A woman of distinction

BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi was honored last week by an appointment from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. In an extensive interview the pediatrician and scientist tells her story.

Rivka Carmi (photo credit: BEN GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV)
Rivka Carmi
She has come a long way from being raised in modest circumstances in Zichron Ya’acov by her widowed mother to being honored by Queen Elizabeth last Tuesday as an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Prof. Rivka Carmi, the president of Ben-Gurion University and former dean of BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, was cited for her work to deepen scientific and academic relations between the UK and Israel.
Born in the same year as the State of Israel, Carmi has a number of “firsts” under her belt – the first woman to serve as dean of a medical faculty (in 2000) and the first (in 2006) to be named president of an Israeli university; Four years later, she became the first woman to serve as chairperson of the Committee of University Heads and remained so until 2013.
Before she took on administrative positions, she focused on the clinical manifestations and molecular basis of genetic diseases in the Negev Arab-Beduin population, as well as certain Jewish ethnic groups. The author of over 150 publications in medical genetics, Carmi did research that included the identification of 12 new genes and the delineation of new genetic syndromes.
One of these is named for her – the Carmi Syndrome. That still-fatal condition is confined mostly to one Beduin tribe. Called Cutis aplasia, epidermolysis bullosa and pyloric atresia, it causes babies conceived in the marriage of close relatives (consanguinity or inbreeding) and usually kills babies within days. “I tried so much to find a treatment, but nothing worked,” she recalls about her 20 years of research into the disorder. “They are born with widespread blistering and areas of missing skin.” The blisters continue to appear in response to minor injury or friction, such as rubbing or scratching, but they usually occur over the whole body and affect mucous membranes such as the lining of the mouth and digestive tract. They are also afflicted with an obstruction of the stomach outlet that prevents food from emptying out of the stomach into the intestine and a variety of other complications.
The second syndrome Carmi identified is thoraco-abdominal syndrome (TAS), in a Jewish family of Libyan origin. “One can’t have two syndromes named after one person, so it is known as TAS,” said Carmi in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. In two decades, the actual gene in the X chromosome has not been discovered.
This syndrome was originally fatal in boys. “As it is a sex-linked, we knew which chromosome and in which space the gene lies, but we couldn’t find the gene itself.
Various treatments and surgery can repair the problem even with surgery in their mother’s womb.”
She was also very involved in the establishment of major biotechnology initiatives at BGU, especially serving as acting director of the new National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev.
AS A 14-year-old girl, Carmi was very much influenced by the death of her father Menahem, an accountant, amateur archeologist and painter, after the loss of a lot of blood – unnoticed in the hospital – from an ulcer operation. Perhaps that shocking event, which forced her to grow up fast, led to her desire to be a doctor. Her mother Zipora, a social worker, devotedly supported her two daughters and was Rivka’s anchor.
For her service in the Israel Defense Forces service, Carmi had responsible jobs training newly inducted women soldiers and women officer candidates. She then went to Jerusalem’s Hebrew University to study biology but felt she didn’t have the heart to dissect a squid or even pull flowers apart to define them. So she decided to study genetics via the study of medicine at HU’s Medical Faculty. That, of course, required participation in autopsies, but she mostly watched. “As dean of BGU’s Health Sciences Faculty, I stopped animal experimentation for teaching – but not for research. There are advanced simulations, but our medical school still has students do autopsies,” she said.
A graduate of the Hebrew University Medical Faculty at Jerusalem’s Hadassah- Ein Kerem, Carmi went on to complete a residency in pediatrics, a fellowship in neonatology at the Soroka University Medical Center and an additional twoyear fellowship in medical genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School.
MOVING PERMANENTLY back to the Negev, she served as director of the genetics institute at Soroka and held several important academic administrative positions in BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
She was promoted to full professor at the age of 47 and held the Kreitman Foundation Chair in Pediatric Genetics.
From there, Her administrative career was launched by becoming dean of the health sciences faculty and remaining there for five years.
Prof. Avishay Braverman, a senior economist and division chief for the World Bank, took over as BGU president in 1990 and remained there until late 2005, when he joined the Labor Party and served as an MK (pursuing an unmemorable political career.) At BGU, his tenure was exemplified by massive building of the Beersheba campus, financial solvency and an impressive tripling of the student body to 15,000. When she was elected university president, Carmi – the first woman to head an Israeli university – was constantly asked how she would “fill Braverman’s shoes.” While a beautiful and impressive campus is important, Carmi was primarily concerned with the teaching and research that would fill it and how well it performed. The new president reiterated that she had “different shoes” that would not fit her predecessor. She was glad the campus had flourished, but “buildings do not interest me.” The number of BGU students at all levels has grown to 20,000, she said, “but teaching quality is most important rather than numbers.”
