InterviewAll due to 'my rebellious, ambitious genes,' says geneticist

Stepping down, first female university head speaks of tough choices, no regrets

After 12 years at the helm of Ben-Gurion University, Rivka Carmi says politics is not for her as she leaves the city of Beersheba to give the new president ‘space’

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Prof. Rivka Carmi, who was the first woman to be president at an Israeli university, at her office on December 12, 2018, a few weeks before she left her post (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)
Prof. Rivka Carmi, who was the first woman to be president at an Israeli university, at her office on December 12, 2018, a few weeks before she left her post (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The shelves of Prof. Rivka Carmi’s office were already almost bare as she prepared to leave her office to make way for the new president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, after she served for three terms at the head of an academic institute that has been instrumental in revamping the image of the southern city of Beersheba.

Some books on genetics — her first passion, at the age of 14 — were piled on her desk. “These I still need to pack,” she said.

A bust of David Ben-Gurion — a founding father of the State of Israel and the nation’s first prime minister, who dreamed of making the Negev desert bloom around a local university — was still on a shelf, along with clay vases and sculptures of birds and figurines. Another smaller statue, of Ben-Gurion standing on his head, was on her desk.

After spending 43 years in Beersheba, Carmi, the first woman to be named the president of an Israeli university, will be moving northward to Ramat Gan, a city in the center of Israel close to Tel Aviv.

A statue of David Ben-Gurion standing on his head in the office of Prof. Rivka Carmi at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; Dec. 12, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“I want the new president to have space,” she said. “Space in the university, space in the city.”

Beersheba is a small city, she said, and since she has been there for so many years in public roles, she’s “not just any other citizen. The president of Ben-Gurion University is not only the president of the university, they are a pillar” for the city and the Negev region.

The new president, Prof. Daniel Chamovitz, a former dean of the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University, took up his post on January 1, after Carmi completed 12 years at the helm.

What is Carmi planning to do now, after a career that has spanned the practice of medicine, a fellowship in medical genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School, and serving as the first female dean of an Israeli medical school, before taking the helm of BGU?

“Not politics,” she says adamantly. Avishay Braverman, the president of BGU she replaced in 2006, went on to serve as a member of parliament for the Labor party, until he decided not to run again in the 2015, retiring from political life “out of a feeling of exhaustion.”

“I don’t think being a university president, however successful, makes you suitable for politics. It is completely different. The personality and character traits you need are completely different and I know I am really unsuitable for that,” Carmi said.

She’s not going to be idle, though she is planning a “very small holiday” before she moves on to her next endeavor. A number of people have approached her offering her positions, she said, and she is in advanced talks with one party, though she declined to say who or what it was.

Prof. Rivka Carmi, right, at her office on December 12, 2018, just weeks before she left her post as president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” she said. ” I will know soon.”

What she does know, she said, is that she wants to do “something significant” in a field she understands or has a passion for.

“I’ve had titles in my life. Now I want something I can connect with and that will give me pleasure,” that will allow her to get up “with joy in the morning” to go to work, just as she felt at her post at the university.

Whatever she chooses to do, she said, whether in Israel or abroad, “it will be about Israel and connected to Israel.”

Carmi was born in 1948, the same year the nation was founded, and raised in Zichron Ya’acov, the daughter of Zipora, a social worker, and Menachem, an accountant who died when she was 14.

She recounts in a TEDx talk posted on YouTube how at the age of 14 she already knew she’d be a genetics researcher. “I was fascinated by the human cell,” she said. When her high school teacher told her and her mother that she could study either sciences or humanities at university, but that humanities would be much “easier,” she set her heart on sciences.

“The science class was small: about 22 students, of whom just two were girls: Margalit, whose mother was a chemistry teacher, and myself, the daughter of a social worker,” she said in the talk.

“Were we the only two girls who could have taken science? Of course not, but other girls didn’t have a role model-mother like Margalit’s, and they didn’t have my rebellious, ambitious genes.”

Carmi went on to graduate from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Hadassah Medical School. She also completed a residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in neonatology at the Soroka University Medical Center.

“When at the end of my first year studying biology at the university I decided to switch to medicine, my mother was not happy at all,” Carmi said in the TEDx talk. “She maintained that medicine is a very tough profession for a woman raising a family, while biology teachers get vacations that cater to the needs of mothers.
“Hearing her, I knew that I had made the right decision.”

