Juggling Act

Prof. Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University, is a renowned geneticist who has made promotion of women in academia a priority. But she has often been sidetracked by right-wing charges that BGU is excessively leftist. Meanwhile, left-wingers accuse her of silencing opposition.

The German ambassador was already on the way as Prof. Rivka Carmi concluded her speech to the management forum of Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Just as Carmi, the university’s president, was about to head back to her spacious office, someone with an iPad approached her, asking whether she had seen the local television item about the university’s examinations procedure. She hadn’t. He played it for her: a group of students grumbling about the university’s attitude, with one of them declaring, “If it’s up to me − don’t study at BGU.”

“We have to send someone to give an interview in response,” Carmi said. Back in her office, she was more specific. “I want to be interviewed today,” she snapped into the phone.

Carmi - Yanai Yechiel - March 2, 2012
Yanai Yechiel

“A few students in the department of electrical engineering have complaints about the teachers and about the examinations procedure,” she explained. “It’s part of a long process that is bogged down in the senate. The students are impatient. They want the problems to be solved instantly and have launched a vicious campaign. The truth is that there are problems, but we are working on it overtime.”

It sounds routine, but Carmi is not one to ignore the media, not even a local TV channel. She canceled all her appointments for the rest of the day, but it was too late to cancel the meeting with the German ambassador. They talked about Deutsche Telekom laboratories in the Negev and about academic cooperation. He addressed her as “Miss President”; she told him her father was born in Germany. After exactly half an hour, Carmi took her leave of the envoy and returned to the distinctly undiplomatic action on campus.

With a journalist in the room, Carmi avoids naming names. “That idiot − you know who I mean, yes, the one with the ponytail,” she says to her interlocutor on the phone in a conversation about the root of the problem. When the rector comes to see her she explains again, “It’s a militant group, a handful, who are dictating the agenda.” She describes someone as “impotent.”

“This story has gone on for a few years,” she says. “There is apparently a basic lack of trust within the system. We have to come up with an answer, so I am going to give an interview. And I want to meet with the class committee.”

An hour later, she is in the studio of the campus television station, located in the building of the Faculty of Health Sciences. “You don’t have to say ‘I am your president,’” the university’s marketing adviser says after the first take. Carmi tries to restrain herself, but looks like she is on the verge of exploding.

Back in the office, the class committee enters. “Thank you for coming. I wanted to say that behavior in a dispute also has its rules,” she lectures the combative students. “What would you do in our place?” they ask, after informing her that in some courses the failure rate is 90 percent and the teachers are incommunicative. “That’s a good question,” Carmi replies, but ends the meeting without answering it.

Turn left right here

Carmi, an acclaimed geneticist and the first woman to head a research university in Israel, has had to douse quite a few fires in the past two years. The angry students are actually a relatively easy case. Since her appointment as president she has had to rebuff criticism, most of it politically colored, from outside the university as well. She is attacked from the right for not doing anything about the fact that her university has become a hotbed of radical-left activity. And she is assailed from the left for not supporting faculty members who are under attack and for imposing an atmosphere of silencing opposition.

“If you have to talk about freedom of expression, it means there is a problem to begin with,” a lecturer at the university says. “You don’t talk about breathing air, because it’s taken for granted.”

The watershed was probably an article published in the Los Angeles Times in August 2009 by Prof. Neve Gordon of the university’s Department of Politics and Government. Gordon described Israel as an apartheid state and called on foreign governments and organizations to exert “massive international pressure” on the country. The article, titled “Boycott Israel,” made waves and focused attention on the Department of Politics and Government. Since then, the university has been subjected to microscopic examination by right-wing politicians and organizations, including particularly close surveillance by Im Tirtzu − an organization that “works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel,” according to its website. These groups pounce on every controversial statement by a faculty member suspected of “leftist tendencies.”

