Nabiha Nasir was the driving spirit behind the school that eventually became Birzeit University. Nabiha was asked by her former teacher, Ratibeh Shkair (who hailed from Lebanon), to help her establish a girls' school in Lebanon, but Nabiha countered with the suggestion that they establish a school in Birzeit, where the need was great. The school was established in 1924 and was called Birzeit School for Girls, and Ratibeh Shkair was the headmistress. (Despite the name of the school, boys were also admitted at the request of the community).
The year 1932 marked several turning points in the school's history. Ratibeh moved to Beit Jala that year to establish the Rai Assaleh School there (now known as the Good Shepherd Swedish School), and Nabiha then became the headmistress at Birzeit. A separate school for boys was established, and Wadi Tarazi assumed the role of headmaster of that school. With the establishment of a boys' school, the institution clearly had outgrown its original name, and so it was renamed Birzeit High School - the label referred to both the boys' and the girls' schools.
In 1942, the school was renamed Birzeit College. The name change did not reflect a change in the curriculum or school structure; at the time, it was customary for schools to be called colleges. Years later, this practice was officially discontinued, but by that time Birzeit had become a college in the sense that the label is used today, and so the name was retained.
Birzeit College consisted of separate girls' and boys' schools. The girls' school was housed in a home belonging to the Nasir family, divided into classrooms, the girls' dorms, teachers living quarters, and the office and sleeping area of the headmistress. The boys' school consisted of rented houses in the neighborhood. One house was used for classrooms and for sleeping quarters for the male teachers; another rented building was used for the boys' dorm and a dining hall for teachers and male students. A third building owned by the family was used by both schools for public lectures, theatrical performances, debates, and other activities.
There was no electricity in Birzeit at that time - it became available only in 1951 - and the school had to depend on an array of kerosene lamps when light was needed. There was no running water either; underground reservoirs were used to collect rainwater, which was then manually pumped daily to fill water tanks on the rooftop. Heating was nonexistent and life was austere.
Prior to 1947, the school's academic staff included impressive figures from Palestine, Lebanon, and other parts of the world. Dr. Salwa Nassar, the renowned Lebanese physicist who later became a professor at the American University of Beirut and president of Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University), started her teaching career at Birzeit. Wadi Deeb from Lebanon wrote the words to the school song, which was put to music by the Palestinian music teacher Salvador Arnita. Russian artist George Alief designed the olive tree, the emblem of Birzeit. Poet Said El-Issa taught Arabic before leaving to work for the BBC. Michael Karkar, a refugee from Lydda, introduced French to the curriculum during the school year 1948-49. That year, accounting and typing were added to the curriculum when the YMCA moved its typewriters and teacher Peter Sahhar to Birzeit. (The YMCA had been forced to close down in West Jerusalem.)
The Nakba and Its Aftermath
The year 1948 was a turning point in the history of Birzeit College. By the spring, the political situation looked precarious, and Birzeit administrators worried that the school year (which normally ended in June) would be interrupted by events that might be triggered by the planned withdrawal of British forces and the end of the Mandate that had been established in 1917. The administrators decided to complete the semester curriculum by April. The graduation ceremony was scheduled for April 30 and was to be held under the auspices of Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, the chief commander of the Palestinian forces. But that was not to be; he was killed on April 8 by the Haganah (Jewish paramilitary forces) at the battle of al-Qastal while defending that hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Husayni was a popular, well-loved leader, and Birzeit had a special relationship with him because the village served as one of his headquarters. Female students knit sweaters for his troops; it was one way of expressing their pride in the noble cause he defended so valiantly.
The graduation ceremony for the class of 1948 took place as planned on April 30. It was a solemn event held in the hall at the entrance of the main building, presided over by the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, Emile Ghouri, who was one of Husayni's deputies.
Upon finishing the school year in April, the boarding students, especially those from the coastal areas Jaffa and Haifa, left immediately to return home. The State of Israel was proclaimed on May 15, one day after the British Mandate ended, and many Palestinians from Ramla and Lydda who had either been forced to leave or fled in terror took to the road and walked in the summer heat to Birzeit. The school, as well as churches and the mosque opened their doors and offered shelter until it was possible for the refugees either to settle temporarily in tents or to continue their slow, agonizing trek to Ramallah and to towns across the Jordan River.
