Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Mistreated as a Student, an Alum Establishes Cash Prizes for Nice Professors at Israel's Technion

June 16, 2010

By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem — What’s an alumnus to do when the university that was the gateway to his entrepreneurial millions was a place of "suffering" where professors "didn’t give a damn about the students"? Moshe Yanai’s answer: Give it millions of dollars to encourage faculty members to be more pleasant.

IBM minces few words when describing the work of Mr. Yanai, who holds one of the computer maker's prestigious fellowships: "One of the most influential contributors in the history of the data-storage industry. His 30 years of technical expertise and design innovation are legendary."

Mr. Yanai attributes his success in no small part to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, from which he graduated in 1975. Now a multimillionaire, he has given quietly to charities for many years, including to the Technion, the academic incubator of Israel’s high-tech revolution. But memories of his bitter experience there discouraged him from doing anything high profile.

Now he has donated enough cash to support 15 prizes annually, each worth $30,000, for the next 20 years. A joint committee of faculty members and students will award the Yanai Prizes to professors who enrich the university experience and make the Technion friendlier to students.

"The Technion gave me my entry ticket to the world of computers, and I owe it much of my success, but my time there was one of suffering," he tells The Chronicle. "My personal experience in the Technion was not because I had difficulties learning but because of my treatment by professors."

While he was a student, Mr. Yanai had a wife and child, a job, and a battalion commander’s post in Israel’s army reserve. He says he got little sympathy from his professors when he asked them for materials after he missed a class.

"The problem in the academic world is that all the incentives are to produce papers," he says. "The publication of papers brings them prestige, promotion, everything. No one is really rewarding them for spending time with students."

Mr. Yanai says he has heard similar stories from other former students, and not just those who attended the Technion.

"I want to change the atmosphere and change the incentives for professors in a way that says the world is not only about papers," he says. "It’s also about teaching students."

Peretz Lavie, president of the institution, took no offense at Mr. Yanai’s accusations. "There is a story among MIT students that halfway across the bridge over the Charles River is a sign saying, 'You are now halfway to hell,'" he says. "There is a kind of halo effect around some institutes that they are tough and demanding, and there is almost a military type of discipline."

The question, Mr. Lavie says, is how to make education a more joyful experience: "Can you think about a type of a class that can make it also fun? Or make it also more interesting? This is the challenge to the teacher."

He says Mr. Yanai’s gift has the potential to transform the university. "These new prizes will change the atmosphere, making our studies in the Technion much more interesting, much more enriching, and changing this reputation of being a rough institute which is not friendly to the students," Mr. Lavie says. "Usually donors go for bricks and mortar."

When Mr. Yanai approached the Technion to discuss how he could help, his own bumpy experience as a student there was the proverbial elephant in the room. Mr. Lavie says the philanthropist told him he wanted to do something to make the campus atmosphere friendlier while preserving its academic rigor.

"This is how this gift was born," Mr. Lavie says. "He jumped at the idea, and he said, 'Let’s try and reward faculty for enriching the educational experience.'"

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