Carmi’s predecessor as president, Prof. Avishay Braverman ‏(now a Labor Party MK‏), had to cope with a similar situation. At that time the trigger was an article published in a Belgian paper in April 2004 by Dr. Lev Grinberg of BGU’s sociology department. “The assassination of Sheikh Yassin [in Gaza] by the government of Israel is part of a larger policy which can be described as symbolic genocide,” he wrote. The education minister at the time, Limor Livnat ‏(Likud‏), wrote a scathing letter to Braverman and launched a ‏(symbolic‏) war against the university. But Braverman managed to achieve a cease-fire and the hostilities abated.

However, in the past year BGU has been repeatedly on the front line. The mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth devoted an entire page to a report on the Department of Politics and Government drawn up by the Council for Higher Education (CHE). The report concluded that core studies in the department are weak, and that the faculty-student ratio is too low. If this and other faults were not remedied, the report stated, as a last resort the council would recommend closing down the department.

Even though allegations of “leftism” and “political bias” received marginal treatment in the report, the headline in Yedioth Ahronoth was, “Recommendation: Shut down ‘leftist department.’” And that was more or less the message that stuck in the public consciousness. ‏(About a month ago, MK Alex Miller from Yisrael Beiteinu declared that grading in the department is also based on a political agenda. “If they teach something unbalanced there, won’t they be tested on it?” he asked rhetorically in a phone conversation. “When you see the big picture, my concern is that it also has implications for the students’ grades.”‏)

“It was a routine report,” Carmi says drily about the CHE document. “They are always examining a different field across all the universities. We thought we would adopt the report’s conclusions about strengthening the core subjects, even though there was an argument about this, because the department was established with a mandate to be different. The faculty members view the issue from a range of angles: geographical, historical, architectural. But our thinking was that if the committee says so, then maybe we overdid things a little, and okay, we accept the conclusions. I don’t know who had an interest in this, but when the report was leaked to the press it turned into a nasty story.”

Could it be that deep down you agree with the allegation that the Department of Politics and Government is too far left?

“There is one faculty member who crossed a line by calling for a boycott of Israel. Some of our funding is from donors, and if donations do not come in because of one boycott or another, we will be hurt. One can identify with a particular line,” Carmi adds. “The question is also how far the political orientation of a faculty member penetrates the classroom. The material could be highly charged. Students should be exposed to that, but in a way that is balanced. Even a researcher who propounds a subversive, revolutionary thesis has to cope with competing opinions and present a general context. If that’s impossible, don’t speak. I am not sweeping the Palestinian issue under the rug, but it cannot be detached from history. It is complex and weighty, and if you want to get into it, then do so courageously. And for me, courageously means coping with all the narratives, including the issues you find difficult.”

A relatively fresh case involves Prof. Idan Landau of the Foreign Literatures and Linguistics Department. A conscientious objector, Landau was jailed for not reporting for reserve duty, and then discovered that the university had docked his salary for the time he had been incarcerated. He complained about the university’s action on his blog − called “Don’t Die Stupid” − and the episode generated more headlines about the extreme left at BGU and the university administration’s struggle against the leftists.

“When a worker does reserve duty, the employer receives compensation from the National Insurance Institute,” Carmi explains, sticking to a technical argument. “Prof. Landau did not do reserve duty, but was also not available to the employer during this period. You could say that he needn’t have been present on the campus at all [to do research], but availability refers also to students, to a departmental seminar, to membership on committees. He tried to say I was coming from a preset agenda, but he broke the law and it was not I who jailed him.”

Docking his salary was perceived as an act of political punishment against the left, or as a political payoff to the right, to show you are good Zionists.

“That infuriates me. And if I put my hand in the university’s pocket and pay him for the time he spent in jail, is there no subtext there, which says that I support his action? It wasn’t some personal caprice, it was a decision by an administrative forum. Now I have a problem with a left-wing donor, who says that if I don’t retract, he will withdraw his donation. But I do not have double standards, what I say is disinterested, and if I have to forgo the donation, I will.”

