Ivy League-inspired Education in Israel

Haaretz spends a week on campus at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya to learn how the monied institute has become a leader in the local academic sphere, and what that says about us.

Tomer Michelzon
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Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, April 2014.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Tomer Michelzon

The sandstone path surrounded by a grassy meadow, which leads from the nearest bus stop to the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, soon made it clear how wrong we were. This was not the ideal way to get to the IDC for someone trying to gain admission there as a student. The few students walking beside me and the hundreds of cars parked in the spacious parking lot were an ample demonstration of the traveling method most favored by its denizens.

This error vanished from my mind, though, the moment I saw the lovely small village just beyond the fence: A well-kept lawn, high trees, marble buildings covered with wood and glass – no trace of the abandoned air force base that had been here until 20 years ago, when the IDC was established. As any of its current or former students knows, the first stop when integrating into a new academic institution is the cafeteria. The first one I encountered was in the Sammy Ofer School of Communications building.

The preferred topics of discussion for those sitting around me were clothes, trips and the center’s upcoming student party in Eilat. The two young women standing behind me in line for coffee, wearing their best clothes, brought each other up-to-date on the latest skiing vacation and then talked about the clothing brands they liked best, including Urban Outfitters. “I bought a Brazilian swimsuit,” another young woman said, passing her iPhone around to show photos. “I wanted to buy another one, but it was really expensive and my father would kill me.”

You will not find many students showing up for class here wearing faded jeans and a simple T-shirt, in the best tradition of other academic institutions. Most of these young people are meticulously dressed. Even as I try to rid myself of the preconceived notions that I came with, and to give the place a chance, one of the female students I arrived with tells me that students call the path between the Efi Arazi School of Computer Science and the main cafeteria the catwalk, or the runway.

“On the first week of studies, some of the female students drop [fashion] bombshells and come wearing Louis Vuitton. Then things calm down a bit,” says Shiran, a 24-year-old student from Ra’anana in the communications program.

It seems that the IDC’s founder, Prof. Uriel Reichman, can mark his vision for the institution – inspired by the Ivy League model in the United States – as having been fulfilled. It’s certainly the one most resembling an overseas academic institution you’ll find in Israel.

Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On

Big names, big prices

The IDC, where almost 7,000 students attend nine schools, functions as a completely private institution – unusual for the Israeli landscape – and enjoys complete freedom of management. Tuition fees for the IDC, which is considered a nonbudgeted college, are fairly high for Israel: almost 38,000 shekels ($10,940) per academic year. In exchange, the IDC provides the full academic experience, just like in the Ivy League, with the highest-level and best lecturers (retired Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak and the former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel, Zvi Eckstein, are but two of the prominent names); the study environment is comfortable, and even luxurious; there are enrichment programs and clubs; and even a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony where the students throw their caps into the air to the sounds of an inspiring pop tune.

But as with all Americana, there is the stigma, too. The institution’s long name, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, is often shortened – and mangled – in Israeli slang. The aura of international prestige, the comfortable location on the outskirts of Herzliya and the admission requirements – which are comparatively easier than those of Israel’s universities – attract the children of the area’s wealthy families, those who can pay the high tuition without batting an eyelash and want to keep attending school with their friends from high school.

Still, they’re not the only ones who pass through the institution’s gates. The IDC takes pride in the fact that every sixth student is on a scholarship – mainly former combat soldiers and those who come from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds. In recent years, IDC officials decided to put more emphasis on matters of social justice and branded the school as a training ground for the future generation of leaders under the motto “Freedom and responsibility.”

A stroll among the paths on campus reveals another layer of the place’s DNA: The Sammy Ofer School of Communications building; the Yuli and Ruti Ofer Lecture Hall; the Sammy and Aviva Ofer Lecture Halls; the School of Sustainability Founded by the Israel Corp., Israel Chemicals and Oil Refineries (a gesture to Israel Corp.’s largest shareholder, Idan Ofer?); the Arison School of Business; and the new Adelson School of Entrepreneurship. It seems that the IDC excels in attracting well-known donors from the top of the modern Israeli business pyramid. A kind of Israel Hayom (today) – the name of the newspaper Sheldon Adelson funds – if you will.

Most of the students arrange meals on their desks until the psychology class in personality theories starts. But even after the lecturer enters the hall and begins speaking, the students are still eating energetically. “Today we will talk about Erikson’s Theory [of Psychosocial Development], which is much easier to swallow than Freud’s. Which is great, since most of you are eating anyway,” she says with a smile.

As a rule, the prevalent attitude at the IDC – like the American customer-service ethos, which seeks to always keep the customer happy – is that the student is king and has the right to the most comfortable conditions, by virtue of the tuition he pays. All the students we spoke to had only good things to say about the personal attention they receive from the lecturers, which includes supplementary classes as and when required, immediate replies to emails, retaking of exams up to three times, and personal support for any problem. Teaching feedback is taken seriously here, and lecturers whom the students don’t like will find themselves out very quickly.

A former IDC lecturer told Haaretz, “Many times, I felt I was conducting negotiations with the students about leniencies and various demands they made that would never even be discussed in universities.” Sitting in on the Issues in the Media course, I understood what he meant. While the instructor showed a clip from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the students seemed to be floating in a different sphere entirely. “Excuse me, that’s disturbing me,” the lecturer said, then softened his stance: “It’s fine that you don’t want to listen, but if you want to talk, at least use WhatsApp.”

Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On

‘I’m here for the connections’

The time has arrived to get some sun and do some business. As I head toward the lawn near the Arison School of Business, I see Noa, a smiling, energetic woman who turns the place’s subtext into a completely transparent and unapologetic text. “Why did you choose to study business management at the IDC?” I ask her. “For the networking!” she says straightforwardly, laughing. “That’s the way it is. The people who come to study here are the children and siblings of successful people. I think there’s a very high-level group here. The people who study here have money.”

But tuition fees are very high. Isn’t it difficult to make the payments?

“Yes, but it’s worth it. I look at myself: I don’t come from distinguished lineage, and I work hard to pay for my degree, but I already see that I’m getting to know a lot of people, from all kinds of fields, who will help me in the future.”

Indeed, networking and personal entrepreneurship are a major and important part of attending. Beside the possibilities that come from just sitting next to the children of prominent families in class, the IDC itself has borrowed the tradition of clubs and enrichment programs from the elite American universities. Almost every student we spoke to on campus is involved in a program of entrepreneurship or excellence of one kind or another, has been part of a delegation abroad at least once, and is a member of a club. This activity creates a broad infrastructure for making connections and future collaborations.

“They tell you that as early as on the open day,” Noa says. “If you come here just for the classes, that makes no sense. The things they give you beyond the classes are what’s worthwhile here. Ultimately, how does one check which institution is the best to go to? By the money that its graduates earn afterward. I believe that, in a few years, the IDC will become a leader in this area.”

Noa is not far from the truth. For all practical purposes, the average salary of IDC graduates in fields such as law, business management and computer science is at the top of Israel’s academic institutions – alongside Tel Aviv University and the Technion, Haifa – according to 2012 data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Sponsored marketing seminars

Networking at the IDC has penetrated the curriculum as well. One of the courses on offer in the business management department is a practical marketing seminar – in cooperation with Calmobile-Calmotor, the Israeli company that imports Mercedes Benz cars. The seminar includes visits to Mercedes’ facilities in Israel, lectures about the Israeli and global automobile market, and a competition to build a marketing strategy for Mercedes in Israel. And what works in marketing Mercedes cars is also good for the IDC. Almost all the college’s graduates we interviewed were careful to avoid criticizing it, and praised the personal attention and enriching curricula. One factor looming large in the high satisfaction level was the relationships formed at the IDC, particularly the ones that are kept up after graduation with the encouragement of the school’s Alumni Association, alongside its Career Development Center (every academic institution has one like it today).

One graduate, who asked to remain anonymous, said the lack of criticism by alumni may have to do with fear of hurting their chances of developing connections or receiving job offers from the Alumni Association. “The IDC’s Alumni Association is one of the strongest organizations in Israeli academia,” says Adi Peled-Olmert, the association’s director (and herself a student from one of the IDC’s first graduating classes). “The Association was established in 1998 with inspiration from successful models in the United States.”

What does the concept “American model” mean to you?

“Alumni associations that are in close contact with their alumni the second after they’ve graduated from the institution. The day classes are over, a whole world of connections starts, weaved by the association. Our alumni’s successes are the successes of our school, and they also help to create the center’s good image. We have graduates in the leadership [positions] of large companies, and they prefer to employ IDC graduates. There is a kind of team spirit here that’s part of the DNA of this place.”

Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On
Campus life at the IDC, Herzliya Photo by Daniel Bar-On

‘No critical questions here’

To a certain extent, the IDC provides an exact mirror image of Israeli society, or American society. This is an ultra-capitalist society based on entrepreneurial projects, excellence and, mostly, lots of connections in the right places. It is also a society that privatizes itself to a fault to reduce the burden on the general public, and demands very high tuition fees, even as it attempts to include and promote all levels of the population through a generous system of scholarships and donations from wealthy people and alumni.

Yotam, who is studying administration on a partial scholarship, has some criticism of an institution that otherwise all its students and alumni seem to praise. He claims that one of the IDC’s weak points is the fact that it has very little critical and intellectual discourse, and that almost everyone accepts the rules of the game as taken for granted. “People are trained here in how to excel in the game the moment they get outside,” he says. “In other words: Be the best, start the biggest and most profitable company on Earth. Nobody asks critical or philosophical questions, such as why this is the system we work in and why it looks the way it does. Nobody discusses the fact that maybe this system doesn’t promote the greater interest, but only the interest of a certain group.”

Yotam’s statements chime with the fact that almost no political activity takes place on the IDC campus, as in other colleges: the Student Union forbids it. The only time to hold critical, stormy dialogue on matters of social justice – as one might expect of a center whose stated purpose is to train the future generation of leaders, at least according to its advertisements – is limited to Democracy Week, which is held once a year, and maybe several inspiring lectures by retired judges and former politicians.

In Jacob Kornbluth’s excellent film “Inequality For All,” which was screened recently in Israel, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describes America’s boom years between the 1940s and the ’70s. The unemployment rate went down, salaries and productivity went up, and the standard of living soared. One reason for that, he claims, was the large investment in higher education, which was provided to the public at a price so affordable as to be symbolic.

Without doubt, Prof. Uriel Reichman brought America to Israel in the form of the IDC, which serves as a pleasant hothouse for his students and graduates. But this is not the America of those three decades. Instead, it is the America of the 1980s and later – the one that is privatized to within an inch of its life and suffers from extreme inequality; an America where strong, well-connected wealth casts a heavy shadow over democracy, and the weaker socioeconomic levels are supported mainly by nonprofit organizations and donations. The question is whether we want to be there, and to what extent. To judge by what is happening at the IDC, the choice has already been made, and they believe it is an excellent one. For them, there is no need to rethink the current model.