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University ranking ‘useless’: Weizmann president

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Weizmann Institute president Daniel Zajfman, centre, with Anne-Marie Boucher, left, and Cynthia Adelson, co-chairs of Weizmann Canada’s “Leading Men” gala in April

MONTREAL — The president of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science lashed out at the international ranking of universities as “useless” and even “dangerous” during a recent visit to Montreal.

“You cannot measure excellence… Universities are too diversified. You cannot put every one of them on the same scale,” Prof. Daniel Zajfman told local supporters of Weizmann. “This [ranking] is the disease of the day. The bottom line is more complex. Everyone has their own standard of excellence.”

He made the criticism despite the fact that Weizmann was ranked last year among the top 100 universities in the world by the Academic Ranking of World Universities. Although funded by the Chinese government, this survey is considered one of the most reliable.

It was, in fact, the first time three Israeli universities made the top 100, with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem ranked 53rd, the Technion 78th, and Weizmann, a relatively small university with only graduate students, 93rd.

Zajfman, an atomic physicist who became Weizmann’s 10th and, at 47, youngest president in 2006, was in Montreal on Feb. 25 to address a reception launching the campaign of the Montreal chapter of Weizmann Canada leading up to a fundraising dinner this spring.

Weizmann is confident of its excellence because it hires the best scientists and chooses the most promising students from around the world that it can, Zajfman said, regardless of which field they are in.

It allows them unfettered freedom to pursue their work without having to conform to any objective set by the university to excel in any particular area, he said at the reception hosted by the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

All Weizmann students receive a full scholarship if they pass the rigorous entrance exam. “We get seven to 10 times as many applications as there are places,” he said. “This allows us to select on the basis of excellence, not where they come from.”

The scholarship includes a living stipend, and students are not allowed to work outside the university in order that they can devote all their energy to research, he said.

One firm principle at Weizmann is that faculty and students, who include 250 at the master’s and 750 at the doctoral level, are treated similarly.

“There is no faculty club, not a single place that is not open to both faculty and students,” he said. From their first day, students are full members of one of the 250 research groups at Weizmann.

Students are expected to assume considerable responsibility. In groups of two or three, they organize international conferences, given budgets of $50,000 to $60,000 and the leeway to decide on the topic and speakers.

 “History has shown that most major discoveries are not made while trying to solve problems, but when trying to understand how nature works,” he said. Therefore, Weizmann scientists are encouraged to follow their curiosity and take risks, and not be limited to research that is necessarily practical.

“You can’t teach research – the only way is to start in the labs and work with the best possible scientists,” he said.

And they work in groups of four to five per professor, not up to 15, as at other universities, he said.

Nevertheless, Weizmann’s technology-transfer arm, Yeda, contributed significantly to the $22 billion in worldwide sales of products developed at Israeli universities and hospitals last year.

“One-third of the scientists with a PhD in Israel were educated at Weizmann,” he said.

On April 30, Weizmann Canada will honour 10 “Leading Men of Quebec” at a gala dinner at the Arsenal contemporary art gallery in Griffintown. The goal is to raise $1.5 million. Each of the honorees has chosen to support a scholarship in a field of their choosing.

One to them is engineer and entrepreneur Lorne Trottier, co-founder of the high-tech company Matrox, which specializes in computer graphics.

He is well-known for sponsoring the annual Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University. Last fall, he made a $15-million donation to his alma mater to support research, outreach and the development of public policy in science and engineering, the latest in a history of philanthropy.

He also supports the Université de Montréal’s Ecole Polytechnique, establishing a similar public symposium and an institute for clean-energy research.

Trottier said he was previously aware of Weizmann’s reputation from seeing it cited in scientific journals, so he needed little convincing when Weizmann Canada national executive vice-president Susan Stern approached him about being an honoree.

He has visited Israel twice, and hopes that in future he will tour Weizmann, where his project is a scholarship in sustainable energy.

Trottier said he hopes his “modest” contribution will contribute to “the continuing of peaceful relations between Israel and its neighbours. It’s a nasty neighbourhood.” He also would like Canadians to be better acquainted with what Weizmann is achieving.

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