Right versus left

It’s not just freedom of speech, but also freedom of funding that dictates the university’s behavior. The cuts in budgets for higher education over the past few years have increased the institutions’ dependence on donors, and some of the latter are trying to exploit the situation to promote their own agendas. Several of them have accused Carmi of surrendering to the radical left on the campus. The lecturers under attack feel that Carmi is being unsupportive and infringing freedom of expression. The result is that she is on the blacklist of right-wing groups, and at the same time is accused of conformism by the left.

“Someone told me the fact that I am being slandered equally by both sides means I am in the right place,” Carmi says. “And there are also those who say I am betraying the university by supporting the faculty members involved and not slashing budgets in some departments. The allegations from both directions are baseless. With great modesty, I think I am behaving in a practical manner.”

Which is more important: academic freedom or obtaining donations?

“Both are extremely important. The donations are critical to the university’s vitality; academic freedom is critical to the university’s life. If the wellspring of donations were to dry up, the university would not be able to exist in the desired format. With state funds alone, one can maintain something small and unimportant, and then the private opinions of those people would not be taken into account, either.”

So, what do you do when a donor says, “Get rid of a wayward teacher or I will cancel my donation”?

“That has happened on more than one occasion. I try to put things into context and say that it is an extreme political approach espoused by fewer than a handful. We have 800 faculty members, and of them five, maybe ten, espouse that approach. All the others are loyal citizens to the state. I wanted to understand what was upsetting the donors. Some of them spoke out against me using terms like ‘Nazism,’ ‘Kapo’ and ‘Judenrat.’ One of them, a donor to a beit midrash [place of Torah study] on the campus, became so angry that he stopped donating. So what? There was also an American who wanted to donate $7 million to the library.”

What did he want in exchange?

“Not in exchange, but there were general discussions, and the bottom line was to get rid of the extreme leftists. He is someone for whom I have high regard and who donated in the past. The dialogue with him was important for me: I wanted him to understand the situation.”

Did he understand?


Did he donate?

“It’s not final yet.”

What is the message that this form of dialogue sends to faculty?

“Part of the fund-raising ritual involves talking. That is clear both to me and to the faculty members. For them to say I am not being protective is populist and baseless. I would not want to be the president of a university that did not have academic freedom, but there is a contradiction between calling for a boycott and receiving a salary from an institution that would be harmed if that call were acceded to.”

Other universities have no fewer leftists than you, so why do you draw the fire?

“I have no idea. Someone said the only explanation is that I am a woman, that it’s an attempt to undermine my authority. That is hallucinatory, but there are all kinds of conspiracy theories. There were previous calls for a boycott in the local press, not in outlets with the circulation of the LA Times. That article got us placed under a magnifying glass − every move we make − in a way that is completely disproportionate.”

Some faculty members claim that by addressing the threats of Im Tirtzu and company, instead of throwing their reports into the garbage, you are indicating that the university has a soft underbelly and is an easy target.

“In most cases, I ignore the material, and then it gets leaked to the press and I get criticized for ignoring it instead of being supportive.”

“I know the discourse of ‘You don’t know what it’s like to deal with donors,’ I’ve heard it 20,000 times,” says a senior lecturer at BGU. “The problem,” he adds, “is that Carmi will not tell the donors that if they withdraw their money from BGU, it is they who are boycotting the State of Israel. It’s clear that it’s not very heroic to say that from the outside, and you would not want to be president when it happens. But if you are incapable of displaying leadership and only surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, then you are not a leader. The donors’ money is not given so they can dictate things. If they don’t want to give, fine. People in academia are also citizens who have the right to think what they want.”

The bottom line

In 2010, the CHE’s Planning and Budgeting Committee expanded the higher education budget for the next five years. However, in doing so, it set a criterion of academic excellence based on measurable parameters, such as the number of publications in leading journals, the number of research students, and so on. The result was to turn the universities into businesses seeking to maximize bottom lines. Some faculty members believe there is a gulf between this approach and academic excellence.

At present, Carmi says, 75 percent of the university budget ‏(for salaries and maintenance‏) is covered by the state, 15 percent by tuition fees and 10 percent by donations. In contrast, 90 percent of the development budget ‏(for new laboratories and buildings‏) comes from donations.

