Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (photo by Dani Machlis)
Approximately 2,000 Ben-Gurion University of the Negev students served during Operation Protective Edge, and another almost 1,000 remained in Beersheva to volunteer in the community. Between July 8 and Aug. 26, all activities, classes and exams were canceled. It was the third time and the longest period that the university has had to close its campus because of rockets from Gaza.
“Tragically, four members of the BGU family fell in battle. Their deaths are the latest permanent and heartbreaking reminder of the enormous price we continue to pay for an independent Jewish state,” wrote Prof. Rivka Carmi, MD, president of BGU, in her Sept. 14 e-message.
“Other members of the university family, more than I believe we will ever know, served their country, their neighborhoods, their communities and their families by devoting time and energy to helping others endure the more than 50 days of what seemed like never-ending sirens, explosions and the awful anticipation of the next one,” continued the message.
“For many of those affected by the war, the plans they had to work and earn the money needed to cover the costs of tuition and living expenses never came to fruition.”
To help, Carmi asked BGU’s associates organizations to raise $1 million, which they did. As of that message, Canadian Associates of BGU had raised more than $125,000 “for scholarships, with more expected to be donated.” As well, “approximately $120,000 … [was] received to purchase a 3-D electrocardiograph to be used with the wounded soldiers in Soroka hospital.” In August, American lawyer and philanthropist Murray H. Shusterman had pledged $1 million to improve campus safety against rocket attacks.
“We are worrying about our students so that they won’t suffer from the consequences of the university being closed and from the impact of having done extended military duty, while outlining how we need to be prepared for the possibility of more rockets in the future,” Carmi told the Jewish Independent in an email interview. “Basically, we reopened immediately on Aug. 26th to minimize loss of time, so that we wouldn’t have to delay the start of the fall semester. We have also had to institute a number of budget cuts to cover the many unexpected costs of the summer’s closure.”
While the university’s “annual operating budget comes from the government (primarily for salaries) through the Council for Higher Education in Israel, all growth and development comes through fundraising,” she explained. “Growth – in both physical infrastructure and human capacity – are made possible through amazing philanthropists who share our vision.” She voiced appreciation for the Canadian Jewish community’s support.
Carmi is the first woman to have served as president of an Israeli university, and the first as dean of a health sciences faculty. Elected for her first term as BGU president in 2006, she was confirmed for her third term this past May.
“I am sorry to say it is still an accomplishment to be the first woman and, though the situation is improving, it isn’t happening fast enough for me,” she said when asked about how women’s involvement at these levels had changed in the past 15 years or so. “There is a real problem still today to encourage girls to pursue their studies in the sciences. BGU operates a number of programs to encourage girls to expand their horizons through our Access to Higher Education program.”
One of her favorites is Inbal, which was spearheaded by Prof. Hugo Guterman. According to the blurb that accompanies the YouTube video of a group of program participants, “‘Only three to five percent of students in the department of electrical and computer engineering are women. In general engineering, it’s about 25 percent,’ he notes. Three years ago, he, along with BGU and the Beersheva municipality, began a course in robotics for female middle school and high school pupils. Beginning with less than 15 girls participating, this year  nearly 120 girls took part in the course.”
With similar intent – to get more women into higher education – Carmi co-founded with Fatma Kassim the nongovernmental organization Alnuhud, the Association for the Promotion of Bedouin Women’s Education in the Negev. “It was the first such an organization … in the community,” said Carmi. “We realized then that an educated woman has a huge impact on the community and her family. The goal was to ensure that girls can compete on their own level to enter into university. At the same time, the university created what has turned into a very successful medical cadet program, launched by Prof. Riad Agbaria, to find promising Bedouin high school students and help them prepare for university studies in the health sciences.
“People like Shira Herzog (z”l) and the Kahnaoff Foundation have put us in a position to be able to offer scholarships to Bedouin women. When you are out in the Negev, you really feel the difference. There are now many Bedouin women out there making a difference in their communities.”
