Technion president: Tech giants eroding our status

Prof. Uri Sivan

Prof. Uri Sivan says that inadequate government budgets, the research needs of the tech giants and the Internet have undermined the position of universities.

Prof. Uri Sivan, incoming president of the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, is not only assuming a position of awesome responsibility; he is doing it in one of the most challenging periods that the Technion has experienced in the past century. Talking to him, it was immediately obvious that he was not overawed by his mission. "I come to the job in all humility and a feeling of very heavy responsibility," he says. "All of our management feels this way. It's a very long tradition. You're part of a chain in which everyone left his mark. Now it's my turn."

The current period is especially challenging because of what Sivan calls "tectonic" changes taking place at the universities, in which students consume more information and have greater expectations from the university; changes in the way research is conducted and the economic forces affecting it; and changes in the vision that the universities have shaped for themselves. The information revolution: "We have lost our monopoly on knowledge"

The most urgent matter for Sivan is the effect of the information revolution. "30 years ago, people came to class because the lecturer was a source of knowledge. He was the Wikipedia. There were books, but the lecturer was the source from which you could learn the main knowledge effectively. Today, knowledge is accessible to everyone. A person spending several days studying a given topic on the Internet usually knows more about it than the university lecturer, except for a lecturer in his specialty. Anyone who wants to can study a subject. We've lost this monopoly."

"Globes": What revolutions are you planning in teaching methods?

Sivan: "Like other universities, we also want to put more emphasis on learning in team projects, especially multi-disciplinary ones, rather than on lecturing and personal projects. This is one of the approaches for developing leadership, and for someone who is not a team leader, it teaches a broader and more systematic perspective.

"We're founding an institute that will develop methodologies for such studies, examine how to assimilate them in our lessons and also do the assimilating. It's not easy. The ratio between the number of lecturers and the number of students in Israel is very poor, and many of these approaches depend on a much large number of lecturers. Unfortunately, the budgeting method has created such a ratio, and this is something that the state has to fix. It's not confined to the Technion."

The universities' budget grew in the past decade, following the lost decade in Israeli institutions of higher education, during which the budget cut was especially deep. Do you still feel a shortage of money?

"Definitely. There's a very big problem. Israel is shirking almost all of its responsibility for building research infrastructure. Yes, there has been a slight improvement in recent years, but when we want to establish research activity, we rely almost exclusively on donations. This is something that is out of the question in Europe, for example. In essence, the government expects us to take all of the development on ourselves, without any state assistance."

"Companies control research: "Entire departments were stolen by industry"

A monopoly in knowledge is not the only thing that the universities have lost. The same thing has happened to the monopoly on basic research, Sivan says: "Historically, there was separation between university research and applied research in industry. Here and there, a laboratory like that of Bell or IBM did a little basic research, but the vast majority was done at universities. Today, the growth of the tech giants, accompanied by the communications and computer revolutions, has changed the equation. In anything having to do with information and software, the giant companies of course lead the research, but also in fields previously associated with higher education institutions, such as building a quantum computer.

"This stands out a lot in everything pertaining to computer science, artificial intelligence, big data, and so forth. There are entire computer science departments that were stolen by industry because of more attractive offers, not just in salary, but also in research conditions, computer resources, and access to databases. Students don't also continue on to postgraduate degrees; they are being swallowed up by industry at an early stage. Industries are preventing development of the human capital in the sector because of a very short-sighted perspective. Another very delicate and very prominent interface point in these sectors is the desire of the university staff to found startups: both students and academic staff. It appears that the world has recognized the economic value of basic research.

"All of this is true and welcome, but having commercial companies control basic research is a challenge for society as a whole, not just for the universities. Every one of these companies has the budget of a country; they are superpowers, and their interest is not the interest of the public as a whole - it's the bottom line, or even just the bottom line in the next quarter.

"The public universities are supposed to represent the interests of society, for example on the question of sharing knowledge or keeping it a secret."

Does part of the solution lie in cooperation with industry?

"In principle, there's a conflict between higher education institutions, which represent the long-term interests of society, and industry and money, which represents the interest of money. The thing is that on this boundary between institutions of higher education and industry, higher education institutions are the vulnerable side, because both researchers and students are affected by the chance to make money. I'm very worried. I look at the computer science departments at all of the world's best universities, and see that they're empty. People are in their startups or Google, and we're having trouble preserving research driven by curiosity - blue skies research. It's a process that's challenging the universities, because they have to reposition themselves."

Maybe industry can be turned into the patron of science, but at the university.

"There are all sorts of solutions. All of them talk about entrepreneurship, and we really want every student to be an entrepreneur. There are good aspects to this, but I have to say that there's some kind of line that if you cross it, the university stops being a university. I think that there are fields in which you have to be very careful not to step over this line, because there's no way back. I'm less interested in having Technion obtain its shares in the companies themselves; the question is how I keep my shares of the researcher's time and attention - how I protect the academic spirit."