“In the past, Planning and Budgeting gave a little. In the past few years − nothing,” she adds. “The major change in the new format is that the model is transparent. Everyone knows how he is being budgeted and can plan accordingly, while also knowing where his strengths and weaknesses lie.”

“Since 2004, the structure of the university has become corporatist,” says Dr. Iris Agmon of the Department of Middle East Studies at BGU. “The name of the game is money, which means that the donors are extremely important. The new Planning and Budgeting format supposedly creates technical equality between faculties − but it is impossible to research different types of knowledge by the same methods. The result is that there are abnormally large quantities of publications, and everything influences the evaluation − except the quality of the research. You imagine to yourself that it’s an objective evaluation, but it is not.

“Obviously,” she continues, “the researchers who won the Nobel Prize are brilliant. But Ada Yonath and Dan Shechtman spent decades on their research, and no one gave a hoot about them. Shechtman was ridiculed and his theory was said to be groundless. Ada Yonath’s work was thought to be delusional. It took time before people grasped that it was significant. Academic research needs obsessional people, though they need to take into account the possibility that [their research] will lead nowhere. But that is the necessary climate.”

As for the new Planning and Budgeting format, Carmi says, “Every model can be subjected to abuse if you stick to its technical aspect; but the new model might take the universities to the right place in terms of planning. Some sort of tool is needed, a ruler, and it has to be used intelligently. What’s important for me is that the tools be transparent, so people know they are being scrutinized in an equal, nondiscriminatory manner. You can count the number of books put out by prestigious publishers in literature and philosophy, too, and they are in any case fields that require less investment than the tremendous inputs of science and technology. All you need in literature and philosophy is a computer and a library, so things balance out.

“The budget also does not go to an individual researcher. The system gives opportunities to people in unusual fields. So, to say that we will lose brilliant minds because of a budgeting model is a populist statement. There is quite a bit of conformism in the system, and no little envy, and the fact is that Shechtman and Yonath received tenure − and proved they deserved it.”

Nothing special

Carmi was born in August 1948, “with the state.” She and her sister grew up in Zichron Yaakov. She remembers being a “normal girl and a good citizen,” as well as excelling in school, including a spot in the first group of science-oriented youth at the Weizmann Institute of Science ‏(“and I wasn’t such a geek or anything”‏).

The two people who influenced her most were “my father by his absence and my mother by her presence.” Her father, Menahem, an accountant by profession “but a Renaissance man, a painter and an amateur archaeologist,” died when Carmi was 14, after an ulcer operation in which he “apparently lost a great deal of blood and no one noticed.” She adds that his death “matured me overnight. I had to manage my life responsibly, intelligently.”

Her mother, Zipora, a social worker, took a full-time job to support the family. “It’s not that we had a hard life, but a modest one. From my father I received a warm upbringing, from my mother, one that was very practical. A grade of 98 was taken for granted, nothing special.”

Her mother lived to be 82, but “lost interest in marital relationships − she remained faithful to my father to her last day. I find that peculiar. I did not live enough years with my father to evaluate the scale of the loss to her. We never talked about it; I don’t think she was a happy woman.”

Carmi lived in Zichron Yaakov until she was drafted. In the army she became the commander of an officers’ course and reached the rank of captain. During summer vacations, “when my pals were enjoying themselves,” she served in the reserves. On her honeymoon, in Greece, she was ordered back to Israel “after a day and a half,” when the Yom Kippur War broke out − “one of the most traumatic events in my life.”

Carmi was part of the team that set up an IDF unit to search for MIAs. She was mobilized for five more months, “of which I remember maybe three-four days,” and lost a semester at medical school as a result. “I had a cousin who was missing at the time, and it later turned out he had been killed. We were very close. His father, my mother’s brother, was a kind of father to me after my father died. I also had friends who were killed or wounded in the war. It was a highly charged time, which gave me a pessimistic view of life. I have a kind of inner numbness. I lack the ranges of emotion: the ability to be very happy or very depressed. There is nothing that can floor me. As I see it, that helps me cope in life; it puts everything in proportion.”
Perhaps that is why she hasn’t cried “for years already.” Similarly, her divorce, after a long marriage that produced an only child, her daughter Shira, now 33, was “not a heartwarming story, but also did not leave a deep imprint.”

