assassinated while in office, and his successor, Calvin Plimpton’51 MSD, faced an attempted kidnapping. Among other pressing and unquestionably courageous priorities under Dr. Khuri’s aegis is AUB’s focus on the needs of refugees in a country with a population of 4 million that currently hosts close to 2 million refugees. AUB’s Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service won the 2016 MacJannet Prize for global citizenship in recognition of its educational outreach to Syrian refugees. In addition, an AUB architect, Karim Najjar, designed prefab modules for schools for refugee children. The schools are being put into action as quickly as they can be built.

Dr. Khuri made time for an interview at AUB’s New York office in September 2016, a year into his presidency.


Grounded in Cultures of Caring 

Born in Boston, Mass., of Lebanese émigré parents, his father a physician, his mother a mathematician, Fadlo Khuri moved back to Lebanon in 1970 and was brought up in Beirut, where he attended high school at the International College in Beirut and began his undergraduate studies at AUB. As a young man growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, a time of acute sectarian differences, he was often asked by friends: What party do you belong to? His parents replied: “We belong to the party of AUB.”

“We’re at a tipping point in history in the Arab world. I want to contribute in any way I can to the shift towards a better, sounder set of beliefs and ideologies than currently exist there.”

A history buff steeped in American culture—with a reverence for Abraham Lincoln as a model leader, a lifelong allegiance to the Boston Red Sox, a taste for New England clam chowder, and a can-do attitude—he is also deeply rooted in the rich cultural diversity of Lebanon and the Arab world. As he put it in a presentation in 2016 to AOA inductees at the AUB medical school, “I was born a Lebanese, but raised intellectually by Koreans, Chinese, and Americans, by Christians, Moslems, Jews, atheists, and communists alike.” Such diverse influences helped him understand from an early age “there really is no ‘other’ when you’ve figured out that you yourself are part of that ‘other.’ I am not some preternaturally sensitive individual,” he insists. “I grew up in the truly diverse environment of AUB where people debated tough ideas and tolerance of difference was the norm.” The school admitted its first women as full-time students in the 1920s, long before Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. His mother, Dr. Soumaya Khuri, a professor of mathematics at AUB, was and remains a vocal feminist. “When you bring different people from different backgrounds together even in a trouble spot,” he argues, “that fear of the other starts to evaporate.”

He returned to the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and to study medicine at P&S. “I went into medicine,” he says, “because I wanted to help people” and credits the encouragement of his father, the late Raja Najib Khuri, MD, a renowned renal physiologist, professor, and chair of the Department of Physiology at AUB, who served as the school’s acting president shortly after the assassination of Dr. Kerr and from 1978-1987 as dean of the medical school.

In the AOA speech, Dr. Khuri vividly recalled his first day on clinical rounds as a third-year medical student at P&S. Entrusted with the care of a gracious rabbinical scholar dying of pancreatic cancer, he felt compelled to dwell on the family’s bitter plaint: “How could such a good man have such a cruel and unkind death?” Ultimately, he added, “My search for meaning in this painful event drove me into the field of cancer research.” 

At P&S he came under the influence of the late Bernard Weinstein, MD, professor of medicine and director of the cancer center at Columbia and Presbyterian Hospital. “Bernie was the first person to really make science thrilling for me at Columbia.” Another P&S mentor, the late Leslie Baer’63, director of the hypertension research program, under whose guidance he pursued his third-year medical rotation, “taught me how to write a thoughtful patient history, to include my reasoning, the rationale for a diagnosis, and plan of treatment.”

It was also at Columbia that he met the most important person in his life, his future wife, Lamya Tannous Khuri, who received a PhD in nutrition at Columbia in 1993.

Another distinguished member of the P&S faculty, the late John Lindenbaum, MD, at the time vice chair of medicine, counseled him to give clinical medicine a try and recommended training in medicine at Boston City Hospital. In Boston Dr. Khuri faced the daunting challenge of treating a growing cohort of patients in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Grueling as it was, he enjoyed the immediacy of taking care of patients. “It’s easy to feel you’re working for a job your first eight hours, but after that you need to know that it’s more than a job, that it’s a calling.

“Anybody who tells you that the physician-patient relationship is a one-way stream, that the great, noble physician gives and the patient just takes,” he adds, “they don’t know medicine, they haven’t practiced it.” In addition to the emotional gratification of providing care, medicine offers an intellectual challenge. “There’s something very rewarding about piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of disease. Even if you can’t cure someone, you’ve eased their pain, diagnosed immediate complications, alleviated a symptom.” 

He subsequently completed a fellowship in hematology/medical oncology at New England Medical Center and Tufts University School of Medicine. In 1995 he joined the Department of Medicine at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and in 2002 was recruited by Emory University as professor of hematology and oncology and director of the Discovery and Developmental Therapeutics program at the Winship Cancer Institute, where he was later named the Roberto C. Goizueta Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research and assembled a dynamic research team. 