During her career, Carmi has researched genetic diseases in the Negev Arab-Bedouin population, authored over 150 publications in medical genetics, and helped identify 12 new genes and delineate two new genetic syndromes, one of which has been named the Carmi Syndrome.

She has set up community outreach programs aimed at preventing hereditary diseases and advancing women’s education in the Bedouin community, and has played an active role in advancing the status of women in Israel, particularly in the medical and academic spheres.

In 2011, she chaired a panel that looked into how to promote women at institutions of higher education. In 2015, she headed a task force of the Israeli Medical Association to examine the status of women in medicine. That same year she was also honored by the queen of England for her work on joint scientific endeavors pursued by the UK and Israel.

A detour from her path

Being the first woman head of an Israeli university was “fantastic,” Carmi said in an interview held in December, just a few weeks before she would leave her office at BGU.

The decision to take on the role was a “detour” from a career path she had otherwise very carefully mapped.

She sees such detours as grabbing “bonus points” in a video game while still staying focused on the target.

Taking the job as president of the university was her only career move that “wasn’t planned,” she said. When Braverman called her in 2005 and told her he was leaving his job to enter politics and was seeking a replacement, she needed to decide almost immediately. She took the job.

“It was clear to me that it is a new career,” she said, having realized that if she took the job she wouldn’t be able to focus on medicine or research. And there’s no going back to those tracks, she said. Any new position she takes will wrap up all of the experiences she has collected over the years.

The campus of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Dani Machlis)

Carmi takes pride in her role in making the university a pivotal point for promoting jobs, entrepreneurship and tech activity for the Negev region.

BGU is a research university with some 20,000 students, 4,000 faculty members and 150,000 graduates. It recently set out a new program to boost entrepreneurship within its walls, and is an active partner in an initiative to set up an advanced technology park within walking distance of the campus.

The park is home to startups, local tech firms and multinational giants, helping foster interactions and collaborations between researchers and industry, while at the same time creating jobs in the city of Beersheba, once perceived as a failed development town of immigrants living in drug-infested neighborhoods. The Israeli army is also in the process of transferring its intelligence and tech units to Beersheba, creating an even more fertile ground for collaboration.

“I am proud of what we have done at the high-tech park,” a vision many years in the making, she said. “The question was how to make this vision happen, and I was a partner in making it happen. We are at the very beginning of our work.”

Five years ago, she said, companies would not have even considered moving to Beersheba. Now, they realize that by setting up shop in the tech park, they can have access to researchers, with whom they can set up joint projects, and to a pipeline of eager and bright students.

Students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Dani Machlis)

“We have collaborations in research and an interesting academia-industry ecosystem has been created,” she said. “We didn’t invent this ecosystem, but we refined it,” because both faculty and students are open to do applied research in a variety of fields including biotechnology, robotics and satellite technologies, as well as in fields in which the university has a “competitive edge,” such as solar energy, water desalination and purification and desert research. In these fields, she said, basic research coexists alongside applied research.

“It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” Carmi said, referring to basic research and applied research, in which scientific knowledge is applied to practical purposes, like inventions or technologies. “It is one alongside the other. Many applied developments started off from basic research.”

Universities globally and in Israel are shifting to promoting applied research because they need more income and have to “create value.”

The advancement of human knowledge is “a value in itself,” she added. “But in the 21st century if you don’t have some value, economical or any other…then you don’t have a right to exist. Especially in public universities, where 70% of our operating budget comes from the state. The state expects to see that its investment is creating value.”

Robots developed in the lab of Dr David Zarrouk, head of Ben-Gurion University’s Bio-Inspired and Medical Robotics Lab; March 5, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

This value is also created by the university giving its students adequate tools to help them deal with a world in which technologies and industries are undergoing rapid changes, she said.

‘Don’t let feminism ruin your career’

Carmi did not encounter any particular gender bias during her stint as the first woman president of an Israeli university, nor during the rest of her career, for that matter, she said.

“I’ve never been a man so I cannot compare,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think I faced special difficulties that stemmed from me being a woman. At least I never perceived it that way. I always thought any difficulty I encountered was connected to the issue itself.”

During her tenure as president and in her career in general she has always played an active role in promoting women in the workplace and in academia.

It has always been a “serious drive” she said. “Women have very serious obstacles everywhere, including in academia.” But “things are improving, changing.”

