When Protestant missionaries established the American University of Beirut in 1866, they had a breathtakingly simple mission. Other nations were hungry for pieces of the decaying Ottoman Empire, but the Americans sought something else — to spread values that might empower the people of the Middle East.

A biblical phrase carved in stone on the entrance gate evokes this mission: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.”

AUB, like educational institutions around the world, has special problems in this year of pandemic and economic lockdown. AUB’s are more severe than most, because of the bitter reality that the nation of Lebanon is imploding around the university due to a corrupt government, sectarian politics and the global economic collapse.

In a world of troubles, why should Americans care about AUB, half a world away? The answer is that schools such as this are part of the United States’ benign “soft power,” essential at a time when so many other aspects of our traditional greatness are seen to be failing. Such universities will help rebuild a decent world after today’s problems have passed. If we don’t step up, the Chinese, who are establishing partnerships with universities all over the region, are poised to seize the opportunity.

Daniel Bliss, AUB’s founding president, explained its mission in 1871: “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, Mohammadan or heathen, may enter and … go out believing in one God, in many Gods, or no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”

That was a radical idea in the Middle East back then, and it remains so today. Liberal education — the freedom to think and decide for yourself — remains a liberating ideal in a region where so many regimes suppress their people and govern through secret police. For all of the United States’ mistakes, at home and abroad, this vision of free inquiry remains powerful.

AUB has been a passion of mine since I first went to Lebanon 40 years ago. My own great-grandparents were educated at a similar Protestant missionary college in Harput, in the historic Armenian areas of eastern Turkey, another region of the fraying Ottoman Empire. When I think about what American values ought to mean, even after our failures to achieve racial and economic justice, I think of AUB.

So when Fadlo Khuri, the university president, reached out to me recently, I listened. “AUB is facing perhaps the greatest crisis since the university’s foundation,” he wrote. He elaborated by phone on Monday. AUB’s financial situation is perilous. The Lebanese currency has lost 60 percent of its value, and the university can’t access some of its funds. Khuri is planning to lay off 20 to 25 percent of AUB’s staff of 6,200. But he’s also trying to provide a safety net for these former employees, who have nowhere else to turn.

Khuri hopes that the U.S. government, which provides about 20 percent of AUB’s budget through various USAID and State Department programs, will step up that support as the university nears the edge of the cliff. I can’t think of an investment abroad that’s likely to pay bigger dividends in terms of human capital. A measure of AUB’s outsize impact is that 19 of the delegates who established the United Nations in 1945 were graduates of the university.

Nora Boustany, a courageous former Washington Post foreign correspondent who now teaches journalism at AUB, a few miles from where she was raised, wrote me this week to explain what’s special about the university: “My students this year were what kept me going. They were focused, willing to adapt and curious. They are our hope for the future.”

People sometimes scoff at American values, and if we’re thinking of the U.S. government, the cynicism is often deserved. But the world watched this month as millions of Americans went into the streets to demand racial justice and an end to police brutality. That’s the image of principled American democracy the world still cherishes, which animates institutions such as AUB in their time of trouble.

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