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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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New Haifa U president warns of Israeli brain drain

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Amos Shapira

The brain drain looms as a threat to Israel’s well-being, the new president of the University of Haifa has warned.

“Israel’s brain drain endangers Israel’s academia and threatens its future,” said Amos Shapira, who took office last month.

Calling on Israel “to wake up” to the reality that Israeli university graduates, many of them scientists, are leaving the country, he urged the Israeli government to reverse this trend.

“The State of Israel has issued many statements on the importance of reversing the brain drain,” said Shapira, the former president of El Al Airlines and Cellcom, Israel’s leading cellular provider. “But in practice, most of the scientists leaving the country are not coming back.”

They’ll only return if they’re given with what he called “the most advanced research infrastructures possible.”

To ensure this happens, he added, Israel must invest in such facilities.

Haifa U is working on this problem and is in the process of establishing a research pavilion to house returning scientists, Shapira said.

“There we will provide them with avant-garde laboratories and equipment,” said Shapira, who was in Toronto on a visit last week.

 “At the end of the day, many of these scientists truly wish to live in, research in and contribute to Israel. I’m sure that projects such as this pavilion will bring them back to Israel happily.”

Shapira – a Haifa U graduate in economics who holds an MA in industrial management from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – said Israel’s “primary resource” is its “human capital.”

“Since Israel is a geographically small country that does not abound in natural resources, investing in human capital is critical to its security, strength and future.”

In recent years, the government has given universities more funding than in the past, but more is needed, said Shapira, whose last posting was as president of Tel Aviv University’s Friends Association.

Lamenting the “weakened status” of humanities studies at Israeli universities, he said this situation must be remedied.

“In my previous position, I spearheaded a pact, signed by Israel’s leading firms, promoting the employment of humanities graduates in the business sector,” he said.

Humanities are important because they foster independent and critical thinking, he argued. “Undermining the humanities undermines not only Israel’s cultural development, but its economic growth.”

Shapira said he’s pleased to be president of his alma mater, succeeding Aaron Ben-Ze’ev.

“For me, coming back is coming full circle,” said Shapira, who was a teaching assistant at Haifa University and sometimes rides around on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. “I’m proud to be returning to the university where I took my first steps and which gave me the crucial framework for success, both professionally and personally.”

Asked what his broad goals are, Shapira replied, “Haifa University has grown and continues to develop from year to year, and my main role is to make sure that growth continues.”

More specifically, Shapira said his objective is to advance the university’s academic and research standards, which are already high and are recognized both in Israel and abroad.

Haifa U has taken the lead in such disciplines as brain research, education, law, art therapy, psychology and Holocaust studies, he noted.

But in order to retain its competitive edge, it must increase the range of its courses and further strengthen its position in the natural and exact sciences.

The university has two additional strategic tasks, he said.

First, it must solidify its status as one of two research universities in northern Israel. (The other is the Technion). “The existence of a research university in the northern region is critical for the economic viability of the north.”

Second, Haifa U should continue to be a mosaic of “shared social and cultural experience” for Jews and Arabs and secular and religious Jews alike.

Shapira, a father of three grown children whose 90-year-old mother was a teacher, rebutted criticism that an academic rather than a businessman should be at the helm of a university.

“I bring with me much experience in managing large organizations, the ability to merge and co-ordinate intricate operations, and the ability to advance organizations and significantly improve their competitive edge,” he declared. “But above all, I bring a deep passion to education.”

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