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Amid violence of Beirut, venerable American University limps on

A few months ago, it seemed that whatever magic had protected the campus of the American University of Beirut from Lebanon's violence had vanished. In January, AUB president Malcolm Kerr was assassinated as he walked to his office. In February, the campus was hit by the most intensive shelling it had experienced in the nine years of Lebanon's civil strife. A professor was kidnapped, and the American faculty members were temporarily evacuated. Classes were suspended for weeks at a time.

But like the city that surrounds it on three sides, AUB - a New York-chartered institution that once was considered the finest university in the Middle East - somehow limps on.

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''We have to breathe hope,'' says Radwan Mawlawi, spokesman for AUB. ''For me , I feel that if this university is forced to close, then Lebanon will have to face its fate. A Lebanon without AUB won't be the Lebanon which we have known.''

Last month, Calvin H. Plimpton, an American, was named president to fill the position that has been vacant since Mr. Kerr's death. On Oct. 11, thousands of students poured onto the 118-year-old west Beirut campus to begin fall classes.

Several students say their chief concern about returning to AUB this fall was how they would pay the 20 to 25 percent rise in tuition the university announced.

''We are very sorry for these things that happened last year,'' says a Shiite Muslim woman who is an undergraduate at AUB. She wore the white scarf and bulky, modest clothing that many religious Shiite women in west Beirut have adopted. ''But we are all one family on campus. This university has a long, long history, and such actions would not affect it for long,'' says the woman, who declined to give her name.

The violence and political chaos, of course, have affected AUB. The university is deeply in debt; an $8 million budget deficit is expected this academic year. The campus remains split in two, with many of the Christian students attending classes at a separate facility in mainly Christian east Beirut. Earlier this year the Board of Trustees discussed reuniting the campuses , but the idea was squelched by Christians who said the Christian students would not be safe in west Beirut.

There will be far fewer foreigners on campus this year. AUB used to attract students from all over the Arab world. Now, almost the entire student body of almost 4,500 is Lebanese. A few years ago a full quarter of the faculty was American. This year only 48 of the 489 faculty members are American.

Outside the stone walls of AUB, beyond the Lebanese Army soldiers who check identification cards of anyone who wants to enter the campus, is a west Beirut that continues to deteriorate.

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The Lebanese Army is nominally in control of west Beirut now, but the real power rests with the Shiite and Druze militias. There are also the free-lance splinter militias that plant bombs, throw up road blocks, and often harass people.

Longtime residents of west Beirut say that although open street fighting is rare now, in some ways the area has grown more dangerous.

''There is no discipline, there is no sense of law here now,'' says a Sunni Muslim resident.

The continuing tension among factions outside the campus is bound to be reflected inside, where students from many factions attend classes. But AUB's students and professors have adopted the same fatalistic attitude that those outside the walls have had for years.

''I don't think there is any particular optimism among anybody that things are going to get better,'' says Neff Walker, a psychology intructor who came to AUB with his wife a year ago.

Dr. Walker, originally from west Texas, is a soft-spoken man with a quick sense of humor. He admits that the various departments have had to make adjustments to cope with the tensions around and on the campus.

''Last year, we wanted to offer abnormal psychology, but nobody was willing to teach it. It was just too touchy a subject here, so in the end, we didn't offer it,'' Walker says.

He expects this year to be calmer than last, if only because the America military presence is gone from Beirut and west Beirut is in the hands of Muslim and leftist militias.

''You're doing something,'' Walker explains, ''and then suddenly everything falls apart, and then it kind of calms down and you go back to your work.''

He says he and his wife, also a professor, agreed last year on what would make them decide to leave Lebanon. Each of the things they named occurred on campus.

''And yet, we're still here. I don't even know what the line is anymore that if we passed over it, I would leave.''

Last year was also the first year on campus for Tom Sutherland, dean of AUB's school of agriculture. Looking out at the breathtaking view of the Mediterranean from the balcony of his house on campus, Dr. Sutherland laughs drily as he recalls the events of the past months.

''A lot of the aspects of being here have been very enjoyable,'' he says. ''Ten percent of it has been pure hell.''

Sutherland, too, has had to adjust his program to the exigencies of war. For years, a key feature of AUB's agriculture program was that students spent their junior year on a 250-acre farm owned by AUB in the Bekaa Valley of east Lebanon. Since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, students have been unable to go to the farm, which is in a Syrian-controlled area. This summer, however, Sutherland pushed to send the students back. They spent September on the farm without incident, he says.

''There were many professors and parents who were reluctant to try it, but you can't live in fear all the time,'' Sutherland says.

Says Neff Walker, the psychology instructor: ''Last year, one of the professors said that we were pretending to teach and the students were pretending to learn and that was keeping everybody happy. But I don't think that's true. I don't think anyone is shortchanged.''

Neither Walker, nor Sutherland, nor other faculty or students could say just how many shocks the university can absorb and continue functioning. Like Beirut itself, the campus seems to adjust every time the conditions deteriorate a little more.

''There never seems to be any clear resolution,'' Walker says. ''Sometimes I think it's worse for the people who have been here years and years and knew Beirut the way it was. They've got this real sense of loss. I don't have that. This is Beirut for me.''

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