Friday, March 31, 2017

Improving The World – One Mind At A Time

by Tali Kord March 16th 2017

The University of Haifa’s new president, Prof. Ron Robin, has seen the world, to put it mildly. He was born in Tel Aviv and raised in South Africa; he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then the University of California, Berkeley. Robin returned to Israel in 1986 to work at the University of Haifa, and in 2005 left the country again, “never thinking I would come back.” His next post was at New York University, where he became the senior vice provost in charge of global campuses – returning once again to his globe-trotting ways, this time to open NYU’s campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

Now there’s one more stop on the tour, for the foreseeable future at least, Haifa.

An imperialist in the making?

Robin started his role at Haifa a few months ago and is now working hard at implementing the many new ideas and visions he has for the 45-year-old institution. First and foremost is his plan of expansion, within Israel and beyond.

“UH is on its way to becoming a multiversity, meaning a university over multiple locations; a network with multiple portals,” he explains. “Our campus is in a nature reserve. It’s a proverbial ivory tower and it’s hard to get to.”

The solution, then, are said portals.

Some portals will be spread around Haifa; some throughout the north of the country; and some even in China, including one collaboration with the East China Normal University in Shanghai, another coming up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and much work being done with the Hangzhou Wahaha Group and CEO Zong Qinghou, the university’s “patron saint in China.”

Robin’s expansion plans are not only geographical.

“We’re moving into fields of engineering, artificial intelligence and biotech,” as well as expanding the already existing work being done in fields like life sciences, marine sciences and more. The university’s neighboring rival in these fields, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, turns out to be no rival at all. “You can’t compete with the Technion,” admits Robin. “What you can do is develop your own niches.

It seems that as far as the University of Haifa and its new president are concerned, things are looking up. Now all that’s left is the “minor” issue of fixing the entire broken system around it, from inadequate education to political shallowness.

The trouble with colleges

One of the system’s current problems is its lack of uniformity when it comes to the quality of the schools – and in particular, of Israeli colleges. “Colleges are a very important aspect of higher education,” clarifies Robin.

"What has happened, mostly due to political pressure, is that colleges mushroomed in a way that there are now too many of them, and not all provide the type of education that the original architects of this project thought they would.”

“There’s always an issue to navigate in making sure politics is sidelined, and that academic freedom is upheld.

We cannot do what we’re trying to do without academic freedom… There’s always political pressure on academia to toe a certain line, and that has to be resisted.” Resistance, insists Robin, is done via persuasion and conversation; not “by setting up barricades and marching down the street.”

Restocking the toolbox 

The tendency to simplify and even misunderstand complex issues is not the sole property of BDS activists; it’s a phenomenon seen and heard everywhere, including in Israel.

Education might be part of the problem – but also the solution.

“Any student with a degree from a university or a college needs to leave that school with two tools in their toolbox. One is quantitative reasoning, and the other is critical thinking, where you learn how to analyze a text, how to pull it to pieces, restructure it, probe its weaknesses and understand its strengths. You can only do that through having a robust background in the humanities.”

This is perhaps another influence from NYU and American higher education in general, where students undergo four year degrees, the first two of which are dedicated to the foundations before the student chooses which subject to specialize in. The three-year course, wherein a student is required to choose their faculty before even starting their courses, is a terrible idea, says Robin.

Perhaps it’s easier on the Jewish-Israeli students, who come in a little older, certainly more mature and prepared.

“Once upon a time high schools were much better and students were more prepared, so it didn’t make that much of a difference whether it was a three or four-year course, but that’s no longer the case. High school is not nearly as strong or broad as it used to be, and students come in unprepared.”

The Arab Community

“If you look at Israel from Haifa northwards, 50% of the population is Jewish. Remove the metropolitan area and it becomes 25%. If Arabs don’t become part of the middle class, what’s going to happen to this country? Everybody, irrespective of political views, understands this is a problem.

If we don’t have Arab civil engineers, software engineers… we’re in deep trouble. So we [at the University of Haifa] are changing Israeli society by broadening the middle class.”

This move is done by finding ways to encourage and assist students of various backgrounds: haredim, low-income families and in particular Arabs. All are shocked by this traumatic transition – language barriers, different skill sets, and other social aspects.

“They come in very young and we try to persuade them to take preparation courses. In computer science, for example, we found that among Arab students we had a 60% dropout rate. Now we have tutoring, we give them prep courses, we hold their hands during their first year, and the dropout rate is now single-digit, maybe 10%.”

The most important agents of change in Arab society are the women, Robin points out. “They go through the most difficult changes. Their becoming part of the workforce is going to change Israeli- Arab society dramatically. Even if some women choose to return home and not join the workforce, they are still going to bring up their children differently and change the next generation. These women are the agents of change and we’re proud of the fact that 60% of our Arab students are women.

“Of course, it’s not that simple. They go back to villages where some of the men don’t have the right type of education, and women now refuse to marry them. They say, ‘I don’t want an arranged marriage, I want someone I can talk to and have a meaningful conversation…’ It’s disruption, but it’s creative disruption.”

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