A widely cited molecular oncologist and acknowledged thought leader in translational medicine, the author of more than 300 peer-reviewed articles, Dr. Khuri has focused his clinical research on the development of molecular, prognostic, therapeutic, and chemo-preventive approaches to improve the standard of care for patients with lung and aerodigestive cancers. “Committed to thinking of cancer as not just end-stage but taking in the entire evolution from premalignancy in order to establish the earliest possible intervention point in the disease,” he and his team at Emory were in the vanguard of what has come to be known as precision or personalized medicine.


Columbia’s Historic Ties to AUB

Founded in 1866 by American missionaries in Lebanon and Syria under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and originally called the Syrian Protestant College, the institution later renamed American University of Beirut was, in the words of its first president, Dr. Daniel L. Bliss, open to “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...”

Inauguration of AUB President Fadlo Khuri’89 with AUB Trustee Thomas Q. Morris’58, left, in attendance

From early on in its history, AUB had a close connection to Columbia University. Of the school’s 16 presidents to date, seven earned graduate degrees and/or taught at Columbia. Frederic P. Herter, MD, a longtime professor of surgery at P&S, served for some years, first as a member and then as chairman of the AUB Board of Trustees, before being named president. In his memoirs, “May I Cut In?”, Dr. Herter recalled that his interest in the school had been stoked by a pre-operative conversation with the legendary P&S surgeon Dr. Allen Oldfather Whipple, best known for the Whipple procedure, a complex surgical procedure to remove parts of the pancreas, the small intestine, and the gallbladder to treat pancreatic cancer. Dr. Whipple, who had been born in Iran, was raised in Syria, and was familiar with Lebanon, praised AUB as “the finest educational institution in the Middle East.” The late Calvin H. Plimpton, MD, who received his MSD degree from P&S in 1951 and was a longtime member of the faculty in the Department of Medicine at P&S, served for a time as professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine and associate dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences at AUB and chief of staff of the American University Hospital before becoming president. Thomas Q. Morris’58, former president and CEO of Presbyterian Hospital and current chairman of the editorial board of Columbia Medicine, served for many years as a member, then as chairman, of the AUB Board of Trustees and was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from AUB in 2009. Other Columbians have ties to AUB. David Bickers, chair of dermatology at P&S, was vice chair of the Board of Trustees for several years. Dr. Bickers, whose father was chair of ob/gyn at AUB, is now trustee emeritus. Jacques P. Merab, a cardiology faculty member at P&S, grew up in Beirut and has been an active AUB trustee for several years. Thomas Jacobs, a faculty member in endocrinology at P&S, served as a trustee for several years. The AUB-Columbia link has come full circle with the presidency of P&S alumnus Fadlo Khuri’89, whose father, Dr. Raja Najib Khuri, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and acting president of AUB, trained, served under, and became a close friend of Dr. Plimpton.

A Call to Service

“The real challenge in life,” he says, “is about being able to reinvent and redefine yourself every 10 to 15 years.” Upon learning that AUB was seeking a new president, Dr. Khuri, who had been contemplating a career pivot, decided to apply for the job. It was for him a chance to give back to an institution that helped shape his character and his thinking and an opportunity to have a positive impact on a country and a culture to which he feels a strong emotional tie. “We’re at a tipping point in history in the Arab world. That’s one of the biggest reasons I went back,” he says. “I want to contribute in any way I can to the shift towards a better, sounder set of beliefs and ideologies than currently exist there.”

Did a career in medical oncology help prepare him for the challenges of leading a major university? “Yes, I most definitely think it has,” he says. “First, it helps to understand that you often have to synthesize complex and contradictory data to make a difficult decision. Medicine prepares you to accept responsibility for that decision. It is also a very humbling profession; this is particularly the case in oncology. Even though inevitably you fail a lot, you celebrate every victory and learn from every defeat. Sometimes you don’t have the answer. So learning to live with ambiguity, which I think is the hallmark of a good leader, is a very key quality.”

Dr. Khuri says the American pedagogical model of a liberal education, as promoted by the founders of AUB, is still viable today, though it may well be in need of updating. “We must acknowledge the successes and the failures of previous applications of the American intellectual ethos.” American political policy, he points out, has not always been a force for good in the Middle East. “Mistakes were made and are being made, but people in the region did not lose faith in the American intellectual agenda.” 

Whereas in the United States, in Dr. Khuri’s view, “politicians don’t take academic institutions all that seriously, except as intellectual factories to produce policy wonks, there is a respect for and a fear of academe among the political leaders in Lebanon and the Arab world, which is both exhilarating and a little frightening. They care about what we advocate.

“The university cannot replace the role of the Lebanese government,” he says, “but we can step up and provide the truth, whether it’s about carbon emissions or trash burning or medicine or history. As educators, we also can and must take better care of our students, so that they go out into the world more knowledgeable, more confident, more empowered to make a difference than when they came in.”

