No Sex Segregation on Campus for ultra-Orthodox, Tel Aviv Uni Head Says

Gender separation undermines the educational essence of academic life, asserts Prof. Joseph Klafter, revealing his plan to raise $1 billion over a period of 10 years.

Professor Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University, November 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

Despite the enrollment of thousands of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) students in Israeli academic institutions in recent years, there will be no gender segregation at Tel Aviv University, its president Prof. Joseph Klafter declared. This is the first time the head of such an institution has made an unambiguous statement on this issue, which has given rise to many concerns with respect to campus – and classroom – life at the country's colleges and universities.

A number of these institutions have already made efforts to cater to the conservative Haredi community by creating separate pre-academic preparatory courses for men and women, and there have been demands from leading figures in the community for certain courses to be taught by men only.

“We are taking many steps but this step is one that we aren’t taking," Klafter told Haaretz at the start of the academic year earlier this month. “On our campus, definitely not – and opening 'external' campuses [i.e., university branches in other locales, which are segregated] does not especially appeal to us either.”

At TAU, he added, “We want to be welcoming, to help, to guide, to encourage – but gender separation undermines the essence of the university. I think that if we want to bring the Haredim into the circle of higher education, part of this process involves human interaction, the transmission of opinions – and that is the opposite of closing things off. We are standing firm on this.”

Klafter said that the ultra-Orthodox constitute just one of many communities that Israeli academia must work to attract and to integrate into campus life, and all of them have the same importance.

“Haredim are only one of a number of sectors which we consider it incumbent upon us to help at the national level, by bringing them into the circles of higher education and employment. The state asks this of the university and we believe we should be part of the process. Other communities include Israeli Arabs, and also people from the country's social and geographic periphery who typically cannot meet university admissions standards.

Haredim are being put front and center because this attracts attention, and because there is the problem of gender segregation. But, if you subtract the segregation – the problem is exactly the same: How do you take a sector that is currently marginal and help it become integrated? That is our task. With Haredi society there is also opposition [to such integration] by their leadership, which doesn’t exist in other populations. If we try to do this, it is also necessary to have the other side’s support and good will.”

Klafter, an eminent figure in the field of chemical physics, does not usually speak out on current issues related to higher education in Israel. He assumed his post at TAU seven years ago after it suffered a severe management crisis and its previous president was sacked, and he is considered to have succeeded in rehabilitation efforts. Currently, eight new buildings are under construction at TAU and, according to Klafter, the campus “is really flourishing. From the perspective of our international fund-raising, we have grown considerably and are now launching a campaign to raise $1 billion over a period of 10 years."

Due to the influx of contributions to TAU in recent years, he added, "we have succeeded in opening many new programs. The school of management has been named after a donor, Jeremy Coller, who donated $50 million – a huge amount. The film school has been named after Steve Tisch. The buildings are being constructed thanks to donations of huge sums. The nanotechnology building, for example, is being built with a contribution of $30 million from a single donor, and in May we will be inaugurating the Museum of Natural History with donations totalling $40 million. In that case, government ministries have also participated. We are now erecting a building for computer sciences and future innovation leaders with donations from the Check Point Software company. All the new construction and development at the university is funded by donations.”

To what extent does the dependence on donations dictate the areas in which money will be invested?

“Some donors come along and say they prefer a certain direction, some ask us what our direction is, and others we approach with a direction in mind. The Israeli system [of higher education] imitates the American one, and donations are very central. Is this a positive thing? When you receive donations – very much so. This is the world we live in, with limited government funding and therefore we are built on philanthropy. An interesting phenomenon that we are seeing now in Israeli society itself is an increasing number of donations. There is an impressive rise in contributions from local tycoons and financiers, and this must be encouraged.”

Do donors sometimes try to influence what is going to be researched?

“Every donor we speak to knows that the entire academic aspect is managed by the university. They keep track – it’s their right to do that and they receive reports. Some establish connections with faculty members in one area or another. Many come to lectures and conferences in these fields.”

TAU is considered a bastion of the left. Are there donors who threaten to stay away because of this?

