Between town and gown

The Hebrew University has Nobel prizes and many achievements, but many are increasingly upset at its isolation from the city.

hebrew univ. 298  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
hebrew univ. 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A sense of calm and achievement reigns up on Mount Scopus this week. Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor opened the academic year with some impressive achievements stacked behind him and a muted but optimistic sense about the university's future. The Student Village will be ready by 2007, one year earlier than predicted, The Rothberg School for International Students has returned to pre-intifada numbers of around 2,500 students, and only weeks ago, the Nobel prize in economics was awarded to Robert Aumann, professor emeritus of mathematics at the Hebrew University. "I'm very happy, extremely happy," says Magidor, who has just embarked on his third term as president. "The university deserves the honor and although we have enjoyed five Nobel prize winners in recent years who were associated with the university, Aumann is the first whose work was completed here on campus and the first to be a member of faculty when the award was presented. If the government allows us to do our work, we'll have more Nobel prizes, more achievements of the caliber of a Nobel prize." Magidor speaks with confidence and a sense of caution. For the past five years, the government has cut spending, so the Hebrew University now operates on 20 percent less than it did back in 2001. "It's an accumulated NIS 220 million loss," comments Magidor. But for the president, cuts are not the only problem. He is also very concerned with what he sees as the government's increasing micro-management of Israeli higher education. "The government has capped the number of students who can enter for first and second degrees to 19,171. We're booming, demand is high, and it always has been, even during the height of the intifada," he says. People comment on the flood of small colleges into the academic market, but if there weren't a cap on how many students we could take, the picture could look different." The president also takes issue with the government's insistence on what he terms its "populist approach" which encourages equal distribution of resources throughout the tiers of academic degrees. "There should be more resources available, and more concentration on centers of excellence. There should be a minimization of political involvement in university spending," he insists. If the university doesn't receive the funding it needs for doctoral and post-doctoral research and "centers of excellence" as Magidor terms them, then they won't succeed at this level. "And that's what divides us from the colleges," says Magidor. "At that level, which microscope you buy, whether it's the best or the second or third best really does matter." Most Jerusalemites would agree that the university, despite the cuts and the ostensible government interference, is thriving academically. Where they take issue however, is not with the internal workings of the "ivory tower," as Magidor himself puts it, but with the fact that the ivory tower doesn't seem to have windows. The university can claim Nobel prizes and booming academic achievements, but faculty, politicians and students are increasingly taking issue with the university's isolation from the city. Towering over the city on Mount Scopus and on the edge of the city at Givat Ram, many are asking what the university, whose annual budget was until recently bigger than the municipality's, can give back to an impoverished, flailing capital. Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit), an organization run by students and backed by opposition city councilman Nir Barkat (Jerusalem Will Succeed) began to ask that question two years ago, concerned by statistics that showed that most students left the city after graduating, rather than finding employment and settling in the capital. "We saw that there was a vacuum, that no one was really working to solve the problem of the isolation between the city and the university," says Sagi Shine, coordinator of internships and employment and member of the board of Ruah Hadasha. The organization commissioned a survey of 500 Hebrew University students to find out what they knew about Jerusalem-based job opportunities, how they spent their leisure time, their perception of and satisfaction with the city and whether they were intending to stay after graduation. The survey found that 47 percent of students thought the chances of them staying in Jerusalem after completing their studies ranged from "not high" to "no chance at all." When asked why, 33% pointed to a lack of work opportunities as the reason. Only 28% said that they felt familiar with the job opportunities available to them. Among those who answered that the chances of their staying in the capital were "reasonably high" to "very high," 81% cited "the special character of Jerusalem" as the greatest reason to stay put. The survey led Ruah Hadasha to invest in employment and in bringing what was special in the city, by way of cultural institutions, closer to the students. Funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jerusalem Foundation and American donations, Ruah Hadasha began to offer volunteer options within the city and internships with places of employment such as the Knesset, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and City Hall. Over 200 internships have already been completed, and another 200 are expected over the course of this year. Forty jobs for HU graduated have already been found directly through the program, and Sagi Shine believes that many more have been found indirectly. But when the organization turned to the university for funding and support it came away empty-handed. "It's not that they said no," says Shine. "They didn't do anything to advance the issue. Even without their money, just having them take down some bureaucratic obstructions would have been great, but they didn't do that." The organization also met with resistance and even a straight 'no' from the municipality - somewhat ironically, since many internships are completed within their walls. "We get the opposite of support from them. They only try to ruin everything because the initiative comes from Nir Barkat... but then they try to copy our initiatives." For Ruah Hadasha and other protectors, the Student Village is just one more example of the university's neglect of Jerusalem, a concrete thorn in their sides. With a $50 million price tag and room for 1,600 beds, the new village should have been built downtown, where students could have contributed to the cultural and economic revival of the city center, critics argue. Instead the dorms - which will add to the current 5,000 rooms already up on the hill - are being built on Mount Scopus, leading to further isolation. With the current rent in student dorms standing at NIS 700 for a shared room and NIS 1,100 for single occupancy (the price includes hot water, gas, electricity and heating) it's easy to see why students would choose dorm life on campus rather than more centrally located, but usually very expensive, rentals elsewhere. "The university is a kind of enclave, and it just doesn't care," says Shine. "They're building the Student Village up there, and now they're building a cinema too. Think about it. If you were a student in dorms up there, why would you come to the city center at all? In the past you would have had to come