Deal flow and dream flow: Rethinking the university’s role

At only 70 years old, pint-sized Israel has an outsized showing in both innovation and R&D. Key in driving Israel’s tech prominence are the nation’s bustling universities, which generate discovery, patents and talented graduates. Admirers the world over visit leading campuses to learn the secrets of Israeli ingenuity. But as good as Israel’s universities may be, are they prepared for rapidly changing realities? Is the current mode of university education enough to sustain Israel’s scientific, economic and social growth over time?

Israel’s universities should continue to feed the entrepreneurial ecosystem; they should actively nurture “deal flow.” But what about “dream flow” – the real source of all progress? What can universities do to inspire big, life-changing ideas, not just in technology but across the spectrum of societal needs?

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There’s no doubt that universities need to rethink their methods and evolve, and they should begin in three main areas: classroom, collaboration and cross-discipline dialogue.

First, and I speak foremost for my institution, Tel Aviv University (TAU), as well as generally, we should reinvigorate the classroom in the light of fast-paced digital developments. Frontal lectures can be taped and delivered online; the university’s added value will be enhancing and personalizing the student’s learning experience. So, for example, using big-data analytics, students’ online academic performance could be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses in real time, and tailored help given to overcome difficulties.

Taking the concept a step further, we can use online courses to dramatically widen the circle of potential university students, especially from outlying and low-income communities. In a first for Israel, TAU’s Innovative Learning Center is setting up “Academic High Schools” in cooperation with municipal governments, such as the City of Dimona, to integrate TAU digital course offerings into the regular 9-to-11th grade curriculum. Pupils can then take final exams on the TAU campus for pre-college academic credit.

Imagine how motivating and exciting for a young person who never dreamed of going to university – and now they can virtually “attend” one in Tel Aviv.

But we’re taking the concept even further. TAU introduced a digital admissions track – unique in Israel and perhaps the world – that admits young people based on their online course results rather than SAT-type exams. The system overcomes the socioeconomic and cultural disparities that block many bright kids from doing well in standardized tests. We foresee that, through this new system, more inventors and path-blazers will be included in the circle of higher education.

In other words, in every gifted young person, no matter their background, a big idea is waiting to happen. Universities need to devise new and flexible methods to locate and nurture this potential.

Research must also keep pace with the evolving classroom. A couple of years ago, TAU introduced the “Minducate” framework to integrate brain studies with interdisciplinary education research. Current projects include developing and testing robot facilitators to assist teachers in sparking curiosity and debate during student discussions. So much is still unknown about learning and memory; understanding these processes will surely enable future educators to unlock dormant genius.

Universities geared to the future will become less competitive and more collaborative, as robust synergies with other organizations spur fresh thinking that will benefit everyone. A case in point: Tel Aviv University has just embarked on two major research collaborations with San Francisco Bay Area institutions – with Stanford in the field of smart cities and with UC Berkeley in bioinformatics. Supported by the Koret Foundation, the joint R&D is expected to yield exciting new paths for improving urban life, business practices, medical diagnostics and treatment, and much more.

Moreover, these days, top-tier universities are setting up new frameworks for “translational medicine” that get researchers and physicians working together on drug trials. TAU has introduced the concept in Israel and will work with 17 affiliated hospitals to jump-start new treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

Academy-industry cooperation will need to be significantly tightened as well. Already Israel ranks 7th in the world for university-industry collaboration according to the 2017 Global Innovation Index, published by Cornell University and partners. However, solving real-world problems will require more frequent and even physically closer interaction.

In a new model for Israel, and probably for most countries, TAU is embarking on an unprecedented collaboration with giant chipmaker Broadcom to build their Israeli R&D center within TAU’s engineering complex. Space will be set aside in the building for use by faculty members, while students will be able to walk down the hall and train in advanced labs alongside industry specialists. New creative energies, new startups, new economic benefits – all this will be unleashed.

Finally, modern universities are abandoning a long-held tradition of departmental fiefdoms and narrow specializations, in favor of open cross-disciplinary dialogue. At TAU we began a risky experiment in 2011 – to coordinate all teaching and research in brain studies across dozens of departments into a single school. It worked better than we could have ever anticipated.

The Sagol School of Neuroscience, the first of its kind in the world, has grown from 45 students in its initial year of operations to 400 today across the degree levels, from undergraduate to post-doc. Over 120 research groups provide laboratory breeding grounds for cross-disciplinary insights into anything from neurodegenerative diseases and mental disorders to consumer marketing and interactive cinema.

In my experience, nothing is more effective in setting student imaginations free than enabling them to combine many different fields. Together with reinventing classrooms and collaborations, universities should keep searching for ways to inspire the next generation’s passion and vision.

The author is president of Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Committee of University Heads of Israel.