She met her ex-husband after her army service. She has retained his surname, despite the 20 years since the divorce, “because I was already in mid-career and all my articles bore that name.” She has been in a lengthy relationship with a lecturer in medicine, a pensioner of the university, whom she met at a social gathering in the Be’er Sheva suburb of Omer, where she lives today. He is 76, has the unusual name of Lechaim Naggan, and plays the violin ‏(naggan means player of a musical instrument‏). Like her first husband, Naggan is about a decade older than Carmi. “I don’t know if it’s related to the absence of my father; I never had therapy. It wasn’t really done in my generation, and I didn’t have the need or the money. What I understand is fine for me, and what I don’t is of no concern to me. Let’s say it’s because my father died at an early age. So? My daughter wants to go to a shrink, but I told her I would not pay for it.”

She speaks of her daughter with open admiration. After military service in Army Radio, Shira joined a group of outstanding students at New York University and was accepted as an MBA student at Columbia even though she lacked sufficient business experience. At the age of 26 she established a fashion company − which now has 18 employees − married a Canadian and stayed in New York. She is expecting her first child.

Why won’t you pay for her to see a shrink? Are you afraid she will say nasty things about you?

“I don’t think she needs it. I paid for half her undergraduate degree and I helped her with living expenses.”

Did Shira have an easier childhood than you did?

“All in all, yes, but her family fell apart when she was 12.”

So did yours.

“In different circumstances.”

Shira didn’t have a mother at home; you were always working.

“She had a full-time grandmother, who raised her and was the stable figure in her life. My mother raised her after she retired. It was help from heaven, such as I will never be able to give my daughter.”

Do you think she is resentful of you for that?

“Absolutely not.”

She fled all the way to New York.

“We talked about that once, whether she went all that way in order not to be near me. She said, on the contrary, that I showed her it was possible, that the drive and the ambition come from me.”

Carmi knew at 14 that she would engage in research. “I always thought genetics is the center of life and represents the future,” she says. “I was in maths and sciences in high school and majored in biology. When we studied the cell, the teacher asked us to prepare something creative. I was wild about cellular division, so I created a model from Plasticine, in which the father’s chromosomes were blue and the mother’s red. That was the event in my life that made me decide to go into genetics. I read passages from ‘The Origin of Species’ when I was 16, and when I got out of the army I studied biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.”

Because she did not like zoology and botany, which were part of the degree requirements, she switched to medicine. After graduating she did a pediatric residency at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva, “because genetic diseases appear and take on form in the first years of life.” Three years later, she did a “super residency” in genetics at Harvard, and afterward a third residency, in neonatology ‏(intensive care for premature newborn infants‏).

“Back then, genetics was a somewhat boring field, and neonatology is action par excellence. A dead preemie comes out − and you revive him. It’s an instant reward. I need that type of tension.”

Carmi rose rapidly up the academic ladder. At the age of 45 she was a full professor at BGU. Her resume lists dozens of articles and three syndromes which she was the first in the world to identify. The first is called Carmi Syndrome; she gave the two others names unrelated to her ‏(TAS and X-Linked Midline Anomaly‏), “because there was already a syndrome named for me, so I decided to be modest.”

In 1990, when the Human Genome Project started, “I realized that this was the chance of a lifetime, the ability to go down to the DNA level. Until then I had seen diseases in their clinical appearance, and I was able to develop a hypothesis about their origin. I started to study the Bedouin population systematically, because of the multitude of diseases among them. Genetic diseases are the cause of the excessively high mortality rate among Bedouin infants. It all stems from intra-family marriages: if there is one healthy chromosome, you are healthy, but if both parents carry the mutation, you are sick. I made a strategic decision: not to focus on a specific disease, but to start mapping the genes that cause these diseases in the Bedouin population.

