Improving the world – one mind at a time

University of Haifa president Professor Ron Robin analyzes strengths and flaws of Israeli education, and maps out new directions.

University of Haifa president Professor Ron Robin (photo credit: Courtesy)
University of Haifa president Professor Ron Robin
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The University of Haifa’s new president, Prof. Ron Robin, has seen the world, to put it mildly. He was born in Tel Aviv and raised in South Africa; he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, then the University of California, Berkeley. Robin returned to Israel in 1986 to work at the University of Haifa, and in 2005 left the country again, “never thinking I would come back.” His next post was at New York University, where he became the senior vice provost in charge of global campuses – returning once again to his globe-trotting ways, this time to open NYU’s campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
Now there’s one more stop on the tour, for the foreseeable future at least.
“One day Ami Ayalon [then the chairman of the University of Haifa’s executive committee] came to me and said, the current president of the university didn’t want to continue in his role, and asked me if I would consider coming back. It was a very easy decision.”
An imperialist in the making
About a year has passed since that conversation with Ayalon took place.
Robin started his role at Haifa a few months ago and is now working hard at implementing the many new ideas and visions he has for the 45-year-old institution. First and foremost is his plan of expansion, within Israel and beyond.
“UH is on its way to becoming a multiversity, meaning a university over multiple locations; a network with multiple portals,” he explains. “Our campus is in a nature reserve. It’s a proverbial ivory tower and it’s hard to get to.”
The solution, then, are said portals.
“I’m an imperialist,” he jokes. “That’s what I learned to be in NYU, and that’s what we’re going to do.” Some portals will be spread around Haifa; some throughout the north of the country; and some even in China, where the university already has a foot in the door, including one collaboration with the East China Normal University in Shanghai, another coming up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and much work being done with the Hangzhou Wahaha Group and CEO Zong Qinghou, the university’s “patron saint in China.”
Robin’s expansion plans are not only geographical.
“We’re moving into fields of engineering, artificial intelligence and biotech,” as well as expanding the already existing work being done in fields like life sciences, marine sciences and more. The university’s neighboring rival in these fields, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, turns out to be no rival at all.
“You can’t compete with the Technion,” admits Robin. “What you can do is develop your own niches.
It’s difficult to talk about competition; it’s much better to talk about collaboration.” Every step along this road involves working side-by-side with the Technion and getting its blessing.
There’s also the blessing of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, and of course, of the Education Ministry.
“For the first time in recent memory – at least in recent decades – the budget for higher education has grown exponentially. The budget is usually cut back from year to year, or remains stagnant.” Yet under the current council and ministry, says Robin, things are finally changing for the better.
It seems that as far as the University of Haifa and its new president are concerned, things are looking up. Now all that’s left is the “minor” issue of fixing the entire broken system around it, from inadequate education to political shallowness.
The trouble with colleges
One of the system’s current problems is its lack of uniformity when it comes to the quality of the schools – and in particular, of Israeli colleges.
“Colleges are a very important aspect of higher education,” clarifies Robin.
“They are part of the democratization of education, which is significant to Israel’s development. What happened, mostly due to political pressure, is that colleges mushroomed in a way that there are now too many of them, and not all provide the type of education that the original architects of this project thought they would.”
According to Robin there is currently a small group of strong colleges that do follow the mission, but these are surrounded by numerous weak colleges that were not only built for all the wrong reasons – such as political pressure from mayors who wanted to improve their city’s status and help their residents – but often step out of their natural limits. “Colleges are meant to provide an undergraduate education. Somehow, because of politics, many provide MA programs, and some are even pushing for PhD. That is wrong. You can only provide a research degree at a university, which is a research enterprise to begin with.”
The solution is to get colleges to combine – some with each other and some with universities.
“We’re trying to make sure the idea of the Start-Up Nation endures, and is not undermined by weak education.” To that end, his own university is merging with several colleges in the North, including the Wizo Haifa Academy of Design and Education and the ORT Braude College of Engineering.
“We’re merging so that we can provide the best of all worlds: strong education in technology and liberal arts, and the opportunity for research. That’s something I learned at NYU: you can do both. There’s a rich price tag… but it’s worth it for the government to invest.”
It’s worth it, says Robin, and there is investment, but money is not the only problem at hand.
“There’s always an issue to navigate in making sure politics is sidelined, and that academic freedom is upheld.
We cannot do what we’re trying to do without academic freedom… There’s always political pressure on academia to toe a certain line, and that has to be resisted.” Resistance, insists Robin, is done via persuasion and conversation; not “by setting up barricades and marching down the street.”
Moreover, when politics aren’t intruding from above, they’re knocking from the outside world. “BDS is a major challenge right now,” he says, referring to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israeli academia in the context of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. BDS simplifies a very complex political issue, explains Robin, and notes that while he personally thinks that boycotts in general are “not a great tool, they are something for people to decide by themselves.” Academic boycotts, though, are a whole different story. “Academics are the agents of change, so who are you boycotting? That makes no sense whatsoever.”
Sense or no sense, it is happening.
