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Technion role in New York competition a win for Israeli science

New Land of Milk and Honey
December 22, 2011

For the past few days, the story about the New York City tech campus competition has been the same – Cornell, widely considered the underdog, managed to pull off a come-from-behind victory by out-hustling the competition.

While Cornell has been touted as the surprise victor of its match-up with Stanford, and while the new campus will likely influence the future of the university, the Ithaca institution may be one of several big winners in the competition. New York City, which is expected to see thousands of jobs and hundreds of companies generated as a result of the new campus, sees the project as a win.

But overlooked winners from Monday’s announcement could be Cornell's partner, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, the nation of Israel, and the country's other colleges and universities, which New York City’s decision cements as powerhouses of science and technology research on the world stage. Cornell’s decision to partner with the Technion and the pair’s selection reinforce the idea that Israel’s universities played a dramatic role in transforming the country’s economy over the past generation. The new campus could open the door for greater integration of Israeli universities into the wider higher education community, give Israeli researchers and entrepreneurs a beachhead in New York, and give the Technion, located in Haifa, a new way to attract talent.

“Anybody that comes to Haifa can see it,” said Technion President Peretz Lavie in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “If you are looking for innovation, you come to Israel.”

Just as many counted Cornell out of the running early in the competition, Technion's involvement in the project looked unlikely. When New York officials were designing the competition, they consulted with Technion administrators and encouraged the institution to apply. The institute responded to the city's initial request for expression of interest, but when the city issued its main request for proposals in June, Technion officials said they did not have the financial capacity to make the kind of infrastructure investment the city was seeking. While the university was allowed to apply since it responded in the first round, the second round made it clear that the city wanted a university with a large endowment, imposing a $1 billion minimum on new entrants. Technion then fell out of the picture until a few weeks before the city's deadline, when Cornell announced that the two institutions would be partnering in their bid.

Both Cornell and New York officials said what made working with Technion attractive was the impact the institute has had on Israel.

In the past 40 years, Israel has undergone a technology boom that has transformed the nation's economy from being largely agrarian economy to having a highly developed high-tech sector. Israel now has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any country outside North American except China. It has the highest number of start-up companies per capita and a huge venture-capital market.

Many credit the country’s universities, and Technion in particular, for much of the change. Lavie said Technion has a culture -- similar to those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University -- that encourages the combination of research and entrepreneurship. He points to faculty member Dan Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, who has taught a class on entrepreneurship for 26 years. The institute also has business competitions, programs that pair aspiring entrepreneurs with alumni mentors who have successfully started companies, and other initiatives that have helped create an atmosphere of entrepreneurship and contributed to the country’s success.

Lavie said this reputation for combining excellence in research with the application of knowledge to create companies and industries is the reason New York City reached out to the institute when it asked for proposals in the spring. It’s also what it brings to its partnership with Cornell.

As of November, 59 of 121 Israeli companies on NASDAQ were founded or run by Technion graduates. Companies such as Google and Microsoft have set up operations near the Haifa campus. “If you look at the elite in the science and technology world in Israel, many of them have some schooling from Technion,” said Erran Carmel, a professor at American University who studies the globalization of technology work. Carmel grew up in Haifa, and his father was a faculty member there.

And while the institute’s applied sciences have made huge strides in the business world, the Technion is also a huge player in the natural sciences and academic research. In the past few years, four Israeli scientists have won Nobel Prizes, and three of those winners have come from the Technion, including the winner in chemistry this year.  Israeli researchers have also taken many of the top prizes in engineering.

But in international rankings, the universities do not place as highly as one might expect. In the 2011 Academic Rankings of World Universities, produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the only Israeli university to crack the top 100 was Hebrew University, which placed 72nd. Technion, Tel Aviv University, and the Weizmann Institute of Science were all ranked in the top 150. Some in higher education have argued that current rankings don't recognize the kind of impact Technion and other Israel universities have.

Lavie and higher education observers said the reputational boost the institute received from partnering with Cornell and winning the competition, and the benefits that could come from the new campus, could help not only Technion, but Israeli universities as a whole climb in the rankings. “I believe that higher education has become a global enterprise,” he said. “The strength of American universities is that they attract the best students from around the world. I would like to attract to Technion more out-of-state students."

One major hindrance for Israeli universities competing on the world stage has been that the dominant language of instruction is Hebrew, a decision made long before higher education internationalized, said Sarah Guri-Rosenblit, a professor at the Open University of Israel who researches comparative higher education. While Israeli researchers command broad respect on the global stage and many of them are fluent in English and studied at American universities, she said, institutions have had a hard time attracting both faculty and student talent because of the language barrier. Technion has already begun some programs in English, due to its science and technology focus and growing international reputation, and the New York campus could accelerate the adoption of more English language instruction.

“The real innovation this new campus will bring is in the domain of teaching,” Guri-Rosenblit said. "Israeli research has been oriented to the world for quite some time, but now teaching will be, too.”

In addition to the language barrier, politics have also hindered Israeli institutions' internationalization. Israeli universities are public, and therefore have a strong obligation to teach Israeli students rather than international students. The New York City campus is one of the first major off-shore initiatives for any Israeli university. Guri-Rosenblit, Lavie, and others all said the future will likely bring more partnerships between Israeli and international universities.

Observers and administrators also hope the New York campus will help reverse Israel’s brain drain by making the Technion and other Israeli universities a more attractive place to work, both by developing their global reputations and by providing more opportunities for faculty members to interact with the international academic world. But the salary gap between U.S. and Israeli universities will likely continue to be an issue, Guri-Rosenblit said.

Lavie said the new campus could also provide a foothold for Israeli companies looking to set up shop in New York. “Many of the companies started now in Haifa can look to New York as a possible site because of this Cornell-Technion partnership,” he said.

 

 

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