Paradoxically, as Sivan himself admits, Technion is planning to bring industry deeper into the campus. "I want to place more lecturers from industry in teaching and guiding students. We all want to profit a lot from their knowledge, which is lacking at the universities, and from their infrastructure, for example computers and databases. But I want to reach an understanding with them in which they both profit and respect society's long-term interests. I think that such a covenant is essential. We educate the personnel for them; they have an obligation to us."

How will your plans be applied in practice?

"There are companies that we're talking with. For example, we have a fruitful dialogue with Intel. I think that they have a deep understanding of what I described. The plan is to find several large partners to work shoulder-to-shoulder with us within the campus, while at the same time also developing simple and rapid mechanisms for commercializing technologies. These two processes reflect the fact that industry and higher education are no longer completely separate entities. We are intertwined."

While social sciences are in defense mode, hard sciences have lost their monopoly in knowledge and research. The third challenge mentioned by Sivan is the transition to interdisciplinary research. "In the past, the faculties were divided according to their fields, and there's obviously an objective reason for this. This structure is suitable for the needs of teaching and developing scholars in specific fields. This structure, however, clashes with the fact that the major challenges of the 21st century, such as human health, energy, environment and sustainability, education, advanced production, and welfare, are all multidisciplinary challenges. There is therefore something of a gap, which is widening, between the traditional university structure and the way some of the researchers want to conduct their research," Sivan says.

How do you think this can be done?

"Very large general Technion-like centers can be founded around specific challenges, and will coexist with the faculties that do not change. Within these centers, various faculties will design a shared future in which they try to solve the problem, including recruiting staff members, acquiring shared infrastructure, and developing joint wide-ranging study plans and research. These centers must rest on traditional science in the existing research centers, because not all activity has to be multidisciplinary. It's all a question of balance. Interdisciplinary activity has become a kind of religion, but it doesn't exist without single-disciplinary activity. This is exactly where the tension lies."

Sivan has another plan that may sound more subversive from the viewpoint of a classic university. "We're not just educating scientists; we plan to also educate leaders who will determine the technological and social agenda. The difference between a leader and an engineer or scientist who is not a leader is that a leader creates a picture for himself or herself that goes beyond engineering or science to encompass their consequences for the environment, ethics, sociology, motivation, innovation and entrepreneurship," he explains.

This is an even bigger challenge for a university with no social sciences or humanities. Do you plan to add such studies to the Technion?

"Traditionally, we teach mathematics and scientific and engineering fundamentals, but it appears that something is in the air, because our graduates are finding themselves in leadership positions. We're still planning on training engineers and scientists, but they will probably have more depth."

Politics: "Values of pluralism are threatened in Israel and worldwide"

If you introduce social science studies especially ethics, you're asking for trouble that you have hither to avoided - politics. A university runs the risk of being a very political place, and Technion has not played on this field up until now.

"Technion's mission hasn't changed in its 96 years of activity. In addition to its obvious tasks of training Israel's scientific-technological-medical leadership and conducting research on the highest level, I see great importance in Technion's function as a guiding light of pluralism, integrity, truth-seeking, and equal opportunity. These values sound obvious, but they are currently under threat in Israel and worldwide. This is the lifeblood of democracy and higher education, and I believe that universities play a key role in preserving it."

Some people regard your assumption about the institution's activity as political.

"Regardless of their opinions, the academic staff and the students have to feel comfortable on campus, and free to express their views. Technion's role has therefore always been to leave politics off campus. This is relatively easy when you teach engineering, mathematics, and science.

"When public discourse is exclusionary, and one person accuses the other of being a traitor, then people feel threatened and fearful of expressing their opinions. Open discourse is the university's oxygen. Exclusion is the opposite. We have experienced efforts to exclude lecturers because of their political opinions. We opposed them, and will continue to do so. We hope that our graduates take the spirit of the place with them."

Shortage of women in Technion staff: "There's a long way to go, but the trend has changed."

One of the issues facing Technion is the shortage of senior women faculty members. Complaints were recently voiced about the absence of women in the university's management and among its academic staff. "We're aware of this, and we'll take action to change it," says Sivan. "We now have four women serving as deans, and I'll continue the efforts to include women in senior positions. The proportion of women among undergraduates is high, but decreases in postgraduate studies, especially at the post-doctorate stage, which is an essential condition for an academic career. The solution lies in a comprehensive measure in which we increase the number of women studying for advance degrees and support them further on. There's a long way to go, but Technion can already take pride in a change of the trend. There are six new women academic staff members in the latest round of new academic staff appointments."

Few women among the senior academic staff

Sivan adds that 65% of the Arab students at Technion are women. "They are real agents of change in the society that they come from. They are usually the first women in their families to study at university. We have managed to dramatically increase the number of Arabs studying for a doctorate. The proportion of Arab students on campus is the same as their proportion of the population. I only wish the same was true of the haredim, although not at the price of separation between men and women. My impression is that gender separation is not the bottleneck preventing us from accepting haredim; it's the lack of core studies. As of now, there is a high dropout rate from studies and university preparatory programs. We're thinking about how to deal with this."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 4, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Prof. Uri Sivan
Prof. Uri Sivan
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