As a pedagogue Dr. Khuri is a strong believer in the ethos espoused by AUB’s founding president, Dr. Daniel Bliss: “We were not anxious to appear great, but we were anxious to lay foundations upon which greatness could be built.” Over the years, AUB has produced leaders in a multitude of fields, including Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan; Zaha Hadid, the first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize; Dr. Ray Irani, former chairman and CEO of Occidental Petroleum (a company previously run by P&S alumnus Armand Hammer’1921); and Dr. Charles Malik, a diplomat and former Secretary of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

President Khuri with AUB athletes

Dr. Khuri hopes to cultivate future leaders. The wave of protest movements that has come to be known as the Arab Spring awakened dreams, many of which were beaten down by oppressive regimes, but the dreams did not die. “Democracy is a very fragile entity,” he says. “It’s like one of those flowers that doesn’t necessarily grow in all soil unless it’s really carefully tended for a long time.” By his frank assessment, “statesmen and stateswomen are rare in the Arab world—we have never had a Lincoln or a Mandela, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help bring them to the fore tomorrow.”

One of his most ambitious projects as part of the university strategic plan is the creation of a global health sciences center. Aiming for more than just a traditional conglomerate of schools of medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and public health, Dr. Khuri wants AUB to take advantage of the fact that “we are at the epicenter of some major health crises, not just medical crises.” He hopes the center will take a leadership role in addressing health-related issues that transcend the traditional boundaries of the health sciences to include, notably, issues related to conflict medicine. 


Mission Creates Margin

In a speech titled “Legacy of Service,” delivered at the AUB 2016-2017 opening ceremony, Dr. Khuri challenged the role of the university. “We have strayed far too long and far too deeply on the utilitarian and professional path,” he warned, a dangerous detour he perceives not just at AUB but at universities everywhere, at which the humanities have sunk to second-rung status behind applied professional, and more obviously profitable, pursuits. To redress this perceived failing, Dr. Khuri hopes to reinvigorate the study of philosophy, Arabic, and international literature and to restart independent fine arts, music, and theater departments, among other fields of liberal study. 

“Beirut is not a tidy city, physically or intellectually,” he readily admits, “but that lack of tidiness is precisely why the founding fathers of the university chose well. You want a lot of fertile dissonance in a rich academic environment and from my perspective that dissonance is grounded in the humanities.

Medicine is a humbling profession, particularly in oncology, says Dr. Khuri: “Even though inevitably you fail a lot, you celebrate every victory and learn from every defeat. Sometimes you don’t have the answer. So learning to live with ambiguity, which I think is the hallmark of a good leader, is a very key quality.”

“Yes, we will continue to train some of the best engineers in the Middle East and the world,” he says. But in response to parents and trustees who may question the utility of what they perceive as impractical pursuits, he adds: “I don’t want to train fewer engineers; I just want those engineers to take more humanities courses, learn more about why we do things, as opposed to just how we do things. You really only get that chance in college, and it’s currently underemphasized in the curriculum.”

Dr. Khuri recalls a conversation he had some years ago with a member of the board of trustees of Emory University, an institution at which he spent more than a decade and a half on the faculty and to which he remains devoted. “No margin, no mission!” was the mantra preached by the trustee. Budgetary constraint was the common reason given for trimming the curriculum. “You’ve got it a hundred percent wrong,” Dr. Khuri responded. “It’s the mission that creates the margin! If you’re no good at your educational mission and you don’t believe in it, the margin’s going to go away, because some other institution that does believe in their mission is going to do a better job and achieve a better margin, and they’re going to make you a dinosaur!”


A New Marshall Plan for the Arab World

Energized by “a very creative and participatory faculty and staff, echoing the call of students who come in wanting to make a difference,” he argues that “a university can only do so much. We can come up with the ideas, but society has to meet us halfway.” 

In his inaugural remarks upon taking on the mantle of the presidency, Dr. Khuri boldly proposed, “Can we at AUB become the first brick in a new Marshall Plan for the Arab world, a homegrown one?” Piloted by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall following World War II
to bolster the shattered economy of Europe, including that of a defeated Germany, the Marshall Plan included a vigorous educational component. Education should be a priority of support in the Middle East, Dr. Khuri argues, “not because of noblesse oblige, but because it’s to everyone’s long-term strategic advantage.”

To address the rising cost of tuition, Dr. Khuri has proposed, among other initiatives, a national service and teaching model, whereby in exchange for debt-forgiveness funded by the Lebanese government, students pledge to teach in rural areas for a set number of years. As a young man, Dr. Khuri taught English, math, and science in Palestinian refugee camps and in the southern district of Beirut. 

About to lead a major capital campaign, Dr. Khuri hopes to foster a meaningful sense of philanthropy in Lebanon and the Middle East. “We need to substantially increase our endowment to spend on building our infrastructure and, most importantly, on supporting our faculty and students. But I want our prospective donors to give because they truly believe in the cause. If they don’t believe in it, we don’t need their money.”

When not promoting the cause of AUB, Dr. Khuri flies to Atlanta, where his wife is still holding down the fort while their youngest finishes high school. For leisure activities, he follows sports, in particular the exploits of the Boston Red Sox, and takes long walks in the hills around Beirut. “Lebanon is a beautiful country. I’m very comfortable with the people I meet, from whom I learn a lot. I’m still a perpetual student.”