January 21, 2022

Q&A With Technion president Peretz Lavie

Technion president Peretz Lavie shaped the university for a decade using his signature wisdom, grace, and humor to accomplish big goals. With his tenure coming to an end, American Technion Society’s CEO, Michael Waxman-Lenz, sat down with him to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.

Michael Waxman-Lenz (MWL): What was your top priority when you started as president? And how did priorities change?

Professor Peretz Lavie (PL): The number-one priority when I started was recruitment of faculty members. Baby boomers were retiring — in Israel, there’s a retirement age of 68. I knew that in order to keep the Technion an excellent institution, we should put all our resources into attracting the best faculty. Over the last 10 years, about 275 faculty members were recruited. The quality is mind-boggling. We recruited assistant professors at the entry level but also full professors at the senior level.

Another priority of utmost importance was to place the Technion on a global scale. Part of that was taking advantage of the unique opportunities, which occurred during that period, like opening branches in New York and China — with both opportunities financed by other sources than the Technion. This put the Technion on a global scale in a way that’s never been done before.

We’ve also sought to improve the quality of student life on campus. Israel’s national student union conducts a student satisfaction survey each year. When I started my presidency, we were ranked last or near the bottom. For the past three years, we’ve been number one. This is a dramatic change in the way students perceive the Technion.

Finally, a major priority has been our emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Science moves at a very fast pace. To stay ahead of the pack, you must combine knowledge and expertise from different fields in order to reach the next breakthrough. During my presidency, we opened interdisciplinary research centers in energy, autonomous systems, life sciences and engineering, integrated cancer research, quantum science, and quantum engineering. Now we’re in the planning stage of a center in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

MWL: What has surprised you most during your tenure?

PL: I was surprised how much the Technion is appreciated worldwide and is looked on as a model university — how I was invited by so many countries to speak about the secret of our success.

The second surprise is that a sense of mission — of serving society and mankind — is not shared by many universities. It took me a while to realize that indeed, this is something very unique to the Technion. It’s been part of the DNA of the Technion since its first class started in 1924.

The third surprise was the dedication, admiration, and love of our friends around the world, particularly in the U.S. This is quite amazing, to see a university 5,000 miles away from its base of supporters that enjoys such dedication.

PL: The Technion has changed the Israeli economy. When you look at our influence on so many of the startups and R&D centers in Israel, or the fact that 90% of the Iron Dome engineers came from the Technion, it’s a source of tremendous pride. I don’t think there’s a single university in the world that has had an impact on its country or environment like the Technion.”

I don’t think there’s a single university in the world that has had an impact on its country or environment like the Technion.

Peretz Lavie

MWL: What did you think would be easy as president, but turned out to be difficult?

PL: There was one “glowing” failure. When I assumed the presidency, one of my goals was to change the structure of the Technion. We have 18 faculties, which is different than most universities that are built around colleges or schools. I had in mind to change the Technion from 18 faculties to something like five schools, but it wasn’t feasible. I bypassed it by building interdisciplinary centers that are common to multiple faculties.

MWL: What did you think would be difficult that turned out to be easy?

PL: Changing the atmosphere for students on campus. Before me, there was a mountain of documents about what should be done, so I anticipated difficulties. Surprisingly, I appointed one committee that came up with 21 recommendations, and every single one of them was adopted by the Technion Senate. We saw a major difference within three to four years. Part of it might be because there was new blood: so many young faculty members who were open to the changes.

MWL: What do you hope the Technion looks like in 10 years? Do you have any advice for incoming President Uri Sivan?

PL: Some of the achievements should be solidified — our campus in New York, our campus in China, strengthening links between the campus in Haifa and the international campuses, continuing the growth of the interdisciplinary research centers. I believe Uri will do all of it.

I also believe the Technion can play a role in social change in Israel and the Jewish world. Ten years ago, 5% to 6% of our students were Arabs and now it’s 21%, the same as in Israel’s general population. We did it through a structured program funded by philanthropy. I’m very proud that among our Arab students, there are more women than men studying science and engineering. I would like to see the same for the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel. We started to approach them, and in 10 months we closed a gap of 12 years with respect to education. Then they’re accepted to the Technion as regular students. If we can educate 500 computer engineers from the ultra-Orthodox sector, it would be the beginning of another revolution. Overall, technology can be a bridge between Jewish communities and Israel. The Technion can play a major role in attracting people to Israel.

MWL: What will you miss most about being president?

PL: Being surrounded by very clever and bright people. That is so fulfilling — working with quality people like my vice presidents and deans.

I will also miss the relationship I developed with the supporters of the Technion. I now have friends around the world — in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Melbourne, France. This was a source of encouragement and a real pleasure.

MWL: What are you most proud of from your tenure as president?