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Fighting Brain Drain and Competing Global Education Rankings

Editorial Note

It was recently announced that philanthropist Mortimer Zuckerman has committed more than $100 million to attract postdoctoral researchers in life sciences from Western countries to Israeli universities and lure Israeli academics back to Israel. This step is a major boon for the universities in Israel, but there are currently problems at the managerial level.

A petition signed by over 1500 academics urged to create a special commission to investigate the firing of Hagit Messer-Yaron as the deputy chair of the Council of Higher Education.   The petitioners want to reform the system of selection to the CHE to make it more transparent. While this is a laudable position, it does not go far enough in addressing the main problem of tertiary education in Israel. As IAM already demonstrated, the Israeli universities have been doing poorly in all the major ranking of world indices.  Even the Technion, known in the past as the “MIT of Israel", has been on a downhill slope for most of the last decade.        

The academic community should understand that competing with other countries in the annual higher education rankings is of critical importance to Israel. We live in an integrated world where human capital is the coin of trade.   So far, the academic community did not recognize it. Perhaps the new recruits arriving with the Mortimer B. Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program would help to make it happen.

Mortimer Zuckerman Commits $100 Million to New Scholarship Program for STEM Leaders
A philanthropist's quest for international scientific collaboration
By Parker Richards • 01/26/16 10:30am

The 21st Century will be a time of collaborative research—at least, that’s the premise behind a new, nine-figure scholarship initiative rolled out Monday. Media proprietor and real estate developer Mortimer Zuckerman’s new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholarship program aims to create relationships between leading scientists from both the United States and Israel, and Mr. Zuckerman is committing $100 million to get the job done.

“My hope would again be that there would be higher levels of professional-trained people in the sciences in both countries and hopefully that, given that there might be relations between or among them, that they can collaborate on a whole different level of collaboration than you have today,” Mr. Zuckerman said in an interview with the Observer after an event announcing the program.

The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Scholars Program in STEM Leadership, launched at an event at the Harvard Club of New York Monday morning, is a 20-year commitment by Mr. Zuckerman, the CEO of Boston Properties and owner of the Daily News and US News and World Report, to fund postdoctoral researchers and graduate students from the U.S. to study at four major Israeli universities.

“Who knows what next might emerge from the unpredictable meeting of minds between Tel Aviv and New York, between Haifa and Harvard, between Yiddish and Yale,” Mr. Zuckerman said at the announcement. “I salute the scientists and thinkers who will save and enrich untold lives.”

The presidents of all four Israeli universities—Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (which will also launch the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute on Roosevelt Island in 2017), Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science—attended the launch of the Zuckerman Scholars program, which was moderated by U.S. News editor-in-chief Brian Kelly.

The launch of the Zuckerman Scholars program was also attended by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and included speeches by Peretz Lavie of Technion-Israel Institute of the Technology and Ambassador Ido Aharoni, the Israeli consul general in New York, as well as a pre-recorded address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s not just about the STEM disciplines. Underlying it is the concept of collaboration and partnership and of bringing two great powers together, and for those issues that the STEM discipline can’t solve—issues like bringing different religious together and different cultures together—that’s where the fellowship between Israel and America is critical,” Mr. Cuomo said at the event.

The idea for the scholarship came to Mr. Zuckerman roughly six months ago after a night of poor sleep, he said.

“I actually had a bad night sleep and I woke up at 5 o’clock in the morning, and as happens on many different occasions, I started to think about what I could do to express my appreciation to the United States,” Mr. Zuckerman told the Observer.

He was “inspired by the possible benefits of collaboration—cross-pollination if you like,” and began to work with the idea for the scholarship program.

STEM, said Mr. Zuckerman, is “where the future is going to be on so many levels,” leading him to hope to promote the various fields as he worked to build bonds between Israeli and the U.S.

“With no self-criticism and self-reflection, there is no science.”

The Zuckerman Scholars program could “unlock our potential as global science powerhouses,” Dr. Lavie said at the announcement.

“Today we are planting seedlings of future excellence in scientific research, and we will use the generous gift announced her today to grow the next generation of scholars,” he added.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Kelly praised Mr. Zuckerman’s philanthropic leadership and behind-the-scenes aid in many situations, including the storm that struck New York this past weekend. “He just wants to give me the best advice possible and keep me on the right path,” Mr. Cuomo said, remarking that Mr. Zuckerman called him over the weekend to tell him to “shovel faster.”

Mr. Netanyahu, in his taped address, thanked Mr. Zuckerman and praised him for his work with Israel. “Over the years he has stood by the Jewish state in good times and bad,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Above all, I want to thank you for standing up for the truth. You are indefatigable and you are courageous. You are a true, true son of Jerusalem.”

The program will be open to all American applicants in the STEM fields who are doctoral or postdoctoral students and researchers, not just Jewish Americans.

Mr. Aharoni said the greater opportunities presented by a scientific exchange of ideas can also help to build a stronger, more introspective Israeli state.

“With no self-criticism and self-reflection, there is no science,” he said at the event.

Mr. Cuomo also discussed the possibility for greater scientific advancement to deter terrorist attacks and create safer communities in both Israel and the U.S.

“You put science, technology, and fellowship together, and that is the answer for a better future: a future that is smarter, stronger, and safer than it has been,” he said.

Nobel laureates Richard Axel, Aaron Ciechanover, Eric Kandal and Ada Yonath also attended the event and spoke following the announcement about their own experiences in science. Dr. Yonath, a cryo-biocrystallographer, is the only surviving woman to have received a Nobel prize for chemistry. Her prize—awarded in 2009—came 45 years after Dorothy Hodgkin won the chemistry prize. The only two other female chemistry laureates were Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie.

