Entering the Beersheba North train station, travelers spot a white, futuristic-looking bridge connecting the two sides of the tracks.
Together with the buildings surrounding it, the bridge, shaped like a DNA helix, embodies the present and the future of the Negev’s capital: Ben-Gurion University and the hi-tech park, both in the process of expanding, have completely transformed the city over the course of the years.
Now, with the army building its new communications headquarters right next to them, the area is set to become the country’s first innovation center, as BGU president Daniel Chamovitz proudly told The Jerusalem Post – before the measures against the coronavirus forced the university to switch to remote learning.
Chamovitz, an American-born plant geneticist, took office in January 2019, after his predecessor, Rivka Carmi, finished her tenure. In the previous 12 years, she had guided the institution – and through it, the whole city – through a deep transformation.
A year into the position, to which he was appointed after a career at Tel Aviv University, Chamovitz does not hesitate to call Ben-Gurion “the most important university for the future of the State of Israel.”
“If the future of Israel is in the Negev, the development of the Negev is dependent on Beersheba becoming a vibrant, multifaceted metropolis – and this ability is dependent on the university,” he explained. “We are fulfilling this role by building the ecosystem that drives development.”
The president pointed out that there are several ways the institution has a direct impact on its surroundings.
“First of all, we are the only university in Israel that is in the poorest neighborhoods of the city that hosts it,” he told the Post. “Our students live in this area and every student who receives a scholarship has to volunteer.”
The university also focuses on supporting academic access for students from underprivileged backgrounds, including the Bedouin population. Different programs allow students to enroll without taking the psychometric test or with grades lower than normally required, while they are offered support to overcome the obstacles that they might encounter in the initial phase of their studies.
ANOTHER IMPORTANT aspect that allows BGU to have an impact on the region and the country lies in the fact that the university produces about a third of the country’s engineers. If until a few years ago the vast majority had to leave the city to find a job, today the hi-tech park not only offers them quality positions, but is fully integrated into university life, with students and faculty going back and forth with benefits for both hi-tech centers.
“In addition, a year ago Beersheba was chosen to house Israel’s first innovation district, with the university at its core,” Chamovitz said. “Last month we inaugurated it. In 10 years, three industrial zones will stand in this area: the hi-tech one, which is already here, a digital health hub, and one devoted to desert tech. We have been dealing with the question of water for years, and now it has become relevant not only to the Negev, but to the whole world.”
Asked if there is a specific focus that he considers personally important to bring to the table as BGU president, the professor explained that it is excellence in research.
“We are rededicating ourselves as a research university. Our influence on Beersheba and the world resonates with our excellence in research,” he said. “The better we are as a university, the larger our effect is going to be.”
Increasing the number of international students is also a priority for Chamovitz.
“As president, one of my first decisions was to create a vice president position for global engagement. We don’t have an overseas dedicated English program: We integrate foreign students into regular classes, some of which are already taught in English,” he said, emphasizing that there are students from over 50 countries attending BGU, especially from China and India.
PART OF BGU’s geographic location also implies being forced to deal with another challenge that has deeply impacted the South in the past years: the recurring launch of rockets from Gaza.
“In the past year we had to cancel classes twice. However, we managed to keep the labs open. We adapt as best as we can,” the president explained.
Regarding the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement that lists Israeli academia as one of its main targets, Chamovitz stated that in his 25-year career, he has never encountered any problems, either as a scientist or as a university president.
However, he pointed out that the impact of BDS is different in certain fields.
“I see that people from all over the world are eager to collaborate with Israel’s science,” he pointed out. “But the BDS is a growing phenomenon on American campuses, it’s a problem for American Judaism and Jews. The best we can do is to keep up our collaborations and to show what we are doing.”
Chamovitz expressed hope that a government could be soon formed so that BGU, like all public institutions whose budget and life have been affected by the political instability, can move past it.
“We have not had a budget in a year. The whole country is petrified,” he said. “For now, we keep our heads in the sand, we run forward – and we will deal with the consequences when they come.”