Marla Rice-Evans is only six months into her new position as Vice President for University Advancement at LAU's New York Academic Center. She started in May 2014 and her position reflects a bold decision taken by the university's president, Dr. Joseph G. Jabbra , and LAU's Board of Directors to bring LAU's distinctive academic presence to the United States. The Academic Center which opened in September 2013 marks LAU as the first Middle East institute of higher learning to offer programming in the United States. Ms. Rice-Evans was selected for the job as head of the academic center because of her wealth of experience and expertise in development, fundraising and advancement for non-profits and universities. She was previously the Associate Vice Chancellor of Advancement at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW)
Q. Tell us about your job description
A. My job as hired here at LAU is the Vice-President of Advancement which l means I am in charge of communications, fundraising and US government relations, that is my ultimate job description. That was my job description when I started, but as the first couple of months moved along there were discussions with me and LAU's president and the other vice-presidents about the fact that this is a new enterprise, not a new office because the office has been here in New York since 1950. We had the opportunity to purchase this space and this gave us the opportunity to give something back to the United States by creating an academic center so that we can basically be a bridge between East and West in the United States. We went ahead and renovated this space and opened a year ago. We are just starting to determine what the academic programs are going to be and that has to evolve and it has to make sense and it cannot compete with the thousands of other choices in a city like New York. We have to find our niche and we have to do it smartly and succinctly and strategically.
Q. As an American, what perspective do you think you bring to this new position working in a bicultural American-Lebanese educational environment?
A. First of all, I think that this is a very non-traditional vice-presidency role. It's got many layers, it's got the cultural, I won't say challenges but I guess it is a challenge. However, it's something which I embrace very much because of my philosophy, what I would call an "Educators without Borders" approach. I just believe that we all have to jump in together to try to bring our assets to best degree that we can wherever we are. I was a French major and I think that studying a foreign language from a young age means that my head has always been looking at the world as a whole. I have also had some experience as a young adult in Morocco and exposure to Arabic culture.
Q. You don't feel a stranger or a little awkward?
A. Not at all. As an American University, LAU is English speaking and so there is a common bond that we have and then Lebanese people certainly integrate in one sentence--Arabic, English, and French-- all in one sentence all the time, so I felt very comfortable with two out of three of those languages. But there is so many Lebanese... and certainly the vice-presidents have all had experience in the United States-- some of them have even taught at universities in the United States or gone to college here, and so we had a commonality. I have an affinity for all people wherever they are from and that's probably from my learning another language when I was very young and I am very open-minded. One thing (LAU President) Dr. Jabbra told me during my job interview in Beirut was that he could not have a vice-president who came in and was condescending, someone who thought, "I am the American, I know best, I know what's right and I am going to tell you what you are doing wrong." That is not my approach although I do have some experience with many years spent working for non-profits and institutes of higher education in the United States. I am an advancement person and because philanthropy is very, very important, particularly for private universities and really all universities there are some things that we have learned in the United States in philanthropic programming where I could bring some enhancement and strengthening to LAU's program. That coupled with my language background and dedicated interest in the Middle East and my management and fundraising experience I think led the LAU Board of Directors to agree that I might right for the job.
Q. What kind of programs are you planning to launch here at LAU's new academic center in New York?
A. There are different areas we are going to focus on. One is that since we are saying we want our center to be a bridge between East and West, we want to bring people of diverse areas together and discuss diverse subjects. Lectures are one thing we can do easily and well but everything else is in a building phase. We are so new that we are trying to figure out what to do because we are not interested in competing with every university instead we have to be a little different and offer a twist on what is already available. There are other Lebanese universities here in the United States but they do not have the academic space that we have. We are considering executive programs but it is our provost, Mr. George Najjar, who will be ultimately responsible for the programs we will host in this space and there are in fact some very good plans that have been drafted for this center that are in the discussion phase right now. We are planning to hire a communications person to start in December because marketing is a big part of our work, as it is for all universities.
Q. What are the aspects of LAU that you can pitch in the United States to make the university seem special?
A. I think it is a time to be very bold and creative. LAU is in Lebanon and Lebanon is in the Middle East and, as we all know, the Middle East is more highly challenged now in a lot of ways than it has been at other times and the more we can put our heads together and come up with good strong progressive thinking then the more we can discuss and disseminate new knowledge and new approaches. Educating our students everywhere and particularly in the Middle East, will mean the better and the smarter we are going to be and the better decision-makers we are going to be and the better leaders our children are going to be. LAU is a university like many other universities in the world but it is in a location that has great needs for solving social ills. My pitch would be not just of the center but of LAU that it is to the world's advantage to educate as many students are humanly possible and with that we have greater chances of overcoming more of society's challenges and ills.
Q. I understand that LAU is looking to boost its endowed scholarships?
A. Yes, I would have to say that the number one thing we need is endowed scholarships for our students. Currently we have 170 endowed scholarships and we have 8,200 students. We do have $20million in financial aid but that money comes and goes. Our number of endowed scholarships is not adequate for a school of LAU's size and stature. The university has gone from something small and transformed into something quite powerful. We now have a nursing school, a pharmacy school, a medical center and hospital. The health side has just boomed and all that has been accomplished in the past ten years, including the construction of our Byblos campus. It is just mind boggling. To endow a scholarship costs a minimum of $US25,000 and this helps towards a small percentage of a student's costs but we need these kind of scholarships to attract students to our programs and keep them. Getting more endowed scholarships for LAU students is our number one priority.