First woman to head Israeli university

Professor Rivka Carmi, the first woman to head an Israeli university, will officially assume her role Wednesday as President of Ben-Gurion University. A pediatrician and geneticist, Carmi already made history when she was elected the first female dean of a Faculty of Health Sciences in Israel. Yet neither the power or prestige associated with her new position, she told The Jerusalem Post, could have tempted her away from the world of medical research. "I made the decision because I realized it wasn't about me, but about the larger cause, which is Israel and the future of the Negev," Carmi said. "Our ability, as an academic institution, to serve as an engine for the economic, educational, medical and social change and development of an entire region is unique on both a national and an international level." Carmi is replacing former President Avishay Braverman, who has taken a leave of absence to join the Labor Party and run in the March elections. Her own vision for the future, she said, was focused on academic development, especially in areas in which the university has become known for its unique research, such as desert agriculture, technology and biotechnology. A graduate of the Medical School of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Carmi completed her residency in Genetics at Harvard University, and is an expert in pediatrics, neonatology and medical genetics. She specializes in genetic diseases, and her research focused mainly on the Negev's Bedouin population. It has included the identification of 12 new genes and the delineation of three new syndromes, one of which is known as the "Carmi Syndrome." In addition to directing community projects aimed at preventing hereditary diseases in the Bedouin community, she has also served as the Director of the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev. Asked whether she thought the large budget cuts that have afflicted Israeli academia in recent years posed a danger to Israel's ability to continue producing internationally renowned scientists, Carmi said, "There is no doubt we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on." The nature of scientific research today, she said, required unprecedented financial investments in infrastructure and equipment. One way to overcome this problem, she said, was scientific collaboration with scientists abroad. She also stressed the importance of collaboration between Israeli universities, which could allow for sharing funds. Nevertheless, she said, she believed that Israel was still destined to receive Nobel Prizes for scientific achievement both in the near and far future. Concerning current debates about how to reform the country's academic tuition system, Carmi said she believed in differential tuition, as well as in the building of a good governmental loan system. "The tuition system has to be a lot more realistic than it is today," she said. Having risen through the ranks of academia while raising her daughter, Shira, who is now pursuing an MBA at Columbia University, Carmi is outspoken about her unequivocal support for women in academia. "I don't think the academic world is chauvinistic, but it is controlled by men," she said. "Women in academia are faced with many problems that impede their advancement, and as a woman, I have a deeper understanding of these issues. Yet, in addition to the serious problems faced by women in academia, there are a lot of problems that border on the trivial and that are related, for instance, to helping young women who are simultaneously building a family and a career, such as childcare arrangements and the pacing of tenure requirements. There is certainly a lot more to do - you just have to be determined that things will happen."