A Harvard-like look at the key to fixing higher education in Israel

Rudenstine: Private philanthropy could fill the gaps.

neil rudenstine 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Harvard University)
neil rudenstine 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Harvard University)
The troubled state of higher education in Israel is not so different than the rest of the world, Professor Neil Rudenstine told the Jerusalem Post this week, and there are strategies adopted in other places that could work well here. Funding for research and higher education is scarce the world over and he believes that only government funding can support the largest share of research in the sciences and health. But private philanthropy could make up for a great many "gaps," especially (but not only) in the humanities and social sciences. Rudenstine knows whereof he speaks. He is a former president of Harvard University and is the academic adviser to The Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation and specifically to The Edmond J. Safra Program for Faculty Excellence, which uses its $30 million budget to help departments at Israeli universities become among the best in their fields, on an international scale. "Except for a relatively small number of universities, largely in the US, an enormous number of universities worldwide are struggling for resources. They are scrambling to pay competitive salaries, to purchase equipment, and lab renovations. Many state-funded universities, of very high caliber, are finding it increasingly difficult to undertake resources for high quality scientific and basic research. Institutions have restricted their budget allocations for the universities," Rudenstine told the Post by phone from New York. Rudenstine offered a unique reason for this governmental lack of investment. "There are many acute problems in the world, and we are now more aware of them than in earlier years. When you place funding for universities up against these pressing problems, nations will often respond only to immediate concerns rather than long term investments, such as higher education research," he said. The struggle is not unique to Israel or to many institutions in the US, according to the acclaimed professor. "In England, many universities are struggling for funding. The government has a great number of other priorities. Sports, culture and education are now lumped all together in a single government agency with a single budget. In the meantime, programming for England's Olympic is swallowing a very larger part of the budget. Twenty years ago no one would have dreamed of combining them together and forcing these three totally different categories to fight for the same lacked funds. "The situation on the Continent is not good either. Universities have loosened their admissions criteria and admitted many more students, usually free of charge, but without expanding the 'campuses' or expending more resources on equipment, laboratories, faculty facilities and crucial elements. However, European countries are now beginning to invest in academia again, but there is a very long way to go" he explained. If governments are less involved in funding higher education at appropriate levels, then where should the money come from? Rudenstine's answer: private philanthropy. "There are really only three possible sources of funding: One, have the government give a great deal more money - but that is probably unlikely to happen. Two, increase tuition, which can be done to some extent, but only enough to cover a function of the real costs. And third, private philanthropy, which is probably the most promising and successful way. "Certainly in England, the need for philanthropy is beginning to become a part of the national consciousness, but only beginning in serious terms. It is not at all the same on the Continent, where very few universities can count on private foundations, or private funding. Even in England, the basic mentality is still: 'I pay my taxes so the government should take care of education," he said. "In the US, that mentality has been different from the beginning. The first Harvard president, in the 1930's took a boat to England to raise funds. It's become an inborn habit. Grateful alumni support most colleges and universities in the United States," Rudenstine declared. Rudenstine believes private philanthropy can work here too. "I don't know how much can come from within Israel, because I am not so familiar with the scene, but Israel has links all over the world. Many Americans have ties to Israel. There is no reason they shouldn't be asked to help. "More people should be asked to create charitable foundations to help Israeli education," he said. Rudenstine has been putting his money where his mouth is as the academic advisor to the Safra Foundation. They launched an exploratory program two and a half years ago to see whether private funding could help raise the caliber of Israeli universities. "We asked each of the six Israeli universities to identify one of their important fields that could be much stronger on an international basis if they had extra resources for faculty, doctoral students and other needs. "The idea grew out of the fact that some young very talented people were going off to Europe or the US as post-docs, which is natural and understandable. After a few years, though, they find that their labs were set up, their salaries were good and they were reluctant to leave that. Senior faculty also went off to overseas positions," Rudenstine said. "Israeli universities already have the potential in many areas to be major international competitors, but in many respects they lack resources to reach the higher levels that they can achieve," he added. Dr. Rene van Hout, with the Engineering Faculty at the Technion, is one of the recipients of the foundation's largesse. "I study fluid mechanics and multiphase flows. In layman's terms, I do lots of basic research on particles in turbulent flows. Specifically, I look at dispersal of airborne particles, such as dust, pollen, or pollution. I study the growth of droplets in clouds," van Hout told the Post. Practically, van Hout said his research could help with allergies as well as weather predictions and erosion issues. In order to do that, he needed a lot of money to get started. "I am an experimentalist. I need lots of equipment. The Foundation supplied a major startup budget, which actually makes me competitive with all the other groups worldwide," he said. Dr. Uri Raviv, from the department of Physical Chemistry at the Hebrew University used $500,000 to set up a lab that is on par with the best laboratories in the world. "I built the best X-ray scattering set-up around. My lab is as good as any of the best labs," he said. Raviv returned to Israel a year ago after three and a half year in the US. "The original aim of going to the US was to study a new field and to bring that expertise back home," he said. It is too early to say whether or not the program really will improve Israel's standing worldwide, according to Rudenstine. "We are 30 months into the program - by academic timetables, that is too early to say. It can take two years just to recruit the right people. At the end of four years we will be in a better position to see progress," he said. While Rudenstine stressed private philanthropy, there is one area in which he said the government must be the dominant partner. "At the very least, there must be a commitment by the government to fund basic research at a very high level. The government has to play the major role there. If it ever began to back away from this commitment or allowed funding levels to be static, the whole system would deteriorate and begin to collapse," he stated. While he talked a lot about science and technology, Rudenstine is no less committed to the liberal arts. (His own field is in Renaissance English literature) "Where do the great ideas come from that guide our morals and principles? Where do the ideas come from that help us to consider the ways to organize our societies [if not from the humanities and social sciences]? How will we solve all kinds of ethnic, religious, national and gender conflicts? The answers ill not come from the sciences." he stated. Rudenstine concluded by urging the developed world not to reduce funding for higher education and research - but to increase it. "Education is an incredibly important worldwide issue. Over the last 35 years, the government funding graph points downward in most countries in the developed world. We're going in the wrong direction. Developing countries are pouring billions into education even while many of the people are 'ill-nourished, ill-clothed and ill-fed' because they know that education and research are the long-term ways to create technology, advance medicine, discover ideas and increase capacity and think through moral, ethical and political issues. In developed countries, government funding has been simply inadequate."