Accessible higher education begins with a question mark

Hard fought, this academic certification provided these exceptional women with life-altering opportunities.

STUDENTS ATTEND a computer course at a technical college in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
STUDENTS ATTEND a computer course at a technical college in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On July 4, a day that has become almost universally synonymous with independence, I had the great honor of conferring bachelor’s degrees in education upon a sea of eager undergraduates at Ono Academic College. Among them were 100 female Arab students who had taken specialized courses that would allow them to develop inclusive educational programming and assist youth at risk across the country.
Hard fought, this academic certification provided these exceptional women with life-altering opportunities and empowered them to write new chapters in their lives and improve the lives of countless others.
Like many of our students, these Arab women had faced a long road before finding their way into our classrooms, a gauntlet of cultural, social and political challenges. Lucky for us (all of us), they never gave up hope and found the strength to overcome every obstacle. As they graced the stage, triumphantly accepting their diplomas one by one, many with children in tow, I reveled in the knowledge that our society and educational system was now so much richer.
One hundred new, dynamic educators. One hundred erudite and productive members of society. A stunning victory for diversity in the classroom and beyond.
But while stories like these buoy the spirit and reaffirm our faith in the possibility of a harmonious multicultural society, the reality is that the average Israeli university is far from diverse and our higher education system is less than accessible to under-represented populations.
Walking through the halls of some of Israel’s largest universities, you are sure to be stuck by the uniformity. Aside from a dearth of ultra-Orthodox students, you will not find many students from the “peripheries” or individuals of Arab or Ethiopian descent. This lack of diversity is all the more apparent when reviewing the composition of the faculties (especially at the senior level), where the male Ashkenazi elite still holds sway.
For seven decades, we have operated these onesize- fits-all universities, and as a result the majority of Israel’s population feels estranged from higher education. With so many students attending highly segregated primary and secondary schools, how could they feel welcomed by our heterogeneous universities? As such, it is clear to me that the only way to change this dangerous status quo is by rethinking the educational system.
Being publicly reactive to incidents of discrimination and marginalization on college campuses has garnered few positive results, and it is time to create systems that go beyond rhetoric. While a challenge of this magnitude may seem daunting, I believe it is possible.
Many in the academic establishment believe that there is one way to operate a multicultural university: all classes open to all students! And that exclamation point is crucial to their position, which is more injunction than statement.
To effect change, we must employ a different view of multicultural education: the academy as a question mark.
Instead of trading one cookie-cutter educational system for another, we must take into account the many cultural, philosophical and learning differences present in Israeli society and create environments that allow students from all backgrounds to thrive. This means being respectful of cultural differences while never losing sight of the big picture: a robust and impactful higher education experience for all.
We know that it’s possible, because we are already leading the way at Ono Academic College where we continuously study and evaluate our multi-educational model, actively assess our teaching methods, and remain open to learning from both our successes and our failures. As a question mark, the effectiveness of our multiple laboratories of multicultural education hinges upon our ability to constantly examine ourselves as much as our willingness to change and grow.
After 70 years, it is time to upgrade our educational system and strengthen our societal fabric by instituting accessibility as the norm. It is time to honor the complexities of multiculturalism – and Zionism – by welcoming Israelis of all cultures and backgrounds with respect and dignity to ensure that they are provided with real opportunities to grow and succeed.
The author is a scholar, author and social entrepreneur.
She currently serves as the dean of humanities at Ono Academic College, a model of multicultural graduate and undergraduate programming and education- based social reform, as well as the fastest growing institute of higher education in Israel.