“It’s a situation from which everyone benefits,” she continues. “The diseases are identified in the community and taken to the lab; a solution is identified in the lab and brought back to the community. They [the group being studied] not only enrich the medical world with knowledge; I can also offer them a test during pregnancy to see whether the fetus is suffering from a particular syndrome. Without the ability to examine the gene, I could not have done it.”

The first syndrome she examined was BBS, the Bardet-Biedl Syndrome. “It was relatively frequent in three separate Bedouin tribes. Children who suffer from it are born with a sixth finger on each hand and a sixth toe on each foot, and [in the case of boys] with a very small genital organ. The girls start to gain weight in childhood and develop high blood pressure and a certain type of serious vision impairment. The disease interested me for two reasons: How was it that three different tribes had the same disease? And what was the connection between an extra finger and toe, a micro-penis, gaining weight and an eye problem? Naively, I thought that if it was the same disease, it must be one gene.”

At a conference she attended 20 years ago, she found a colleague with whom to continue the work, a Mormon researcher from Iowa named Val Sheffield. “I used to go there with blood samples, when you could still remove them from Israel. We discovered the three BBS genes one after the other in the course of two years. We only found the gene of the Carmi Syndrome two years ago. It’s a gene that encodes the proteins that preserve epidermal integrity, and when it breaks down, the protein it generates doesn’t do the work. We still haven’t found the TAS gene.”

What is your greatest contribution to science?

“In the BBS we found molecular proof of the concept of genetic heterogeneity. It was one of the first times in which it was seen that the same disease can be caused by completely different genes. Subsequently, 16 genes were found that are encoded for BBS, and we found the first three. This is an opening to a world of complex genetic connections. In classic hereditary diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, one mutation is the cause. But diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer are determined by a multi-genetic system, that gives rise to a tendency, amid the influence of environmental factors. I think it will take another 10 to 15 years before we understand this sequence, and the contribution of BBS to this research is enormous. Historically speaking, my naive beginning, which arose from a desire to map the genetic diseases among the Bedouin population, opened a new field of research, which will help us understand the basic processes that cause diseases.”

Run on stilettos

In addition to her research achievements and her academic advancement, Carmi also rose on the administrative ladder. She headed committees in the BGU medical school, was appointed assistant dean, and in 2000 became dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. None of this, of course, made her rest on her laurels. “I continued to teach and do research, and one day a week I worked as a physician. There are 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, so I did the research mostly on weekends. I am still putting money into research, and someone else does it, trying out new methods whenever they are developed.”

It was in the middle of her second term as dean that talk began about her succeeding Braverman as university president. She resigned as dean a year before her term of office ended and went to the United States − both to contemplate her future and to advance the research with her Iowa colleague. A month after she left, Braverman announced his resignation ‏(to enter politics‏). Carmi was told about her election in December 2005 and became acting president in February 2006, a title she held until the university’s Board of Directors confirmed the appointment in May.

“In contrast to the previous position, which I wanted and planned,” she says, “this was not actually a choice. But I didn’t really see anyone other than me who could do it, and I thought BGU needed someone who is connected to the vision of developing the university and the Negev. [BGU was established in 1969 with the aim of furthering the development of the Negev. It now has 20,000 students.] It might sound horrible in the newspaper, but those were my feelings; I felt I had been summoned to a mission. Braverman laid the institutional foundations and built them physically. Now the time had come to inject scientific content and research. That was my mission.”

Was it hard to step into Braverman’s shoes? Almost everyone I spoke to about you started by talking about him.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard those words: ‘Braverman’s shoes.’ One time I got really irritated by it, so I lifted my foot” − she demonstrates − “put the heel of the shoe on the table, and said, ‘Braverman wouldn’t be able to walk in my shoes.’ If I had tried to walk in his shoes, I would have fallen down. And I have different shoes, which do not fit him. I can run on stilettos. All the beautiful big buildings on the campus were erected in the Braverman period. I am delighted that I arrived after that, because I could not have done the building work, and it doesn’t interest me. What interests me is what’s inside the buildings, what the researcher has at his disposal, what it is that will ensure his success.”