“Among students it is a major phenomenon, and it has to be countervailed by a strong presence of peers in American and English universities. Among professors I think it’s weakening quite dramatically right now, but it used to be very strong.”
Restocking the toolbox
The tendency to simplify and even misunderstand complex issues is not the sole property of BDS activists; it’s a phenomenon seen and heard everywhere, including in Israel.
Education might be part of the problem – but also the solution.
“Any student with a degree from a university or a college needs to leave that school with two tools in their toolbox. One is quantitative reasoning, and the other is critical thinking, where you learn how to analyze a text, how to pull it to pieces, restructure it, probe its weaknesses and understand its strengths. You can only do that through having a robust background in the humanities.”
We live in a society that badly requires critical thinking, in a culture that changes at such a fast pace that we can’t even foresee what the job market might look like by the time each student finishes their degree, explains Robin.
“What can you do under these circumstances? You provide tools. The profession you provided them might become obsolete in 10 years. So we provide the foundations – art, history, literature. We’re making sure students in the humanities have quantitative reasoning skills and that students in computer sciences, for instance, study critical thinking skills.” Both are necessary for survival, in other words.
This is perhaps another influence from NYU and American higher education in general, where students undergo fouryear degrees, the first two of which are dedicated to the foundations before the student chooses which subject to specialize in. The three-year course, wherein a student is required to choose their faculty before even starting their courses, is a terrible idea, says Robin.
Perhaps it’s easier on the Jewish-Israeli students, who come in a little older, certainly more mature and prepared.
Or at least they used to be. That is to say, the cracks in Israeli education begin much earlier than university-age.
“Once upon a time high schools were much better and students were more prepared, so it didn’t make that much of a difference whether it was a threeor four-year course, but that’s no longer the case. High school is not nearly as strong or broad as it used to be, and students come in unprepared.”
According to Robin, things might be looking up, what with the Education Ministry’s new emphasis on fivepoint- math, but the key is not only what is being encouraged but also where.
“If you look at Israel from Haifa northwards, 50% of the population is Jewish. Remove the metropolitan area and it becomes 25%. If Arabs don’t become part of the middle class, what’s going to happen to this country? Everybody, irrespective of political views, understands this is a problem.
If we don’t have Arab civil engineers, software engineers… we’re in deep trouble. So we [at the University of Haifa] are changing Israeli society by broadening the middle class.”
This move is done by finding ways to encourage and assist students of various backgrounds: haredim, low-income families and in particular Arabs. All are shocked by this traumatic transition – language barriers, different skill sets, and other social aspects.
“They come in very young and we try to persuade them to take preparation courses. In computer science, for example, we found that among Arab students we had a 60% dropout rate. Now we have tutoring, we give them prep courses, we hold their hands during their first year, and the dropout rate is now single-digit, maybe 10%.”
The most important agents of change in Arab society are the women, Robin points out.
“They go through the most difficult changes. Their becoming part of the workforce is going to change Israeli- Arab society dramatically. Even if some women choose to return home and not join the workforce, they are still going to bring up their children differently and change the next generation. These women are the agents of change and we’re proud of the fact that 60% of our Arab students are women.
“Of course, it’s not that simple. They go back to villages where some of the men don’t have the right type of education, and women now refuse to marry them. They say, ‘I don’t want an arranged marriage, I want someone I can talk to and have a meaningful conversation…’ It’s disruption, but it’s creative disruption.”
The common denominator
Creative disruption in this region so badly needed; why not usher it in using academia? That’s another lesson learned from NYU, and in particular, the Abu Dhabi project.
“As an Israeli in Abu Dhabi, I mostly aroused curiosity, but never animosity,” says Robin. “Of course, politics came up and we would discuss different political views, but it never affected work. In a typical American campus you have people coming in from different cultures around the world – some religious, some secular; some Left, some Right – and you learn to live with that.”
Better yet, you learn how to collaborate.
“I experienced a surprising amount of respect, even from those who have political animosity to Israel. Nobody thinks that Israel is going to disappear. They all see us as a challenge for them,” in hi-tech, in education and so on.
“Many conversations end with, ‘Oh, if it were between you and me we would figure it out in seconds.’” In many cases it’s true, Robin posits. If states were handled by people with common denominators, unconstrained by abstract politics, things would be easier.
“I think leaving politics to politicians is not helpful for solving big issues. Universities get along with each other irrespective of where they are and can find more venues of reconciliation. So do business people. People in Abu Dhabi are first and foremost business people, and they think like business people. If it suits their purposes to have an Israeli in charge of a major enterprise that’s fine, they’ll do that.”
Indeed, if anything is to be solved, common denominators are key, concludes Robin. Perhaps we all need to sharpen our critical thinking abilities a little in order to better understand and interact with each other; we need to improve education to improve ourselves and our society, and vice versa, but most of all we need some shared values.
“We already know what our differences are and they are very profound, but we also have common denominators that we tend to ignore. Politics is often noise, and the noise obscures signals... but the signals can sometimes be very strong if you know where to find them.”