Thursday, 19 March 2009

Israel's Interdisciplinary Center Draws Praise for Its International Outlook

The private college attracts donors and scholars from around the world
From the issue dated March 20, 2009


Tal Ben-Shahar was once a successful psychology professor at Harvard University. His classes on positive psychology attracted audiences of more than 850 students, making it the most popular course on the campus. But the best-selling author of Heaven Can Wait and Happier left America in 2006 to return to his native Israel and teach at a little-known institution of higher education called the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, here in this seaside resort.

Mr. Ben-Shahar was drawn to the university, he says, because its founders believe it "can make a difference in society, in schools, in politics, in the daily lives of people in Israel and around the world, which I think is the right spirit of academia."

Established in 1994, the center began life as Israel's first private college. Today it offers serious competition to the country's seven publicly financed major universities, attracting faculty members from some of the world's top universities.

In a short time, the Interdisciplinary Center has grown to more than 5,000 students and developed a burgeoning reputation among students and scholars for its commitment to interdisciplinary work and community involvement.

Two years after arriving, the happiness professor is more than happy with his decision to leave the Ivy League behind.

"This place really is about bridging the ivory tower and main street," Mr. Ben-Shahar says.

"There's a real sense of combining between deep reflection and meaningful action."

The center's founder and president is Uriel Reichman, former dean of law at Tel Aviv University. One of his main aims in creating the college, he says, was to attract many of the brilliant Israeli college graduates who had gone abroad, partly to escape the limited academic career prospects in Israel.

With a student body about one-fifth the size of some of the larger Israeli universities, the Interdisciplinary Center offers undergraduate degrees in law, business, government, psychology, communications, and computer science. It offers master's degrees in law, computer science, business, and government.

And as Israel's seven state-funded universities head into another year of conflict over government budget cuts and faculty pay, the center's independence from public financing has given its students and faculty a rare sense of security — and challenge.

"As a private, not-for-profit institution, we have the ability to say to someone, 'Come here and be the champion of something,'" says Jonathan Davis, the center's vice president for external relations.

The center charges $9,000 annually for tuition, compared with $2,000 at most public universities, although it offers scholarships to needy students.

"If our courses are not creative, why should a student come and spend three times the tuition of a subsidized university?" asks Mr. Davis.

Bernard Fisher, a first-year undergraduate business student from Rio de Janeiro, transferred here after a frustrating year at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv. A months-long faculty strike wreaked havoc on his schedule, he says.

"Then there was talk of another strike this year. I just didn't have the patience," he says, adding that the quality of teaching at the center is also much better.

"Here, the teachers know you. At Bar-Ilan they had no idea if you even came to class," he says. "The teachers at IDC are very good, and the people here are much more flexible. And you feel they are willing to help so much more. Even though it's the most expensive school in the country, I feel it's worth the money."

Looking Outward

Both professors and students are encouraged to do community service and to work across disciplines.

Mr. Ben-Shahar is developing a course on positive psychology, which looks at traits that enable people and communities to succeed, in cooperation with 160 Israeli high schools. He is developing workshops for teachers, counselors, and students.

Next door to Mr. Ben-Shahar is Yair Amichai-Hamburger, an Oxford-educated Internet researcher and director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology, which studies the effects of the Internet on human relations. He said that colleagues at his previous university laughed when he suggested the establishment of such a center 10 years ago.

"They asked me: 'What does psychology have to do with the Internet?' They didn't realize that the Internet is not just about technology but about the interaction between millions of people," he recalls.

The Interdisciplinary Center's interest in his ideas are what drew him in, he says, and he began working there in 2006.

Today, Mr. Amichai-Hamburger's book, The Social Net: Understanding Human Behavior in Cyberspace, one of the first to focus on the impact of the Internet on social behavior, is a basic textbook for courses in the emerging field of cyberpsychology. His introductory course is compulsory for communications and psychology students at the Interdisciplinary Center and is gradually being duplicated at other Israeli universities.

Across campus, Israel's former ambassador to the European Union, Avi Primor, is developing another first for an Israeli college: a European-studies master's degree, in English, taught jointly by Jordanian, Palestinian, and German professors to students from those regions, and from Israel. It is being offered jointly with the University of Düsseldorf and Al-Quds University, a Palestinian college in the West Bank.

Mr. Primor said he originally approached Tel Aviv University with the idea, but officials weren't interested. In addition, he says, "If this center was at Tel Aviv, I can just imagine the administrative and political complications I would have in order to bring about the trilateral cooperation."

"IDC is flexible, it's open to new ideas, to innovations, and to international cooperation. It's much easier. I'm not sure I would have done it at all somewhere else," he says.

Students say they appreciate the faculty's interdisciplinary approach.

"The professors have a lot of really interesting real-world experience and are teaching in a field they are involved in professionally, where they can bring in their own experience," says Ronit Ledani, who grew up in Boston and is studying government. She transferred after two years at Bar-Ilan University. "I also find the students at IDC are much more motivated. They are really there to learn. They are much more driven."

Ms. Ledani will soon begin working with the children of Sudanese refugees as part of the center's community-outreach program. Students who do community service receive tuition reductions in return.

Global Ambitions

Faculty members at other Israeli colleges say they are impressed with the quality of the Interdisciplinary Center's academic programs but note that it is tailored to a narrow audience, both because of its limited offerings and its high price tag.

"It's good for limited, pinpoint types of activities," says Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "It's an alternative and competition — exactly what the Israeli higher-education system needs. The system generally is inflexible. It hasn't adjusted to the times. Universities in Israel are extremely bureaucratic, and you have to go through multiple layers of committees, so it's difficult to change things. IDC has a reputation for being able to do things quickly, maybe because it's so small."

Foreign students have also flocked to the institution. Twenty percent of the student body is international, and 25 percent of the incoming class will study in English. The Interdisciplinary Center is the only university in Israel, in fact, to offer degrees entirely in English. Unlike other public universities here, it has no Hebrew-language requirement and does not require applicants to take the Israeli psychometric exam, which is similar to the SAT. "Part of our mission is to fight Israeli bureaucracy," says Mr. Davis. "They have lost thousands of kids who would otherwise have come here."

The center, whose operating budget is supported by tuition revenue, has also been successful in raising money from Israeli philanthropists. Donors have financed the building of the campus as well as the infrastructure. Seventy percent of its annual $12-million development budget, which pays for buildings and facilities, comes from Israelis. The center also has Israel's only alumni fund-raising campaign, says Mr. Davis.

Among the donors to the institution are Ronald S. Lauder, an American businessman and philanthropist; Shari Arison, Israeli's wealthiest citizen; and the Asper family, owners of CanWest Global Communications Corporation.

Mr. Reichman said future plans include a new school of economics, a scientific research institute dedicated to issues of sustainability, alternative energy, water scarcity, and climate change, and a special program for Israeli high-school principals designed to help improve the country's declining high-school system.

And, he says, the center will expand its student-exchange programs. Current partners include the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Syracuse University.

Mr. Reichman notes that the center draws students from 60 countries. He hopes that eventually 35 percent of the student body, or more, will be drawn from abroad. "We have to continue to emphasize the global aspect of our education because the future of Israel lies in our ability to operate and make the foreign markets our own, and to prepare a new generation of leaders who will do business globally while living in Israel."
Section: International
Volume 55, Issue 28, Page A27

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