AS THE post of university president consists of a lot of fundraising. Carmi “learned to honor the art of asking for money for a good cause. I enjoy contact with donors and meeting people who are an inspiration.
It is never pleasant to ask people – mostly foreigners – for money, but I enjoy presenting big projects for development.
“I don’t like labor disputes or extremists. I’m not happy when I’m called names by people on both the right and the left.
Today, politics is an inevitable part of campus life.” Although a tiny minority of faculty members make extreme statements, they can cause much internal disruption and tension – and greatly upset potential donors.
One of the more memorable incidents was in 2009, when BGU politics and government department senior lecturer Dr.
Neve Gordon called Israel an “apartheid state” and urged foreign governments and organizations to put pressure on the government of Israel – even advocating a boycott – to changes its policies on Palestinians.
As a result, Carmi was a personal target of right and left wingers and called all kinds of names for not dismissing him.
“At first, I admit, it really bothered me. But then I understood it was not really about me. If Neve Gordon says something, he is speaking for himself and not on behalf of the university. He doesn’t represent BGU. I despite what he said – and he can leave [the country] if he doesn’t like it, but I wouldn’t want to live in a state where a university president can fire a faculty member over freedom of speech.”
If an Israeli calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) is against the law, Carmi said, “it would be illegal, but I hope such legislation would not pass.”
People “ask me if I have been verbally attacked more because I am a woman. At first, I was shocked by the question, and today, less. The times have changed, but academia has always included the avant garde. There is today more extremism in arguments between the right and left.”
University campuses and teaching practices have changed in front of her eyes.
With the digital media so predominant, more courses and learning materials are online. “Nothing is the same it was, for good or for bad. I’m not worried about university campuses disappearing,” Carmi declared.
“There still has to be interaction between the teacher and student and to meet and discuss things in the cafeteria and on the lawn. We can’t fight technology, but we have to offer different ways of learning. It won’t happen tomorrow, but in 25 years, it will be much different. We will still need buildings and classrooms. Students and faculty come to campus for social interaction – sitting, talking and eating together – and feedback from faculty. There is Video- on-Demand on TV, but people still go to cinemas,” she pointed out.
“I wouldn’t build a new university library that had just books and not many computers. Students come to the library for the quiet and to learn. I get complaints when we close the libraries before Shabbat and holidays. But one can’t fight technology, and at BGU, we already offer many online courses.” At the faculty of medicine, “we have not get gotten used to an entirely different way of teaching using mostly simulation. But we are building a new simulation facility in the faculty.”
As for the shrinking of liberal arts and others that upon graduation don’t guarantee a well-paying position (or even a job), Carmi said: “We still teach Jewish thought, philosophy, history and languages.
A university should teach almost every field. But we try to offer combinations of subjects – like philosophy and mathematics and management and education or history – so students feel they are getting a well-rounded education and can also have a profession in hand. We won’t close departments, but we have to organize better. We are a small country; the question is if all universities will teach everything or if there will be cooperation agreements among universities.”
CARMI HAS said she would continue in her presidential post until she reaches the age of 70, in three years, She doubts that her successor will be a woman. “In the US, there are women presidents of several Ivy League universities – Harvard, Cornell, Penn State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown. There seems to be more openness in the US. I suppose our system is not really ready for two women presidents in a row.
I haven’t been told so in those words, but there will probably be many more candidates who are men.”
What will she do after retiring? She has no plans for this yet. “I will not write an autobiography,” she insisted. But she does look forward to spending time with her daughter’s family from New York that includes two grandsons.
She has ruled out the practice of medicine and even genetic research in the lab that she loves so much. “I miss being a doctor and a researcher, but I knew it would be cut short by an administrative career in academia.”
There are women like Prof. Marta Weinstock- Rosin of the Hebrew University who is almost 80, last year won the Israel Prize and is still conducting Alzheimer’s research, said Carmi, “but she never left it. I read some research and try to follow it, but without keeping up with treating patients and doing research, it’s very hard to come back. There are new discoveries all the time, and young people are so good. Being a university president is so demanding, and it requires total commitment.”
In the meantime, Carmi can be proud of the CBE appointment from the queen, which took place at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv rather than at Buckingham Palace because she is not a UK citizen. “I am thrilled to accept this honor, which recognizes the increasing links between the UK and Israel, especially in science. The UK Israel Science council, set up at the behest of Ambassador Matthew Gould, has been a flagship initiative, demonstrating the great potential for collaboration between our two countries. We are committed to improving the health of all nations and sharing our scientific discoveries.”
Gould responded: “I am delighted that Her Majesty has chosen to honor Rivka with this award. Rivka is an inspiration, to me and many others. Her leadership and commitment to strengthen science collaboration between our countries has made a huge difference. Israel is lucky to have her as a leader; Britain is lucky to have her as a friend.”