down to go to the movies, go for an evening out. Now you don't even have to do that." Shlomo Hasson, professor of geography at the university, says the problem of "town and gown" isn't new. "The university continues to turn its back on the city instead of giving of the creativity that it holds. It's a huge mistake... in every city in the world, universities think about how they can enrich a city. It's only here that they don't." "The Student Village was an opportunity," Hasson continues, "and I thought that there would be cooperation [between the university and the city] but the university isolated itself again. It's a failure. The city engineer should never have allowed it, and on a national level, the government should have found land for the university in town… even at a higher cost." Hasson says the problem of isolation goes back at least 30 years. Between 1948 and 1967, Mount Scopus had been an Israeli enclave surrounded by Jordanian territory. The university was effectively closed on Mount Scopus and moved downtown and to Givat Ram. But when the city was reunited in 1967, the government decided to move the university back to Mount Scopus. "Rather than thinking about the relationship between the city and the university they used the Hebrew University as a tool to rule over the capital. The government made the university ex-centric... outside the realm of influence on the city. Jerusalem is moving constantly westwards, and we are stuck, creating a frontier for the government, in the east." Hasson argues that since the university vacated its premises in the in the Terra Sancta College and the Mamilla area, a world immortalized in Amos Oz's My Michael, the university has been moving further and further away from the city. "The university is like Snow White who fell asleep in her ivory tower. Until a prince comes and wakes her up it could be a hundred years. Until then, other people will take over the job and do it for her," warns Hasson. "The university - not everyone, but particularly the older generation - has an outdated concept of what a university is. There's no contradiction here between putting out Nobel Prize winners and investing in the city. I remember times that we held seminars on a bi-weekly basis in Caf Atara in town. I dream of the university coming out [to Jerusalem] in that way again." For its part, the university states that it is ready to invest more in promoting city life. Five years ago, when the Student Village was in the planning stages, the university and the municipality negotiated to find a location in the city center. "I said, go ahead, find us a place to build," says Magidor. "They took a year and couldn't find anything even approaching the scale we needed." Magidor argues that neither the local nor the national government is doing enough to help. "We try to take part in the economic life in city, but the government is not serious about developing Jerusalem. It gives lip service to the notion," he accuses. "We were put up here on Mount Scopus by the city and we have to make a life here. We serve the city best by serving the students, offering them an attractive student life," Magidor argues. Shine says that since Ruah Hadasha began operating, the university has begun to cooperate on some levels, albeit not the highest or the most powerful. The university is offering five courses created together with Ruah Hadasha, and these courses focus on skills that are useful for students who intend to stay in the city and be employed here. The organization itself turned to professors who were excited by the idea and worked together with them to make these courses (for which students are fully accredited) a reality. In the coming weeks, the Student Union together with Ruah Hadasha will be organizing a student job fair. Shine mentions Billy Shapira, head of the student administration, as being particularly instrumental in making this happen. So if the university states that it is "simply trying to survive" and that it is committed to making the connection between the city and the university stronger, are the municipality and the national government to blame for the lack of connection between the city and the university? The municipality certainly doesn't think so. In a response to In Jerusalem, the municipality listed a number of projects that, it believes, show its commitment to the campus. "There are those that are busy with talk, but the mayor acts," said the Municipality spokesman in reference to the "Lupolianski Package." As reported in In Jerusalem last week ("For school or money," November 4), the program offers Jerusalem-based students rental grants of up to NIS 6,600 a year and tuition grants of NIS 10,000 a year. The grants are part of the Aid Package Initiative to strengthen Jerusalem's economy, a joint effort of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) and the Prime Minister's Office, which is footing the NIS 10 million bill. However, there are a number of strings attached to this package: Only students who live right in the center of town are eligible for the rental grant, and only those who work in the hi-tech field in Jerusalem for a minimum of three years after graduation can take the tuition grant. (Otherwise, the grant is converted to an interest-free loan.) For many, this is a case of too little, too late. The municipality's response also mentions a three-story building on downtown Rehov Ben-Yehuda that the subsidiary Eden Company is working to create as student dorms. Should plans for the eight-story building (three floors already exist, five are to be added) be approved in the district Planning and Construction Committee, the building will provide 100 rooms. Another 200 rooms are planned for a Rehov Hillel dorm, which is also pending approval. In the next year, the municipality plans to offer its own attractive student rates for cultural institutions in the city. The response neglects to mention the details and budget of these reductions. "The university helps the city flourish as a city of wisdom and as the capital of education and knowledge in Israel..." the spokesman's response continues. "The municipality of Jerusalem sees great importance in the integration of the Hebrew University in all areas of life in Jerusalem... The municipality of Jerusalem will continue to cooperate with the university in order to advance the joint aims and objectives [of the municipality and the university] for the prosperity of Jerusalem and its residents. "With close cooperation, everyone can bring Jerusalem to new heights of growth," says the response. "It's hard to lay the blame in any one place," argues Hasson. "The failure comes from both sides [university and municipality]. The Hebrew University should apply more pressure and should have turned to higher and higher echelons [to bring about a more effective relationship with the city center], and the government should be prepared to help more seriously. "Everywhere else in the world, university students are a source of creative and economic energy. That's were economic growth comes from, people aged 20-35," says Hasson. "I'm a man of the university... it's been my life, and academically speaking the university is undoubtedly excellent. But its excellence doesn't spread outwards. It's been put in a kind of monastery." "Have a look even at Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Haifa. The integration in all these places is much higher and much more successful," concludes Shine. "If the university would shift direction on this, things could look radically different."