Asked if a graduate of the scholarship might one day obtain a Nobel Prize after the program’s Nobel laureate-studded announcement ceremony, Mr. Zuckerman demurred.

“If we can attract and give the opportunities of people of that quality to go through their academic experience and end up at the level of Nobel laureate, so much the better,” he told the Observer. “You never know how that’s going to work out, but I can say to you that there were any number of Nobel laureates at the gathering who are involved in academic institutions both here and in Israel.”


No One on Council of Higher Education Objected to Bennett Replacing Deputy

According to incomplete minutes of council meeting, the education minister’s move took most members by surprise.

Yarden Skop Feb 11, 2016 11:48 AM   

The minutes of the meeting at which Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Council of Higher Education, announced his intention to dismiss his deputy, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, show that other council members made little effort to challenge Bennett’s decision.
Bennett claimed that he had received complaints from university heads about the performance of his deputy, who is the council’s de facto chairman, but none of the other council members attempted to ascertain the nature of the complaints. Her dismissal a year before her term ended was controversial, and the minutes show that some council members were surprised by the move. But while they praised Messer-Yaron’s professionalism, no one actively tried to dissuade him.

At the following council meeting on January 12, 12 council members supported Messer-Yaron’s dismissal and her replacement by Bennett’s candidate, Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman. Six council members voted against, and one abstained.

Like the minutes, the vote is meant to be classified and the CHE refused to reveal how council members voted. The minutes, such as they are, were only released following a request under the Freedom of Information Law submitted by Dr. Yaacov Bergman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Bergman protested that the released version omits a list of those who were present as well as the names and even genders of the speakers. In addition, what was said was summarized and not reported in full.

According to the minutes, at the opening of the debate Bennett told those present that “There is no doubt that Prof. Messer-Yaron has experience.” He presented his reasons for his decision, among them “a need for a service orientation,” as the minutes state. According to Bennett, “This isn’t a political matter and there is no intention to intervene in the work of the deputy chairman. The change must be made now, because we are now starting to build the five-year plan and it’s a critical moment.”

One council member said he or she was very surprised by Bennett’s decision, adding, “We need in principle procedures in the CHE so that the education minister can’t replace the deputy chairman easily, because this undercuts the work and the dynamic within the CHE. Prof. Messer-Yaron was known to all of us and so there were no surprises. The fact that she is opinionated and proactive is no fault.”

This same speaker said that Messer-Yaron was the best deputy he or she had seen at the CHE, and the speaker had been through five different education ministers.

Another member stressed that most of the council had no clue such a move was imminent and that Bennett should have consulted with a least some council members. Another member stated that he or she had a different approach, and that in the past council deputies had resigned when the minister changed, since the deputy chairmanship is essentially a position of trust.
Bennett added that he had met many people in the higher education system, including the heads of universities and colleges, and Messer-Yaron’s performance was frequently raised. “The CHE is both a regulator and a service provider,” Bennett said. “A regulator needn’t be beloved by the entities it oversees, but it is still required to be attentive and service-oriented.”

Bennett added that he was looking for someone who had good interpersonal relations, was flexible and quick to respond. He said he had held more than 30 meetings with heads of various higher education institutions, and Messer-Yaron’s performance was discussed at almost all of them. He was thus taken aback to hear that council members were surprised by his move, saying “there’s a weird dissonance here.”
Bergman, after reading through the minutes, conducted correspondence with various academic officials and demanded to know why no one at the meeting had asked Bennett directly why Messer-Yaron was being replaced. “What are we to learn from this about the quality of debate at the CHE?” he asked.

Moreover, when this internal correspondence addressed Bennett’s claim that the university heads were aware of his plan to dismiss Messer-Yaron, the chairman of the Committee of University Heads, Technion President Prof. Peretz Lavie, told a questioner that “The Committee of University Heads had no idea that Bennett was planning to end Prof. Messer-Yaron’s term.”
Messer-Yaron’s dismissal has caused a crisis of confidence between Bennett and the academic community. More than 1,500 researchers and academics have signed a petition expressing no-confidence in the CHE and in Bennett, and which described his conduct as “aggressive.”
The petition also demanded the convening of a public committee to appoint a new council in a transparent fashion that would set clear criteria for membership. Signatories included members of the National Academy of Sciences and Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Aaron Ciechanover. Bennett has yet to respond to the petition.


Academics protest Bennett’s CHE actions, warn of 'crisis of confidence'
By LIDAR GRAVÉ-LAZI \  02/08/2016 06:47

Among the actions being protested are the dismissal of Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the subsequent appointment of Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman as the vice chairwoman for the CHE.

More than 1,500 academics and doctoral students from universities and colleges throughout the country have signed a petition protesting actions taken by Education Minister Naftali Bennett as chairman of the Council for Higher Education.

Among the actions being protested are the dismissal of Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the subsequent appointment of Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman as the vice chairwoman for the Council for Higher Education.

The academics labeled this as “aggressive behavior” that is “not appropriate, both in public and in the private sphere.”

“Your conduct regarding Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the appointment of a replacement who does not meet the required threshold for the position, has caused us to lose confidence in the current Council for Higher Education, and in you specifically as chairman of the CHE,” the petition states.

The academics called on Bennett to appoint a new council in a “transparent manner” in order to “regain the confidence of the academic faculty, which is the backbone of the higher education system.”

The signatories also called on Bennett to establish a public committee headed by either the president of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities or a former Supreme Court judge, which will set the requirements for new members and offer nominees for the position of CHE vice chairman.

“Only this step will avoid a profound crisis of confidence between the academic faculty and the CHE and a fatal blow to the higher education system of which you are entrusted,” the petition states.

The document has been circulating for over a month, accumulating 1,516 signatures from professors, lecturers and doctoral students from universities and academic colleges.

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