The new president of Tel Aviv University – Israel’s largest institution of higher learning – has embarked on a mission of change.
“My vision is to make it the best in Israel and one of the best in the world,” said Zvi Galil, left, a 60-year-old computer scientist and mathematician who succeeded Itamar Rabinovitch as president last June.
Galil, whose father was one of the founders of the university, is aiming at improving it significantly across the board.
A Sabra who was previously dean of Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, his objective is to shake up his alma mater during his five-year term.
As he put it in a recent interview in Toronto, “I’m insisting on excellence on all levels.”
Galil, who obtained his first two degrees at Tel Aviv University (TAU) before earning a PhD at Cornell University, has big plans.
He hopes to create better lines of communication between students and faculty. “Israeli universities are not known for treating students particularly well,” he said. “Faculty thinks more of research than students.”
“I want faculty to be more accessible to students,” he added. “I want [professors] to teach better and update curriculum more frequently. I want students to have a great experience.”
Taking his cue from the United States, Galil observed that Israeli universities should treat students like “customers.”
Galil appears to mean what he says. “I’m determined to bring change. This message has to come from the top.”
In a bid to turn TAU into a more global institution with more students from abroad, he intends to introduce a greater variety of programs taught in English.
“We want to double or triple the number of international students. Universities aren’t local any more.”
And in this internationalist spirit, Galil seeks to forge extensive co-operation with overseas universities.
As well, Galil wants to see more multi-disciplinary research on campus. “Problems of society usually don’t fall into one discipline,” he explained.
If TAU is to be globally competitive, Galil suggested, it will need an additional infusion of $30 to $50 million (US) per annum to hire Israeli professors who currently live outside the country.
He believes this will help reverse Israel’s alarming brain drain.
“We’re losing some of our brightest talents to the United States and Canada,” he lamented.
By way of illustration, Galil said that while there are 4,500 research professors in Israel, another 3,000 Israeli research professors live and teach in North America.
He hopes that private donors will assist him, but said he realizes that the Israeli government has an enormous role to play in this matter.
“The last few governments have cut university budgets by at least 20 per cent, something no western nations have done recently,” he said.
Yet the situation is in flux, he noted.
“There is now a movement to restore these cuts. Rhetorically, the government is sympathetic to increasing university research budgets. But we need results. Will they do it? I don’t know.”
Galil, having discussed this topic with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, believes that he appreciates the magnitude of the problem and that he intends to remedy it.
The problem is serious.
Currently, Israeli universities can tap into a yearly research budget of only $100 million. By contrast, the research budget of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alone totals $1 billion.
Reflecting on these startling figures, he said, “We should get much more. Education is an investment in Israel’s future. It is on a par with security.”
Galil, who taught at TAU from 1976 to 1995, returned to Israel out of patriotism.
“I took a 65 per cent pay cut to become president. I saw it as a job of national importance.”
Universities are crucial to Israel’s survival, he said.
In an allusion to Arab oil and gas, he said, “We have brain power, not natural resources. Our universities are responsible for Israel’s economic success, especially in high-tech startups.”
Much to his regret, the state of Israeli education at the pre-university level is abysmal.
“It’s bad, and has deteriorated seriously in recent decades.”
Galil – whose wife is a marine biologist – was chair of TAU’s computer science department from 1979 to 1982.
From 1982 onward, he was an itinerant professor, commuting between TAU and Columbia.
He ended his association with his alma mater in 1995, when he was appointed dean of Columbia’s school of engineering and applied science.
“Columbia was wonderful. I like the American system very much. It’s the best in the world. Salaries are determined by performance. It’s a tool to achieve excellence. This system exists in a mild form in Israel.”