US academic leaders visit to learn 'complexity of region'

The 17-member delegation won't just focus on the peace process "but also on higher education, budgets, technology and the economy."

Project Interchange 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Project Interchange 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
University presidents and leadership from campuses across the United States are visiting Israel this week, on a trip sponsored by Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee.
The 17-member delegation is headed by President Barbara R. Snyder of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and David Warren, who heads the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
The goal of the trip is to expose university officials to Israel’s political and societal climate, Sam Witkin, Project Interchange’s executive director, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Our goal here is to show the complexity of the region, going beyond the headlines.
“Project Interchange tries to show a nonideological view of Israel to dive into complex issues without prejudice,” he said.
The group, which arrived on Sunday, will meet with leaders from universities, NGOs and government across Israel. On Thursday, they met with leaders from Al-Quds University and the Hebrew University; they also spoke with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Ramallah.
They will meet with President Shimon Peres later this week.
“Our focus is not just on the peace process, but also on higher education, budgets, technology and the economy,” Witkin explained. “This is not a one-dimensional overview.”
Though only a few days into the trip, Witkin said the delegation has already taken notice of “how intense and complex life is here.
“They have been commenting on how much knowledge they have gotten after just a few days. That knowledge gain is our main goal.”
Witkin hopes the US university leaders will take this knowledge back to their home campuses. “When confronted with issues on campus, this knowledge gives them a broader intellectual base so they can have a proper intellectual response,” he said.
President George E. Martin of St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, is already planning to put this knowledge into action at his school. “The strategic plan is to greatly expand the global learning opportunities for our students through cooperative arrangements by 2015. We’re basically re-doing our curriculum so that it addresses global issues, none more important than the issue of Palestine and Israel in the Middle East.”
He plans to meet with fellow faculty members to develop a program that focuses on this issue during the 2012/13 academic year through St.
Edwards’s Kozmetsky Center of Excellence in Global Finance. “The center develops an annual program that incorporates 1,000 students on campus and involves the rest of the Austin community.”
Martin hopes to invite speakers from around the world to address the Excellence in Global Finance program.
“I was lucky enough to meet with a St. Edwards alum today,” said Dr. Martin, referring to Fayyad, who received his MBA from the university in 1980. “I hope to get him back to campus to speak with the St. Edwards community.”
As president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Warren works with more than 1,000 schools across the United States. He said he hopes his visit will lead to more academic exchange programs between Israeli universities and their American counterparts.
Warren said it was important to foster dialogue about the peace process.
He plans to focus his discussions back home on two key issues. First, how the Arab Spring is and is not affecting Israel and Palestine.
Second, he plans to discuss the “upcoming actions in September at the UN” and the implications for the PA and Israelis.
“The common theme I have seen throughout this visit is not only an enormous conviction about need for peace, but also a sense of frustration for how difficult it is and how it appears to be slipping away,” Warren said.
Dr. Barbara Snyder, president of Case Western Reserve University and co-chairwoman of the delegation, said cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli colleges is crucial to a more peaceful Middle East.
“One of the things we’ve seen in the past is a tremendous amount of collaboration among Palestinian, Israeli, American and European universities,” she said. “I hope we can foster that atmosphere of continuing to work together and contributing to society.”
Facilitating that cooperation is one of higher education’s greatest abilities, Snyder said.
Universities “work across many difficult boundaries, and can host difficult conversations. Facilitating those conversations is an important part of our role and responsibility,” she said.