TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago, Prof. Uriel Reichman, president and founder of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, set out on an adventure.
He sought to fulfill his dream of establishing a new type of academic institution: a non-profit, private university that calls for freedom and responsibility – the freedom for self-fulfillment, alongside the responsibility for other beings in society.
“I am not sure I would embark on this journey if I knew the difficulties and challenges I was to encounter,” said Reichman, who in November received an award from the Council for Higher Education for his “broad and meaningful” contribution to the advancement of higher education in Israel.
The award was given to Reichman for “being a pioneer who founded an academic institution that is not subsidized by the government.”
It said “his actions enabled the academic system to develop, thanks to there being alongside subsidized colleges an additional model of non-subsidized institutions. He therefore paved the way in Israel for the development of higher education that is not dependent on public funding.”
But Reichman and IDC faced great opposition from the very first moment it launched on the campus of a former army base with some 300 students.
“I would have assumed that existing academic institutions would be happy that I was establishing a high-level academic institution without asking for government money and therefore potentially further dividing their funding,” Reichman said. “But my predictions were all wrong.”
Reichman, who left his job as Dean of Tel Aviv University law school to found IDC, fought regular battles to achieve his goals. There were challenges over the use of land, permission to fundraise, and even to receive authorization from the Council of Higher Education to grant bachelor’s and then master’s degrees to his students. It was only last month that he won a nearly nine-year-long battle to receive authorization to award PhD degrees, making it the first private college in Israel to obtain such authorization, which will eliminate the distinction between it and the universities. According to Reichman, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett supported the decision, and he made strenuous efforts on IDC’s behalf, despite opposition from the universities. Reichman said Bennett understood that the only reason to hold back IDC was that university chancellors were afraid of competition. The PhD program in law at IDC is headed by Prof. Aharon Barak, former president of the Supreme Court and among Israel’s most distinguished jurists.
Declaration for Jewish Peoplehood IDC is a university on speed. Reichman said he sought to create an Israeli university in which personal achievements go hand in hand with social responsibility. “Our outlook is rooted in the concepts of freedom and responsibility and emphasizes initiative and leadership alongside community service,” Reichman explained. “I try to teach students to take responsibility for themselves, to be entrepreneurial and follow their desires and dreams, to be empowered to trust themselves – not to wait for the government to solve their problems, not to be stopped by fear.” The school has always been committed to what Reichman calls the values of the Declaration of Independence.
“For me, the Declaration of Independence was the second most important moment in the history of the Jewish people,” Reichman said. “The first was leaving Egypt and receiving the 10 Commandments. The declaration, which came only two and a half years after the liberation of Auschwitz, was the greatest, most glorious fight for the continuation of the Jewish people.”
He defines Zionism as establishing Israel as the home of every Jew, and he said that “the bond between all Jews is something absolutely necessary for our continued existence.” As such, within the first few years of IDC’s opening, he launched what is today known as the Raphael Recanati International School for Jewish students from abroad interested in studying for their full BA and MA degrees in English.
“The desire was to have our school be a meeting place for Diaspora Jewish students and Israelis,” Reichman said. “Everyone said such a program was doomed – especially when we launched it during the start of the second intifada.”
While admittedly that first year there were few students, today RRIS accounts for almost a third of the overall 7,000-plus student body, which makes IDC the most international academic institution. The students come from 90 countries, and around 70 percent stay in Israel after completing their degrees.
Reichman sits on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, and he was instrumental in the passing of a Jewish Agency resolution in October reaffirming its commitment to “the fundamental principles of the State of Israel as emerging from the Declaration of Independence.” Reichman said the resolution signaled the agency’s deep disconnect with Israel’s new nation-state law, though it does not mention the nation-state law by name.
In addition, IDC gives preference to soldiers who serve in elite army units or served for at least five years. They are accepted with no psychometric scores and with high school grades that were lower than the rest of the student body, but with a specific military record. “Israel needs the most excellent among its citizens to devote some of their most productive years to military service,” said Reichman. “So, we tell these soldiers their service is desirable for an academic institution.”
He said it is also about developing a national leadership, one that knows about seeing a mission through to the end, even at the limits of physical and emotional endurance, leadership under fire, delaying gratification to contribute to society and honesty, because – “in these units, if you lie, you’re out.” “If these people also have intellect, which we discover in their studies, I want them as national leaders,” Reichman said. Decision to be interdisciplinary At the CHE award ceremony, Reichman was also praised for his “impressive academic vision that over 25 years ago enabled interdisciplinary studies, which were not common in Israeli academia and affected the academic discourse, research and teaching throughout the entire higher education system in Israel.” IDC has indeed lived up to its name, providing interdisciplinary training, nurturing scientific and professional excellence and bestowing on its students a broad cultural background and the vision of an international horizon.
“The world is changing enormously,” Reichman acknowledged. “We are living in a revolution, and there is no way academia will continue with its old ways. It must become interdisciplinary, combining social sciences with other fields, such as data science, artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning. “You don’t have to be an engineer,” he continued, “but you have to understand.”
He said IDC is trying to provide students with the tools to face what he sees as the four major changes in the world: biomedicine, sustainability, technology and globalization. “We want to take the next steps in redesigning higher education around these four core elements,” he said, noting that IDC is creating new master’s programs that combine the social sciences, engineering, biology, data, computer science and innovation.
“At a private university, one thing is clear: the salaries of the professors are paid for by the students,” Reichman concluded. “Our university is fully committed to topnotch research, but we see our mission as educating the future leadership of the nation of Israel.”
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