Ben-Gurion president cuts through old-boy network

For Dr. Rivka Carmi, becoming the first woman president of a major Israeli university was easy. The hard part was making dean.

In May, Carmi assumed the top post at Ben-Gurion University, capping a distinguished career in medicine, medical research and academic administration. Though Israeli society has made strides in women’s equality, Carmi says Israel’s version of the “old-boy network” made her ascent a challenge.

“In Israel the medical academic environment is not very friendly to women,” said Carmi during a recent visit to the Bay Area. “But I had my record. Nobody can avoid the fact that I had very significant accomplishments in academia and research in the science of medicine.”

Most of those achievements took place at Ben-Gurion University, located in the Negev Desert town of Beersheva. This region, with its large immigrant and Bedouin population, has traditionally lagged behind the rest of Israel economically. But Carmi’s university has always had the development of the Negev at its core.

Ben-Gurion University’s principal fields of study — medicine, bioengineering, desertification, nanotechnology — have important applications in the Negev, from water management to Bedouin health care. Carmi wants to expand those efforts, but to do so requires money. Lots of it.

“The government made the decision to redevelop the Negev,” said Carmi, “investing $5 billion over 10 years for education, industry and infrastructure. The university is the main partner in desert studies and water. But in order to bring top people, we need to invest money. To recruit the best scientists can cost millions.”

According to Carmi, the average outlays range from $300,000 to $500,000 per researcher to cover salaries, labs and equipment. Making her task more difficult, the higher education system in Israel has suffered deep budget cuts in recent years.

But Carmi is up to the challenge. “We had been growing horizontally, in terms of the number of students, the number of programs,” she added. “We went from 5,000 students to almost 17,000 in less than 15 years. Now it’s time to concentrate on the research quality of the university.”

Among her plans: to develop a high-tech “park” in Beersheva to lure industry to the region and provide career opportunities to Ben-Gurion graduates, most of whom leave the Negev after completing their studies. Said Carmi, “I’m trying to sell the future. I’m trying to sell dreams.”

Carmi has always dreamed big. Born in 1948 in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Yaakov, Carmi was only 14 when she discovered her passion: genetics. After completing her military service, she studied biology at Hebrew University. From there it was a natural transition to medicine.

Specializing in pediatrics and neonatology, Carmi moved to Beersheva 30 years ago to practice at the university’s Soroka Medical Center. Eventually she took the reins of the genetics department, working with the Bedouin community to identify genetic diseases that hit that population. One of them — Carmi Syndrome — is named for her.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to study genetic diseases,” she said. “You not only study the problems but implement solutions right there in the community. This is what captured my imagination.”

Carmi rose through the ranks of the university’s medical establishment, culminating six years ago when she vied for the deanship of the medical school.

“In a way, this was a much bigger achievement,” she said. “To be elected dean in a highly male profession was a big deal. I was looking forward to that position for many years..”

When longtime university president Avishai Braverman left to launch a political career, Carmi found herself in a position to assume the top post. “I said to myself, ‘Rivka, you need to step up to the plate.'”

In the spring she was named acting president, and then president.

She misses practicing medicine, but Carmi has more than enough on her mind now, especially in this postwar period.

“Funds will go to the north,” said Carmi, “and will postpone plans to develop the Negev, but only for a little while. We need to bridge this unexpected period because of the war.”

Carmi has no doubt that she, and her university, will do so. Maybe it’s her can-do Negev attitude, which isn’t all that different from the general Israeli spirit.

“In Israel, you never give up on plans,” she said. “Every now and then you have crises and problems, but we have always thought long-term. The result is Israel.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.