Why can’t people stop making comparisons with Braverman?

“It doesn’t bother me, and it’s meaningless. I am a woman of research and academia, there I grew up and there I will die. Braverman comes from a different place. He took a college of 5,500 students and turned it into a university of 15,000, mainly undergraduates, on a beautiful campus. Buildings don’t turn me on. What’s important for me is the university’s performance.”

People who saw Braverman cajoling donors say he is unrivaled in that field.

“First of all, I didn’t see him doing that. Second, I came with zero know-how about fund-raising, whereas Braverman was a virtuoso. I didn’t trust my abilities, but still, donations to the university − apart from the depression years, when everyone, including Harvard and Yale, got nothing − have increased. In 2007, we raised the most funds ever. Fund-raising is a complex story, it’s not just charm. People want to see a vision, a plan, something qualitative and meaningful. I have never felt dwarfed in any way. I have 120 articles to my credit and a syndrome named for me. But until I was presented in that way, I didn’t know how good I am.”

That’s not true − you always knew.

“I understand that I have the ability to integrate things and to work in conditions of pressure, a kind of inner fortitude, but I didn’t feel I was all that good. Really. My mother also didn’t hear anything about me. Everything I did was taken for granted. As though this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Have you ever failed at anything?

“The only failure in my life was in a genetics exam, in the second year of medical school. With all modesty, I think I knew too much and maybe it was kind of being a smart aleck. In the second sitting I passed with an excellent grade.” A few months ago, in the middle of her second term, Carmi declared that she would not continue as president for the long haul. “I said that in the context of ‘Time is pressing, we need to accomplish things,’ but the remark resonated.

“The declaration did not come from a clear and absolute place. Maybe it’s a signal that I am open to offers.”

Do you want to go into politics?

“Unequivocally, no.”

Why not politics? You have a viewpoint on social and national issues, you wield influence. Politics could be a natural continuation.

“Everything that surrounds politics is utterly remote and alien to me. It’s the kind of thing I will never succeed in, and anything I thought I would not succeed in, I did not touch.”

But as president of the university you are also engaged in politics. You meet with ambassadors and mayors, visit the Knesset, send greetings and are a guest at the celebration for the birth of the daughter of Gila Gamliel, a Likud MK.

“That is a part of politics that has implications and significance for the university. When the American ambassador celebrates the Fourth of July, it’s not Rivka Carmi but Ben-Gurion University. Maybe, if the ambassador sees me enough times, he will bring guests of his to visit the university. That is important for me: I have to put this university on the radar of many organizations, people, foundations. Yes, it’s politics, but of a particular kind. Political politics does not attract me. I wouldn’t be good at it.”

What are your political views?

“I am in the center. When I was young, my heart spoke, and I was almost a communist in terms of values. But when I matured, my head started to speak. In terms of values, primarily social values, I perceive Kadima as the center, or at least that’s how I perceived it until now. On socioeconomic issues I am further to the right; on social-societal issues, such as human rights, I am a bit more to the left. I am one of those who is looking for the way.”

Will you vote for Yair Lapid?

“Are you going to write this? Then, no.”

Thick layer of men

As the first woman to become the president of a research university in Israel, Carmi − who also chairs the committee of university heads ‏(the presidents, rectors and directors-general of the research universities in Israel‏) − works diligently for the advancement of women in academia. She recently also headed a panel of the Planning and Budgeting Committee that addressed this subject. Its recommendations will be published soon.

“We have three female deans: in administration, in the school of doctoral students and on the Eilat campus,” she says by way of illustrating the emphasis on women. “The Eilat post was my administrative choice; the others were chosen by the university senate. Most of the positions in the academic world are filled by election ‏(and not by direct appointment‏), so I have no say in the matter. I do encourage women in general to be candidates and compete, because usually they are not enthusiastic about doing so. By this stage in life they usually have grandchildren and have to help their children. Women also have to inject more energy [than men] in the competition process. A male competitor is the default situation; a woman has to mount a campaign. When I ran for dean I had to market myself and prove myself in the face of the other contestants.”

