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Bulwark of independence in troubled Middle East

For the past seven years, the Middle East's largest independent liberal-arts institution, 117-year-old American University of Beirut, has weathered intimidation, kidnappings, assassinations, and full-scale war.

But the university survived - its lovely garden campus sometimes invaded but more often a sanctuary in war-torn west Beirut.

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Malcolm H. Kerr, the university's president, calls it a ''naturally humane, conciliatory institution'' that can help heal Lebanon's divisions and promote Arab-American understanding.

Vice-President Samir K. Thabet, himself a graduate of the university, contends that ''free-thinking, American-type education has sold entire generations of Arab business and civic leaders on the American way of life, not to mention American technology.''

The university has had a troubled recent history. From 1975 until September 1982, rival militias controlled the university neighborhood, often having shoot-outs in front of the campus gates. Student political factions intimidated classmates and teachers. Two deans were assassinated - and their murderer went loose during west Beirut's anarchy, returning to the campus to terrorize students. Acting president David S. Dodge, kidnapped last summer, is still missing.

There were frequent allegations during this period that leftist Lebanese and Palestinian organizations could influence professorial appointments; certainly freedom of expression was curtailed.

But even during this tense period, says Prof. James Malarkey, who teaches Middle East civilization, most students were tolerant: ''One could bring up political issues in class - in the Middle East you can't avoid them - and though there was a tendency for students to factionalize, there were always students good about diplomacy.''

Dr. Kerr, who became president this year, calls that era one of ''fear and mistrust,'' marked by frequent threats to ''turn the campus into a military base or to use violence against individual students and teachers.'' But that ended, Dr. Kerr and others believe, with the reunification of Beirut in September.

''The events that have led us to this new situation have not been happy ones, '' Dr. Kerr told students at the fall convocation, two months after the Israeli siege of west Beirut ended. ''History teaches that human progress often comes in paradoxical ways.''

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At the start of the fall term, Dr. Kerr ordered campus political activity minimized and political posters and graffiti removed from walls.

So far this term, classes have been quiet. Students, like most other people in Lebanon, seem tired of violence and controversy, Dr. Malarkey says. ''I think they want what everyone else in Beirut wants: peace and prosperity.'' Composition of the student body this term is 32 percent Christian and 48 percent Muslim - 50 percent of them Lebanese, 30 percent non-Lebanese Arab, and 20 percent foreign.

The years of war in Lebanon took their toll on the American University, not so much through outright destruction - the campus escaped the kind of indiscriminate devastation visited on other parts of Beirut - but by isolation and a compounding of financial problems.

Maintenance of the physical plant was delayed. Staff and faculty salaries fell behind the norm. Income from foreign-student tuition dropped, as did revenue from the university hospital, which treated war victims and harbored refugees throughout the summer.

Dr. Kerr believes faculty salaries have to be increased 50 to 60 percent to be competitive with other Middle East and American universities. Moreover, he says, the physical plant - a handsome collection of hewn-rock buildings overlooking the Mediterranean - requires $7 million in maintenance, and laboratory and hospital equipment is becoming outdated.

To generate revenue, students' yearly tuition has been increased 30 percent and professors have been pressed into service as business consultants in the Middle East. But the university needs an additional $5 million a year from private and public donors to upgrade itself and balance its budget, Dr. Thabet says.

The US has long been a major source of assistance. The university gets 20 percent of US aid to Lebanon (in normal years that averages $1.5 million from the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad program). Of a special $50 million appropriation by Congress last summer to help Lebanon recover from the Israeli invasion, $10 million went to the American University.

But the institution has done poorly soliciting funds in the Arab world, even from its Arab graduates. One reason for the failure is the growth of state-supported universities in these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. By and large, these institutions concentrate on engineering, medicine, and business administration, where there is the most student demand, and sidestep more controversial aspects of liberal arts, such as political science and social criticism.

These features have made the university controversial, not only in conservative Arab countries, but also within Lebanon. Dr. Thabet argues, however , that for every George Habash (a Palestinian Marxist) who graduates, there are dozens of quiet professionals and diplomats, men such as Lebanon's new foreign minister, Elie Salem, or Charles H. Malik, the statesman.

''We've had to go out of our way to reassure Lebanese who've had reservations about us,'' Dr. Kerr said. ''We're very pro-Lebanon and very devoted to the Arab world as a whole. Lebanon has a mission to the Arab world, and it is the only country where we can be what we want to be.''

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