Impressed by what they saw of Israeli research and innovation on a recent trip to Israel, a group of presidents and chancellors of prominent historically Black colleges and universities in the US returned home excited to partner with Israeli institutions of higher learning.
With signed memoranda of understanding in hand, they plan to send students to study-abroad programs at Israeli universities, and have their faculty exchange knowledge and perform joint research with Israeli professors and researchers.
While it may take a while to iron out all the details, the educational leaders said they were eager to get started.
“We may not be able to send our whole school. But if you send one or two students to start, you are changing their lives and changing the lives of the individuals that they interact with,” said South Carolina State University president Alexander Conyers.
The HBCU — historically Black colleges and universities — group was in Israel in mid-July for a weeklong trip organized by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund with the express purpose of learning about the country’s higher education and research, and to explore possibilities for exchanges and partnerships with Israeli universities and colleges.
The group visited a variety of institutions, including the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, the Technion, Migal – Galilee Research Institute, and the Volcani Center (Israel’s national agricultural research and development center).
“This is a capacity-building trip. The motivation was to expose our leadership to opportunities that we wouldn’t normally think about,” TMCF president and CEO Dr. Harry Williams told The Times of Israel.
For the group’s Israeli hosts, it was an opportunity to learn more about HBCUs and the role that science, research and innovation play in their missions and academic programs.
HBCUs are institutions of higher learning established in the United States between the mid-19th century and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to offer undergraduate and graduate-level education to individuals of African descent who were not welcome at other institutions. The majority of the 101 HBCUs are in the South, and they produce nearly 20% of all Black college graduates and 25% of Black STEM graduates.
Established in 1987, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TCMF) represents publicly supported HBCUs, which enroll 80% of all HBCU students.
It was the first time in Israel for all members of the group, some of whom brought family members with them. When The Times of Israel joined them for a morning at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, they said that Israel is not currently on the radar of most HBCU students when it comes to study-abroad destinations.
“There currently isn’t a buzz about Israel on HBCU campuses. But these leaders here, who are well-respected among HBCUs and in their states, will go back and they’ll start talking to their colleagues… and that’s going to generate more interest,” Williams said.
Similarities and differences
Dr. Harold Martin, Jr., chancellor of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, said that what he learned over his week in Israel was eye-opening.
“Prior to our visit, I would not have identified Israel as a leading technological and innovative nation. I leave with a very different perspective, having interacted with so many outstanding universities thriving in areas of innovation and technology that are providing outstanding graduates to leading global technology companies here in Israel and around the world,” he said.
The visit focused on areas of study and research that are strong in Israel and also central to the missions of most HBCUs.
“Technology is key to our university and 50% of our educational programs are in STEM disciplines. We do applied research that is shared with agribusinesses and technology companies. And oftentimes that innovation gets spun out into startup companies that create jobs,” Martin said.
Alabama State University president Quinton T. Ross, Jr., said that his university has strong undergraduate and graduate STEM programs and that it produces many doctors and other healthcare professionals.
“Our institutions focus on teaching, service and research. Out of that come so many who contribute to changing the lives not only of their communities but throughout the nation,” he said.
Members of the delegation told The Times of Israel they were amazed by how welcoming the Israeli institutions were, and how freely they shared information.
“We had access to [Hebrew University], the No. 1 university in the country, and one of the top 100 in the world. They don’t just let anyone come knocking at the door, but they invited us to have an audience with the senior leadership who can make decisions [about partnerships]. We were so impressed by their openness and willingness to listen. Our conversation with them was overwhelmingly positive,” said TMCF president Williams.
Following an informal presentation at Hadassah by Prof. Avi Rivkind, a pioneer in shock trauma medicine in Israel, Ross noted how openly the doctor shared details of the hospital trauma center’s unique design, and of treatments creatively devised to treat injuries like blast trauma from terrorist bombing attacks.
“Everywhere we’ve gone everyone has been so engaging and willing to share and want to give information. To experience that type of innovation and drive has been refreshing,” Ross said.
Martin of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University was impressed by an apparent assumption that academics will contribute to the startup nation’s economic engine.
“There is an expectation for university faculty to produce research and innovation that adds value to existing products or companies, or that can lead to the establishment of new companies,” he noted.
“That’s not universally true across higher education in America. Also, Israeli professors seem to have a greater degree of access to incentive funds to take that technology developed in research laboratories, and commercialize it, spin it out, and create companies that create and contribute to the economy here,” he added.
Along the same lines, Prof. Wayne Kaplan, vice president for external relations and resource development at the Technion, reported that the HBCU group was interested in learning about the Technion’s international reputation for technology transfer.
“We discussed how we do this and made direct comparisons with their universities,” Kaplan said.
Adding diversity to Israeli campuses
Prof. Milette Shamir, Tel Aviv University’s vice president for international collaboration, shared her excitement about memorandums of understanding for student exchanges that have been signed or are in the process of being finalized with some of the HBCUs.
She believes that HBCU students would benefit greatly from the university’s entrepreneurship courses and the entrepreneurial culture that permeates the TAU campus culture. Furthermore, the visiting HBCU students would add to the diversity of the Israeli campus.
“Most of our students in our study abroad programs come from the US, and the majority come for reasons that have to do with families, or their [Jewish] heritage and identity. I think that one of our goals as a university now is to see how we can broaden and diversify our visiting student population. We’re thrilled over the possibility of hosting these students here,” Shamir said.
She said she would like to see large numbers of HBCU students spend a semester at her university, and that scholarships would be made available.
After hearing visiting Masters of Public Health students from Cameroon, Nigeria, and Tanzania at the Hebrew University’s Braun School of Public Health reflect on their positive experiences living and studying in Israel, Ross from Alabama State University said a goal would be to send as many of his students to likewise “come and touch and feel” Israel.
TMCF president and CEO Williams said he already had verbal agreements with some Israeli professors to lecture at HBCUs.
Conyers, who is particularly interested in sharing knowledge on maximizing limited water resources for agricultural production, suggested that while plans for student and faculty exchanges are being made, regular ongoing communication could begin right away.
“We know that there are great opportunities here and we must be willing to explore all avenues to take advantage of them,” he said. “I think we should use Zoom and other online means to share ideas, experiences, and innovations.”
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