All of the recommendations of the panel she chaired in 2011 that looked into how to promote women at higher education institutions, have been adopted, she said, and today all of the universities in Israel are rated also according to how well they integrate and promote women and how they cater to the needs of women during their careers.

“I believe that in the coming five years we will see — we are already seeing — changes on the ground with women in leadership roles — in academia, faculty women and colleges,” she said.

Other changes are coming thanks to the #me-too movement, the social media movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, especially at the workplace.

“The fact that the movement exists made a big change, putting the matter on the table in the bluntest of manners — because these are the kind of things that if you don’t put them on the agenda, they are erased,” she said.

“We are in the middle of this historic process,” she added, and even if some women may take things too far, “this is what happens in processes like this. The pendulum was here, then there, and in the end it will find its balance.”

Left, to right, actors Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd wear black for the Time’s Up movement at the 75th Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018, in Beverly Hills, California. (AFP Photo/Valerie Macon)

She herself has never experienced any setback because she was a woman. “But I am really not an example,” she said. She knows of “very high-quality” women who have suffered from bias, and “in a dramatic manner.”

In her TEDx talk Carmi recounts the story of a woman colleague, a senior gynecologist, who expressed frustration over being passed over for associate professorship again and again, while younger, less-academically accomplished men were being granted professorships.

“I was furious,” Carmi said. “So, I invited myself to a meeting with the chairman of the academic promotion committee, a distinguished professor at the medical school, and presented him with the CV. He promised to take care of it. And nothing happened…

“After a month I called him and told him that this was gender discrimination and that I was not going to let the issue go. He warned me: ‘You are a promising young faculty member; don’t let feminism ruin your career,'” Carmi recounts.

“It didn’t happen to me,” she said in the interview. “But I am sensitive enough to say that even if it never happened to me, it doesn’t mean anything; I am the exception to the rule.”

Books on genetics and medicine on the desk of Prof. Rivka Carmi, at her office at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; December 12, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Carmi believes that her inborn assertiveness and her self-confidence played a big role in shielding her from discrimination and sexual harassment, she said. There was just one case of a doctor who tried to harass her. It happened once, and she told him that the next time she would report him to the manager.

“And it was over,” she said. “I was in a position that I could afford to do this, but if you are a young actress who wants to get a job as a lead actress it could be that you can’t do that.”

Her stint as an officer in her army service also helped, she thinks. Carmi served as the commander in the officers’ training school and during the Yom Kippur War she helped set up the missing in action unit in the IDF. The army “was the best school of management and leadership I ever had,” she said.

But all of this certainly does not mean that women who are less assertive or less self-confident don’t deserve the jobs or promotions that they are due, she added.

Sacrifice is a ‘matter of definitions’

Carmi’s list of missed opportunities is “unending,” she said. “I can give you a long list of things I haven’t managed to do, I didn’t do, I failed in – but they are pinpoints in time.”

For example, there is a program that she wanted to promote at the university but didn’t manage to, she said. “Maybe it will disappear because I am not here.”

For the sake of her career, she has had to make “choices,” she said, because deep down she’s not so sure women can actually really have it all — not yet, in any case.

She expressed admiration for those few women who juggle strong careers and also have five children. “I very much hold them in esteem, but I want to see at the end of the day, when they come to my age, if they have managed to do it all. They are very few.”

Prof. Rivka Carmi, M.D., president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Carmi has one child, a daughter, today a businesswoman living in New York with her two children. She has also had two significant relationships that have now ended: the first one a marriage, and the second, a long-term partnership that is now over.

“Looking back, I also made sacrifices, but it was all in a conscious way,” she said. “The fact that I have one daughter is completely out of choice.”

She had her daughter because she wanted to experience motherhood, she said, but at the same time she also knew there were other things that she aimed to do in life. “So, you can call it sacrifice, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I see it as a very rational decision.”

The same with her two relationships. People could say that these failed relationships and her being alone today are sacrifices she made for her career, she said. But even then, it was a conscious decision, and a choice.

“I won’t stay in a relationship just because I want someone to help me in my old age. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Now if you put me on a psychiatrist’s couch, maybe she will get to the truth, but… I don’t see it as a sacrifice.”

Even so, “it does not mean it was not tough,” she said. “But I never felt I was sacrificing my personal and family life… it is a matter of definitions.”

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