Profile: BGU President Rivka Carmi

A university president is not often expected to be an expert on military security. For Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, however, protecting close to 20,000 students on the school’s main Beersheva campus from rocket attacks has become a top priority.

“For many years, we presented ourselves as the safest place in Israel,” says Carmi. “Most wars were in the north. Operation Cast Lead changed all that. Now we are a real front.”

At a meeting this past spring with journalists from the United States, issues of security were front and center, as a barrage of over 100 rockets fired from nearby Gaza in retaliation for the killing of a terrorist leader caused the administration to cancel all classes and exams. Iron Dome, Israel’s mobile air defense system designed to intercept and destroy short-range rockets and shells, demolished most of the rockets. Students and staff, well-trained to follow safety procedures when sirens announce imminent attacks, were unharmed. Within a week, the eerily quiet campus was back to its bustling self. Although the psychological toll from living with the day-today tension is undeniable, says Carmi, “we can’t just shut down an economy and a country.”

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Carmi may be resigned to the need for an Iron Dome, but she has done her best to shatter the glass ceiling. Born with the State of Israel almost 64 years ago (her birthday is in August), she is the first woman to serve as president of an Israeli university (elected in 2006), the first female chair of the Committee of University Heads in Israel, and the first female dean of a medical school in Israel (she headed the faculty of health sciences at BGU, which includes two medical schools). Carmi’s rise in academia and medicine has made her a role model for Israeli women. She received Hadassah’s “Woman of Distinction” award in 2008 for lifetime achievements.

“Israel is considered one of the more advanced countries in terms of gender,” says Carmi, chic in a black suit, heels, and red-framed glasses. “We had the first woman prime minister. But basically we’re not much different from any Western country. There’s still inequality.”

Carmi is similarly devoted to the mission of developing the Negev, which in a sense remains “unequal” to the rest of Israel in terms of public perception and physical population. With 630,000 residents — 200,000 of them Bedouin — the Negev has not yet fulfilled the potential envisioned by former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who declared that the south would be the future of the country. Carmi, who was born in Zichron Yaakov, 22 miles south of Haifa, agrees wholeheartedly: “The only place Israel has to expand is the Negev,” she says.

Today, her pioneering work is focused on shaping BGU’s distinctive role as a regional catalyst for physical, economic, and educational development. “BGU is not like any other university,” she says. “It has a national role. It’s not just an institution of higher education, research, and learning. It has an impact on its neighborhood.”

She is proud that BGU was voted the number one choice in undergraduate education by Israeli students, that it participates in many consortiums with government agencies and private corporations, and that it provides outreach to underprivileged Bedouin, Ethiopian, and Russian immigrants. BGU scientists are researching methods to prevent desertification, develop renewable alternative energy, and maximize water efficiency — yet the university also treasures and preserves Israel’s cultural legacy in its institutes of Jewish and Israeli literature and culture. At her initiative, glass panels featuring ancient and contemporary Hebrew poems have been placed around the campus to give it an “extra soul,” she says.

Carmi’s goal for the university is to attract the best and brightest researchers who will build their lives in the Negev, and help bring BGU to the forefront of research universities. Despite the stress and tension of rocket fire, expansion is everywhere: New classrooms and labs for biotechnical engineering, engineering, and solar energy are in the works. A new center to house long-standing educational community programming in math, physics, and biotech studies is scheduled to open in 2014. New dorms are in the planning stages.

BGU is partnering with Tzahal (Hebrew acronym for Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF), Deutsche Telekom, EMC, and other businesses in building a high-tech technological park in Beersheva. In light of the IDF’s decision to move many of its intelligence and high-tech units to the Negev, Carmi anticipates huge positive change in terms of increased population, demand for services and education, and development of a better infrastructure.

Carmi encourages students not to make concessions regarding their future, and to take advantage of opportunities in addition to their studies. Many BGU students, in fact, are highly involved in the community on a routine basis, as well as in emergencies. In collaboration with the city of Beersheva, for example, BGU is developing and training a student cadre of crisis volunteers. A recent questionnaire elicited 400 volunteers in one day for 19 types of positions, including staffing day care centers for children of first responders; providing support for the elderly; opening shelters; working as engineers and security personnel.

Carmi was forced to take responsibility early in her own life. Her father died before she was 14 and she says she grew up fast, “almost overnight. I was always independent and assumed the position of helping my mother.”

Her parents, from Poland and Germany, had both made aliyah to Israel in the early 1930s as students. Her mother, a social worker, was pragmatic, focused, and down-to-earth. Her father, an accountant by profession, was a scholar, amateur painter, archaeologist, and musician who knew many languages.

As a teenager, Carmi became fascinated with the role of chromosomes and genes in determining human life. She cites the influence of Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist who contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA and its role in understanding how genetic information is passed from parents to children.

Carmi grounded her own research in a distinctive Negev community — the Bedouin — breaking more barriers and making inroads in genetic research. After graduating from Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, she completed her residency in pediatrics and neonatology at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheva, an unusual move away from the center of the country. Carmi then accepted a two-year fellowship in medical genetics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School. She was offered a position at Harvard, but chose to return to the Negev.

“I wanted to make a change in the health system in general, and in genetic diseases in particular,” she says. “Many researchers were dealing with Jewish genetic diseases, but nobody was doing it for the Bedouin population.”

To conduct her research and offer potential solutions, she had to gain access to the community, and earn its trust and confidence. “It took us years,” she says. She found that although Bedouin women stood low on the social ladder, they were the movers and shakers in health care and education — a realization that strengthened her beliefs about women’s empowerment.

Her research led to the identification of 12 new genes and the delineation of three new syndromes, including the “Carmi Syndrome,” which describes the mutated gene of babies born without skin who die within two weeks. Most of the disease-carrying genes are the result of inbreeding from marriages between cousins. Carmi and her team not only designed tests to detect abnormalities in early pregnancy, but convinced Bedouin couples to agree to genetic testing. Now, genetic information is even incorporated into the process of matchmaking. In the past 12 years, infant mortality among the Bedouin has dropped dramatically, from almost 20 per 1,000 to six per 1,000.

BGU’s molecular genetics lab, part of the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev, continues the work Carmi began, and has now identified 30 genes. The Israeli government has adopted her program, offering carrier tests for Negev Bedouin and Arabs in northern Israel with genetic problems.

In addition, BGU’s concerted outreach to Bedouin teenagers, offering tutoring and other academic assistance so they can meet BGU admission standards, has helped increase the number of Bedouin students at BGU to 300 today; half are women. Graduates include the community’s first female gynecologist and psychologist.

Carmi is committed to improving the position of women and often addresses the issues in both formal and informal settings.

When she speaks to students about gender inequalities, she says, “it opens their eyes.…Because of the way we were raised and socialized…, most of us have a hidden notion that men are a little bit better than women. We should be aware of this feeling and try our best to put away this bias. Even women have this inner feeling.”

On the university level, she heads a committee of the national Council for Higher Education to help female graduate students balance career and family. The committee’s recommendations — on-campus day care, stopping the tenure clock, and more — are scheduled to be implemented soon. Only 12 percent of full professorships at Israeli universities today are awarded to women.

Carmi and her husband Lechaim, an emeritus professor of epidemiology, live in Omer, a suburb of Beersheva. Her daughter, Shira Carmi, lives in Brooklyn, where she manages a consulting business for creative businesses called Launch Collective.

In two years, Carmi will end her second term as president. After that, she says, she will “figure out what to do next.” She will always continue to champion BGU.

“If there’s one university that caters to the future of Zionism in Israel, it’s BGU. It’s in our DNA.”