Two years ago, Carmi led a national committee examining the barriers and possible solutions to the situation. “The findings were conclusive,” reads BGU’s President’s Report 2014, “while Israel graduates a large number of female PhDs, it has far fewer women in the ranks of senior faculty than other European countries.
“This year, there were 216 women among the faculty, not including clinical medical staff, representing 27 percent of the total. The higher one ascends the ladder of seniority, the lower the percentage of women. Today, 40 percent of lecturers, 35 percent of senior lecturers, 19 percent of associate professors and only 16 percent of full professors are women. Of the 38 new faculty members recruited this year, one third are women.
“The average age for a woman completing a doctorate in Israel is relatively high: 37.3 years old. Israeli women also tend to have more children than similarly educated women around the world. The result is that potential candidates for international fellowships are older, with more children and less flexibility than their peers.”
“One of the key stumbling blocks, the report found, is the postdoctoral fellowship, generally done abroad. The average age for a woman completing a doctorate in Israel is relatively high: 37.3 years old. Israeli women also tend to have more children than similarly educated women around the world. The result is that potential candidates for international fellowships are older, with more children and less flexibility than their peers.”
The report listed a few initiatives that had been implemented based on the findings, but it is a continuing process. Just last month, said Carmi, “we organized a national conference to encourage women to a pursue an academic career. More than 350 young academics – men and women – came to Beersheva for the event that included hands-on advice and a panel of young female researchers who have ‘made it’ talking about their experiences. The responses we received from the participants have been overwhelmingly supportive.”
Carmi herself is a renowned researcher, and there is even a medical condition named after her. “During my work as a neonatal physician, I treated babies who were born without skin and with other severe birth defectives,” she explained about how the Carmi syndrome came to be named. “I was highly motivated to find the cause for this horrible condition. The problems we observed had never been seen before so it was decided to name this horrible disease after me. Twenty-five years later, I was fortunate enough to identify the gene mutation that causes it!”
For Carmi, genetics has been a long-held passion. “When I was in school,” she said, “I fell in love with the whole idea of research. My curiosity was captured by genetics and how it all shapes our lives. I decided very early on to become a genetics researcher. I realized that the best way to do this and help people at the same time was to study medicine and combine it with scientific research.”
While time no longer permits Carmi to be actively involved in research, she said, “It was my life, but I am happy in my new career that allows me to make a difference. I moved to the Negev in 1975. Watching it change and grow is very satisfying.”
“We are overcoming budget shortages and the incredible competition with universities around the world to attract the best and brightest young researchers through a special presidential fund…. I have funded researchers in fields that range from Yiddish to cognitive brain sciences.”
One of Carmi’s missions when she became BGU president was to “inject scientific content and research” into the university. On the progress of that mission, she said, “We are overcoming budget shortages and the incredible competition with universities around the world to attract the best and brightest young researchers through a special presidential fund. This allows BGU to offer competitive packages to researchers who might otherwise go elsewhere and opens up new positions as part of a wider agenda to stop Israel’s brain drain. I have funded researchers in fields that range from Yiddish to cognitive brain sciences.”
Carmi has received many honors over her career, including from Canadian organizations, and there have been several collaborations between BGU and Canadian science/academia.
“As a researcher, I had no Canadian contacts, but when I became dean of the faculty of health sciences, I became involved with the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO), which honored me in 2002 for my work. Now, our students participate regularly in their programs,” Carmi told the Independent.
“Over the past few years,” she added, “we have created a number of cooperative agreements with Canadian universities, the most noteworthy is with Dalhousie,” from which she received an honorary doctorate last year. The BGU-Dalhousie memorandum of understanding involves joint research projects, among other cooperative ventures, including the development of an Ocean Studies Centre in Eilat.
“We have had a significant increase in the number of Canadian academics coming to the Negev. The result has been a number of agreements for students and cooperative projects,” said Carmi, who was among those participating in a late-October conference in Ottawa on innovation that “focused on the Canadian-Israeli connection. It was fascinating,” she said, “and is sure to result in further partnerships.”
For more information about BGU, visit bengurion.ca.