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Presidential Address

Prof. Shlomo Biderman, Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

 

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Academics have traditionally seen themselves as researchers, not teachers, and academia today still focuses on research as a primary service and function, while teaching is seen as a burden. This thinking is problematic, for several reasons.
 

First of all, as a public institution, supported by the state, we ought to 'pay dividends' to our shareholders, the public, and teaching is one such payment. In particular, to teach in order to serve the nation's acute needs. For example, Israeli health system suffers tremendous shortage of academically trained and skilled personnel, and in reply to a call by the Health Ministry we have opened academic nursing programs providing both an undergraduate education and hands-on experience in leading hospitals. In future we will open an entire School for Health Sciences which will train professionals in integrative new professions, emphasizing holistic medicine, prevention, early diagnosis and treatment, that are bound speed up care provision in the country.


 

Second, the misguided conflict between research and teaching also misses something crucial regarding the nature of knowledge nowadays. Academic institutions used to conceive of themselves as authoritative kingdoms of free spirit. However, knowledge generation is longer the sole task of academic institutions. The dynamics of knowledge production today are such that it is generated from many sources, by different actors, including from the grassroots, often in non-hierarchical fashion. In fact, in many, if not most areas, academia lags behind new knowledge coming from the ground level. This means, first, that we cannot remain secluded and pursue academic knowledge by ourselves. Second, it means that teaching can no longer be a linear process — it would have no chance of competing with the flow of superficial data from problematic sources anyway ; rather, teaching must share in knowledge production with multiple sources, and that the process of learning itself can be a source of new knowledge.


 

What does that actually mean? In our applied training programs, students are 'sent out' to gain hands-on experience and interaction with different actors and communities. Through this interaction they see for themselves the gap between theory and practice, and 'come back' to offer fresh perspectives. For example, our nursing students who volunteer at a local clinic for migrant workers and refugees are at a foreground of a field that not many medical personnel in Israel are experienced with. The contextual methods that they utilize can inform new knowledge that has growing applicability both in Israel and abroad.  Similarly, students at the School of Government and Society intern at government or civil society organizations, and honors students of computer science or economics and management intern in private businesses. All these experiences enrich students' learning and help integrate academic theories with developments 'on the ground'.


 

Our moral obligation does not end with teaching, however. In a reality of economic hardships, political conflicts, social inequality and cultural alienation, we at MTA believe that we ought to transform the College into an 'Academia without Borders': to make academia present in the lives of the community within which we operate, and together drive infrastructural social change. We do that in light of the principles of "Inclusive Excellence".


 

Inclusive Excellence means several things. First, making excellent interventions to ensure inclusivity: encouraging proactive knowledge sharing and removing of barriers to participation in learning. To that end, we cannot focus  solely on reactive strategies such as Affirmative Action, that are inefficient. We should, and can, boost education within peripheral communities from a young age through high-school. This is exactly what we do in "Education to the Top": a program that provides children and youth from marginalized communities with tools to make the best out of their abilities. The achievements of program graduates have surpassed our expectations in every scale. They will not require Affirmative Action. Our flagship program in this respect is Prepping for the Future: a one-year pre-college 'boot-camp' preparing Arab high-school graduates for academic studies at MTA by providing a comprehensive package of services that tackle all the systemic (social, cultural and economic) factors that pose a barrier for college admissions and retention to this minority group. We also opened a special academic nursing program for culturally and structurally adapted for Haredi (ultra-orthodox) men, to address both the needs of a social group suffering unemployment and poverty, and a national health system in dire need of skilled workers. Other programs that make academic learning accessible to wider publics who have had little other opportunities include Academic Touches and Academic Tastes.


 

Second, Inclusive Excellence means bringing standards of academic excellence to social change work, rather than "lower" our standards when carrying out social programs. For example, our Young Programmers program trains youth from marginalized neighborhoods in computer science in preparation for academic studies and a career in the field. Material is at a level equivalent to freshmen undergraduate, and it is made accessible by investing in developing an experiential, fun-filled curriculum, and in small-group tutoring. The various applied training seminars offered by the different MTA departments similarly provide a case in point.  Each department puts its best resources — including faculty and students — in use of social programs that provide effective, long-term interventions in the community.


 

Last, but not least, Inclusive Excellence also means that in all of our social intervention programs we follow an ethical guideline: working with - not only within - the community, while respecting the community's culture and heritage; and building long lasting collaborations and partnerships with multiple community change agents, because processes of social transformation are slow and complex and only long-term investments can yield results given. 


 

Importantly, most of the projects mentioned were developed at our Hub for Social Business Entrepreneurship - a unique program and the first of its kind in Israel, which gives students the tools to turn their innovative ideas into thriving sustainable social businesses that drive effective results. The Hub generates transformative knowledge, which serves as a basis for social change. The Fourth Sector of social businesses plays a key role in the New Economy, a community-oriented economy, therefore at MTA we believe that social entrepreneurship must play a decisive role in driving social change. To that end we are currently developing a new international MBA program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.


 

This, in a nutshell, is the vision of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, a pioneer of the next generation of higher education. Allow me to recap the main points, while briefly summing up how they manifest at the different MTA programs:

 

  • Academic Excellence
Our academic program areas are driven both by academic curiosity and by social importance, combining theoretical rigor and community-oriented application, for example programs serving the integration of Haredi populations in higher-education and the job market. We understand knowledge not only as a prerequisite for but also as a product of social change, and therefore promote knowledge flows in all directions, for example through applied training programs.

  • Social Excellence
We are committed to serving the different communities by driving infrastructural social change and nurturing the next generation of leaders. We are attentive to the national and local pulse, to the needs and ideas coming from community and policy makers - and together develop social programs that effectively utilize our academic resources and apply our standards of excellence. Many programs grow out of students' initiatives at the Social Business Entrepreneurship Hub.

  • Inclusive Excellence
Social excellence also means that we must make our academic activity inclusive. Without inclusivity we cannot hope to excel, and in order to be inclusive we must offer excellent services. Rather than 'passive', reactive programs which tackle problems at the 'bottleneck' — for instance at the point of college admissions — we pro-actively begin addressing inequality early on, already from elementary school, making higher learning truly accessible to the community.

  • Impact
Through our academic and social programs we impact ever growing circles of students, community participants, and partners from the public, civil and private sector.  We are reputed for our excellent programs and our graduates are sought after because of their value-add applied experience; we rank high in student satisfaction surveys; our social programs are in growing demand, and gain support from the government and public funders who see their importance. Every single success story: children and youth who gained new opportunities and a better start, graduates who hold key political, social and economic positions - influences entire communities.