Birzeit College in the 1950s
Birzeit College at that time consisted of three major structures:
- The old school building in the center of old Birzeit village. This building housed the girls' dormitory, administrative offices, a library, teaching classrooms, a kitchen, and a dining room. The Nasir family lived there as well.
- A new structure about 500 meters away that housed a science laboratory, a meeting hall, and classrooms for upper class students (fourth secondary and freshman classes).
- A hostel for housing the male boarding students. Hanna Nasir, who had recently returned from Beirut with a bachelor's degree in physics, lived there along with another couple who served as house "parents" and shared supervisory duties during evening study hours and during the weekly hot water shower for all male boarding students.
Bachelor's and Then Master's Degrees
The date July 11, 1976 represents the first important landmark in the academic biography of Birzeit. On that day, Birzeit University awarded its first bachelor's degrees in eight disciplines: Arabic literature, English literature, business administration, Middle East studies, sociology, mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Further steps to introduce new academic programs and to develop the academic offer followed. One year later, the Department of Education and Psychology had developed a program that enabled students to earn a master's degree in education. By 1978, the Faculty of Commerce & Economics was offering programs through the economics, business administration, and accounting departments, and in 1979, the Faculty of Engineering was offering programs through the electrical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering departments
At the beginning of the 1984-85 academic year, 2,400 students were enrolled in the faculties of Arts, Science, Commerce & Economics, and Engineering. During the 1980s, programs leading to bachelor's degrees in education and psychology, sociology and anthropology, history and archeology, biology and biochemistry, and architectural engineering were added to the list of offerings. And in the tradition of liberal arts education that the university had adopted, it offered courses in philosophy, cultural studies, geography, library science, physical education, music, fine arts, general science, and other subjects, designed to enrich and diversify students' knowledge and skills, either as part of degree requirements or as electives.
By the mid-1990s, history, geography, political science, and philosophy and cultural studies departments were established; so too was the Faculty for Graduate Studies, which introduced a Master's program in international relations. In addition, an international summer program was designed for foreign students who wished to study Arabic and to experience how Palestinians cope under occupation. Development of the graduate programs continued and by the year 2000, the university was offering 12 masters programs, including such novel programs as community and public health, gender and development, and democracy and human rights.
Birzeit now offers 47 Bachelor's and 26 Master's programs. The number of students has been increasing steadily, from 239 students in 1972 to over 10,000 in 2013, enrolled in nine faculties: Arts, Business & Economics, Education, Science, Engineering, Law & Public Administration, Information Technology, Nursing Pharmacy & Health Professions, and Graduate Studies.
The increase in the number of students has been accompanied by an expansion of the physical infrastructure as well as an increase in the number of degree programs and in the qualified faculty, such that the university was able to maintain a healthy student-teacher ratio of 23-1, which is an important indicator of academic standards.
Graduate Studies at Birzeit University
The year 1976 saw the graduation of Birzeit's first undergraduate class and the beginning of planning for a Master's degree program. A year later, students were enrolled in that program in education. Several graduates of the Master's program in education went on to earn doctorate degrees at reputable universities in the United States and elsewhere as part of a faculty development program, and some returned to Birzeit University to teach at the graduate and undergraduate levels.
Several graduate programs were launched in the years following the 1992 reopening of the university after a protracted closure by the Israeli military authorities. In addition, the Master's program in education (which had been temporarily suspended in 1983 because of concerns about its sustainability) was resumed in 1994, at which time it was revised and expanded to include concentrations in areas such as science education, administration, and math education.
Developing Graduate Programs
Between the years 1992 and 1995, graduate programs in law, gender studies, and international studies were launched. The University Council, headed by President Hanna Nasir, gave the green light and the final approval for new programs; the Graduate Council discussed and approved academic content. The late Ibrahim Abu-Lughod chaired this council in his capacity as vice-president. He was the guiding spirit behind the establishment of the Master's degree in International Studies. He saw clearly that Palestinians, whose fortunes were often influenced by regional and international players and factors, needed to understand the political forces at work in order to make informed and well-grounded decisions, and that such an empowered and rational decision-making process was particularly important at that time, because the Palestinian National Authority was about to be established.