“After I became president, there was a big debate at my first university board of trustees meeting. There was a small group of trustees who argued that it was necessary to fire a number of faculty members who were calling for a boycott of Israel, and they said they wouldn’t donate to us. I said very clearly that even if there were mountains of money but I didn’t have freedom of speech or academic freedom – [the firing of staff] wasn’t going to happen. I must say that the subject was indeed aired. The university’s position and the understanding that it is sometimes necessary to live with things that aren’t easy to hear – these things exist. Today, too, when donors voice criticism to me about some remark by a faculty member, they understand that this is the reality and academic freedom and freedom of speech mean that it is necessary to live with things you don’t like. I tell them that I also don’t like everything I hear at the university but it is necessary to live with it.”

Danger of irrelevance

The interview with Haaretz, conducted in Klafter’s office, was held on the day Education Minister Naftali Bennett paid a visit to the TAU campus. At the outset of his tenure as minister, Bennett was already on a collision course with the university after he ousted Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron of the university from her post as deputy head of the Council for Higher Education, appointing in her stead Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman of Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College. Representatives of TAU on the CHE demonstratively resigned and only recently – after prolonged negotiations that culminated in Bennett’s appointment of other representatives to replace them – has the council become fully functional again.

Klafter defines his working relationship with Bennett today as good, and related that the education minister has visited the university a number of times during his term in office. Of the furor at the CHE, the professor said he is “very pleased” with its new representatives, who were accepted thanks to his university’s recommendations: “I was not pleased with the way things were conducted concerning the CHE. I hope that further along, when we get to the second round of appointments to the council, we will arrive at the agreement we reached last time with the minister, to the effect that decisions must be made in full cooperation with the academic institutions.”

Bennett has said that the level of teaching at the universities is often low. Do you agree with him?

“I agree that the teaching and the learning experience, or the value it imbues, have to undergo some sort of change. I’ll tell you something that bothers me and which is taking up a lot of my time: When I look at the university, and not just TAU, I see that the university as we know it is a model that’s 200 years old and is based on academic freedom, freedom of speech, advanced by research and independent political and religious opinions and so forth. All this is wonderful, but then there is also the teaching, the transmission of the information, and this hasn’t changed for many years. It is necessary to ask where we are heading with regard to our way of conveying information.

"In this context, every institution, but especially the university, has to reinvent itself. Everything is much faster, the technologies are available and the world is much more connected. Every student can gather information during a lesson from his or her smartphone. I would say that we are ‘cloud-controlled.’ The question is whether there is a danger that we will become irrelevant. So we are devoting quite a lot of time to the question of where we are heading and how we are reinventing ourselves.”

Klafter also addressed the phenomenon of sexual harassment on local campuses, which recently has been a focus of media interest. At the institution he heads, among others, there have been reports of cases in which female students were harassed by faculty members; however, disciplinary committees at local institutions of higher learning typically refuse to publicize the names of the harassers. According to Klafter, “We take this issue very seriously. There is a clear protocol regarding hearings, as well as a committee that renders judgement. The system really is dealing with this, and first and foremost guards the privacy of the respective sides. This process is very structured. It is guided by our legal adviser and involves a quasi-judicial ruling.”

Recently there have been a number of cases in which senior figures in politics and journalism have admitted to having committed sexual harassment or have resigned voluntarily after such affairs. At the universities, faculty members usually do not resign voluntarily [in such cases]. Is there a different rule for academics?

“The politicians we are talking about were not dismissed – they left. I don’t want to defend what happens here. We take a very grave view of this and the message to the campus is that these things don’t slip by quietly. A politician is more of a national figure; it’s different for a faculty member in a smaller environment. But I do not justify such behavior and I think I am comfortable with what we are doing to rein in the phenomenon. There are definitive rules concerning dependency and contact. The norms are like those outside of academia, but the reaction to events outside of academia is greater. The system at the university works in a very orderly way, and in the end [discussion of such cases] is presented before a group serving as a tribunal and it decides. And anyone who is found guilty pays a price. I am fine with the procedures we have today. If there are other extreme cases we will have to rethink this.”