How difficult is it to be a female president in a patriarchal system that has so many dominant men?

“It’s a challenge. Occasionally I feel we are not broadcasting on the same wavelength. It’s the way one looks at things − it’s hard to give examples.”

Is there a glass ceiling?

“Someone told me there is no glass ceiling, only a thick layer of men. There are a great many technical obstructions that prevent a work environment from being friendly to women. The problem is to overcome the psychological obstructions and the gender scheme that women and men have in their head, thanks to our education.”

Do you have a strategic plan to advance women in the university for the long term?

“There is an atmosphere − ask around in the university.”

I asked. Not everyone feels it.

“I get complaints that I am coercive in terms of bringing in women. This is a very problematic issue in academia. In hiring and promoting faculty, the sole criterion is excellence and academic freedom. But in chemistry, after enough men had been brought in, I said I was putting a freeze on hiring until women were brought in. Did they like it? No. But they brought in women.”

Can you do that?

“Not easily, but I can, and I did. There is still a shortfall of women in the universities. They are examined for tenure just when they are establishing a family. The biological clock and the tenure clock tick together. Sometimes it’s hard to cope with that, because CVs are compared and it’s seen that the female candidate has published fewer articles than the male candidate.

“I have no doubt that I am engaged in the gender issue at the university: on the surface, below the surface, with all kinds of initiatives,” she adds. “These efforts do not generate solutions and changes overnight. Whether they have been effective will be seen after I conclude my term of office.”

The managerial forum that operates directly under you consists exclusively of men; the only woman [the assistant rector] completes her term this month and will be succeeded by a man.

“Assistant rectors are chosen by the rector. The others are there based on a perception of the good of the matter per se. For example, when we were looking for a legal adviser for the university, I very much wanted a woman to replace the outgoing adviser. Fortunately, there was a woman who stood out head and shoulders above the other candidates, and she was chosen.”

Still, Carmi’s call for gender equality is not sweeping in character. She refused, for example, to support the struggle waged by the female cleaners on the campus, who are employed by contractors and want to be employed directly by the university.
“When declarations are made about a socially oriented university and about feminism and equality, I would expect the same approach to be applied to the cleaners,” says Orna Amos, a community social worker who formerly taught at BGU and helped the cleaners organize.

Carmi says her refusal in this regard “is based on an analysis of our ability to manage a service that is not at the core of what the university deals with. Over the years we saw to it, in the wake of student initiatives, that their employment was proper and not harmful. It is not a question of toughness or an attempt to demonstrate strength. There are all kinds of unpopular administrative decisions that look like a form of discrimination. That’s the difference between being at the top of the pyramid and seeing the full scope of the [institution’s] interests, and being part of the public. I am here to manage a university.”

Some of those women have been working at BGU for more than a decade. Aren’t they part of the university?

“In the soft sense of the term. Cleaning is a service within a system whose core engagement is completely different. As long as there is no law to the contrary, there will be no direct employment.”

It is grating to hear that from someone who purports to promote feminism.

“I am not a feminist per se. My interest is to see to it that the women in the university have equality of opportunity. I am talking about the gender issue within a particular context.”

A context of strong, educated women with stable white-collar employment.

“Absolutely not. I also feel solidarity with Bedouin women whose education needs to be advanced, and therefore a year ago a colleague and I founded an NGO to promote education for Bedouin women.”

There are some who complain that you are behaving as though the university belongs to you.

“Just the opposite. Sometimes I have a problem with lengthy proceedings I think are futile, and try to abridge them. But I don’t think I have ever obstructed any proceeding. I try to find a legitimate and fair way to shorten it. I think that when my term of office is summed up, it will be considered a good period. True, there were controversial headlines, but the bottom line is that in terms of most of the parameters for judging a university, it has been a successful period.”