In late 1995, Faculty of Graduate Studies was established and its first dean appointed. The Graduate Council was comprised of chairs of various Master's programs with representatives of the other faculties; the dean served as chair of the council.
It is difficult to overstress the need for institutionalization, where detailed and clear regulations need to govern all aspects of work. Birzeit had gone through such a process at the undergraduate level and was fortunate to be able to draw on experienced administrators who could assist in the effort to institutionalize the graduate study program at the university. These included former Vice-President for Planning and Development Ramzi Rihan and former Vice-President for Academic Affairs Ahmad Baker; the latter was succeeded by Abdul-Latif Abu-Hijleh, who played an important role in this capacity.
Following the appointment in 2004-2005 of University President Nabeel Kassis (he had earlier served as Vice-President for Academic Affairs), efforts were made to decentralize the graduate studies program. Several programs were moved from the Faculty of Graduate Studies to the relevant departments, given the increasing number of programs and the need for more efficient administrative arrangements.
Community-Oriented Programs and Initiatives
Community service, together with teaching and research, form the three pillars on which Birzeit University's mission rests, ensuring a balanced offering. Indeed, a university that does not reach out to the community that it is supposed to serve is bound to fall short. To affirm its commitment to outreach, the university created the post of Vice- President for Community Outreach to supervise, develop, and foster outreach programs and activities.
Birzeit's institutes and centers undertake training, consultation, continuing education, and applied research; in addition, the institutes offer degree programs, mostly on the graduate level. Two initiatives that were launched in the 1970s, the Research Center and the Literacy Program, were discontinued years ago; however, they performed a vital community service at a time when the service was most needed, and so they must be part of the record. Two other programs from that period, the Voluntary Work Program and Community Health, continue to this day.
Former faculty member and dean of students Munir Fasheh describes the spirit that gave rise to the early initiatives as follows: "Groups of friends started doing what they were convinced needed to be done. What helped that attitude to flourish was the fact that the reference of people was from within rather than from authority or funding organizations; the word "proposal" was alien. The only authority in the occupied Palestinian territory was the occupying Israeli army, which was illegitimate in the eyes of people. The lack of a legitimate authority motivated people to do what they felt was needed, regardless of the price they might pay for doing it. One surprising aspect was the unplanned harmony in people's activities."
The University's institutes are as follows:
- Institute of Community and Public Health (1978): pioneering a broad multidisciplinary approach to health, one that draws on medical, epidemiological, political, social, and other disciplines.
- Center for Continuing Education (1991): building institutional and community capacity through the design, development, and implementation of innovative programs in organizational development, educational reform, and other areas.
- Institute of Law (1993): updating and development of Palestinian legal structures and systems.
- Institute of Women's Studies (1994): working to institutionalize gender studies as an academic field.
- Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies (1994): developing Palestinian political and diplomatic work through teaching, training, research, community awareness programs, and regional and international cooperation.
- Media Development Center (1996): specialized training for Palestinian media professionals.
- Center for Development Studies (1997): contributing to the achievement of sustainable and participatory development through multidisciplinary research, provision of scientific resources, and community-oriented activity.
- Institute of Environmental and Water Studies (2007, replacing the Water Studies Institute, 2001): maintaining the environment and improving optimal practices of water usage.
- Birzeit University Testing Laboratories (2007, replacing the Center for Environment and Occupational Health, 1982): testing and improving the quality of food production and pharmaceutical drugs and contributing to environmental protection.
- Najjad Zeenni Information Technology Center of Excellence (2008): stimulating creativity in the information technology and communications sector.
- Virtual Gallery (2004): providing access to information on contemporary and Palestinian visual arts and culture. The Website hosts exhibits and makes available to visitors an extensive archive of Palestinian contemporary art; it provides art exposure in an environment impoverished in cultural opportunities and where mobility is severely curtailed.
- The Ethnographic and Art Museum: promoting, developing, and raising awareness of Palestinian cultural heritage and visual arts through documentation, exhibitions, cultural activities, and exchange.