SHAPING HIS UNIVERSITY TO MEET THE NEEDS OF TOMORROW’S WORLD. Joseph Klafter has been the President of Tel Aviv University (TAU) since 2009, and he is also the Chair of the Committee of University Heads in Israel.   He is a professor of chemical physics and served as the chairman of the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), the main institution supporting scientific research in Israel, from 2002 to 2009.  In 2011 the American Academy of Arts & Sciences elected him an honorary member.

How would you describe Tel Aviv University? 

Tel Aviv University is one of the younger universities in Israel, founded after the State was established.  We are only here since 1956, and yet we are already by far the largest.  We have 30,000 students.  Undergraduates and postgraduates are more or less the same number.  16,000 are undergraduates and 14,000 are post graduates, which makes the university a power house of research.  We are also the most comprehensive university in Israel, as we cover almost every area of research and teaching. 

Is it an advantage to be extremely comprehensive?

The big advantage is that by teaching all the disciplines one can encourage the faculty members to lower barriers between the disciplines, and you can approach big challenges from various points of view.

Do you have some excellences?

Computer science, mathematics, our law school, chemistry, our business school.  These are world renowned centres. 

Are your professors all Israelis?

Most are of Israeli origin, or Jewish immigrants that moved to the country.  We don’t recruit faculty members until after they have finished their PhD and have spent some years abroad.  They go mainly to the US and Europe, and we try to recruit them back here only after they succeed there.  This overcomes the fact that Israel is a small place, and gives international proof for their capability.  When we recruit them we know they are really excellent.

“I am very proud of a new degree here, combining engineering with humanities.”

Students enjoying the sunshine on the lawn at Tel Aviv University.  Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

How many professors are here?

Almost 1,100 in all areas.

Are the students mainly Israelis?

Yes, and we have also about 2,500 foreign students that come here, either for an undergraduate or masters’ degree, or for shorter periods like a semester or summer school.

How many universities are there in Israel?

There are nine universities, all over the country.

Since you became President of TAU in 2009 what did you change?

The universities that we know were actually shaped over 200 years ago by the ideas of Humboldt, who defined what we know as the model university, based on academic freedom and independent from religion, from politics, not being market driven but only research driven.  It is clear now that the universities have to reinvent themselves, and really look at the future which is influenced by the digital revolution.  Jobs or positions outside the university change so frequently that you don’t even know what to prepare the students for.  It’s a very fast changing world, so the university needs to reinvent itself and the question is how we do this.

How do you set about it?

The whole university enterprise has to give the students “tools” for the “unknown”.  There are a few ways to tackle this issue.  I would say that first of all we have to bring in as many disciplines as possible in educating the students, and make it quite flexible for students to create a curriculum that covers a few disciplines.  An example that I am very proud of is a new degree here, combining engineering with humanities.  This has already created a lot of interest in various companies that look for engineers but also require more humanity inspired abilities, design for instance.  Companies like Apple, Facebook or Google look for engineers that come with the tools that are design oriented, philosophy oriented, social networking strengths.  And then of course different people are attracted to different areas of knowledge.  Therefore the direction we are taking is of personalised learning. 

“Our university decided to start academic learning with online courses when the students are still at high school.”

Does this mean that people are no longer so specialised?

There is still a pivot which is a specialisation, but it is decorated much more by colour from other disciplines.  This prepares the students much better for life and for those who stay at the university creates researchers that bring many more points of view to their research.

Are universities less important today because of the internet and Google?

The universities are not less important, but since knowledge and information are much more accessible the universities’ role must go in the direction of deeper understanding and become more problem solving oriented.

Many universities have online courses now?

The online courses that are now so popular are really an example of how information or knowledge can be transferred from country to country, from continent to continent.  But it also means that the whole educational process can be such that students come to classes mainly to discuss and deepen their understanding, rather than just acquiring information.  Moreover, our university decided to start academic learning with these online courses when the students are still at high school.  There are more and more high school students in Israel that take Tel Aviv University’s online courses, and if they have already passed the examination at high school they have some academic credits when they join the university.  This is a way to overcome the artificial border between high school and university, especially for talented students. 

Is Tel Aviv University private?

No, all universities in Israel are public.  We are funded by the government.

Do they give you enough money?

We depend very significantly on government funding, which has in recent years increased, but not really enough, since the cost of research, especially in the hard sciences like physics, chemistry, biology, is constantly increasing.  The government provides about 70% of the budget of our university.  The rest comes from tuition – which is very low in Israel – and from special programmes that we charge for.  All the development of the university, new programmes, new buildings, new equipment, new laboratories, comes from philanthropy.

Is there competition between the universities?

Sure, we compete on everything:  new faculty members, students, and philanthropy.  Competition is a healthy process and is a driving force, but we also co-operate.

What is your university’s rating?

It depends on the ranking method.  We in Israel know the general standing of our universities by the constantly increasing visitations from universities abroad, who come here in order to create collaboration with Israeli universities.  Many universities worldwide come here for the angle that Israel is strong in, which is innovation and entrepreneurial experience.

“We are extremely international and we have cooperation with leading universities abroad.”

Young Israelis have a long military service.  How do you cope with that?

In Israel, when you finish high school you go to the army for between 3 to 5 years or more.  You enrol to the university older than in other countries, but therefore Israeli students are more mature when they come to the university, with a broader view on life.

What are your priorities today?

Currently we are very much interested in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensors for autonomous vehicles, and smart cities. 

Do you think that education is the strongest weapon we have against the upsurge of racism and antisemitism around the world?

The problem of racism and antisemitism has a few layers.  I hope that education from an early age is something that can work, but we have to distinguish between this layer and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that was created by the Palestinians and is targeted to Israel, and here really strong politics come in.  BDS is mainly within university students worldwide.  Faculty members are less active in this anti-Israeli initiative.  However today’s students will be the next generation of faculty members, so the BDS movement against Israel is on an increasing trend.

Do you have many Arab-Israeli students at TAU?

We have about 14%.  They integrate well and we have special programmes for mentoring them if they have less knowledge of Hebrew and to prevent dropout.

Do you link with other universities around the world?

We are extremely international and we have cooperation with leading universities abroad.  Science is getting more and more global, and big challenges need to be solved by many different points of view and the cooperation of different cultures. 


Tel Aviv, 2018