Asher Cohen works in a very modern office in one of the buildings of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, close to the Mount of Olives and overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. The University was founded by very prominent intellectuals like Freud, Einstein and Weizmann and it is the oldest University in Israel after the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Can you describe your institution and your job to me?

When we established the University 90 years ago we tried to cover the entire range of science, from Psychoanalysis with Freud, Chemistry with Weizmann, Theoretical Physics with Einstein. Today we have departments of Nuclear Physics, Social Sciences, Italian Studies, Political Sciences, Medicine…. The challenge we are facing is to try to be very good in each discipline.

You consider yourself good?

I believe we are very good. In the International ranking, we are at the 53rd place in the world. We are one of the top ten Universities in Europe, the best in the Middle East and the 11th among the non-English ones. If you look at our budget we do it with less money than the others and we are successful.

How many students do you have?

23,000 – half of them undergraduate, half of them graduate. There are around 1,000 Faculty members. Most of them are Israeli because the main language is Hebrew, but we have an international segment that we want to expand; and soon we will be able to offer a first degree in English.

Do you have non Jewish students?

Yes, we are very much encouraging multi-culturalism. We have around 1,000 Arab students, many Christians and all kinds of other religions.

In which fields do you think you are at the top level?

We have one of the best Mathematics departments in the world; one of the best in Computer Science. But I should say that we are internationally good in many disciplines. For instance we just established a Brain Center that is one of the best in the world.

What about the Professors?

They are mostly from Israel but also from many different countries. We have very high standard requirements.

What about Jewish Studies?

Jewish Studies were one of our three first departments; and we are still leaders.

You had several Nobel Prize Winners?

We had two Nobel Prize Winners that did their research at the Hebrew University and five others who were educated here.

What are the requirements for acceptance?

To have good students; and the tuition fees are not very high compared to the Ivy League Universities in America. Plus the cost of living is moderate.

Do you have many foreign students?

We have many Americans and Europeans for a shorter period of time.

Who is financing the University?

We are a public Institution, like all the universities in Israel, financed by the government, but we try to expand our programs with the help of philanthropists. The main source of help comes from the USA but also from Germany, Britain and some other countries. But private financing represents only 10% of our budget.

What are your main ambitions?

I want to make the University even better, to make it more international by including many more programs in English and to be one of the world leaders in Science and Culture.

Do you have connections with other Universities?

We have connections with several Ivy League Universities in the US, with German and Swiss Universities and other students.

You are also very well known for Agriculture?

We have an excellent Agriculture Faculty and some of the very best agricultural inventions were created by our Faculty. I should also mention that we try to be more and more involved in the community. We admit and supervise underprivileged students. We pay fellowships to students to develop social progress in poor regions and we encourage our students to be involved in society.

When they graduate from the Hebrew University do they find jobs?

Yes, our students are very respected in the job market. As an example, all our students in the Law School get very attractive offers from all the leading law offices in Israel. We have a very prestigious Medical School, and in Dentistry the quality of medicine is high.

And Politics?

The Hebrew University is one of the most influential institutions in Israel. If you look at the leaders in Politics, Business or Academia a large proportion of them graduated here.

How do you live through what happens in the Region?

I think that we succeed to make the University an island of normality and intellectual activity.

In Israel the military service lasts three years?

Yes, our students are generally older than in other countries because they come after the army. But as a result they are more engaged in their studies.

Do you consider yourself a Middle Eastern institution?

We do have Regional Studies, and we are Middle Eastern, but we are like any Western University. We are not a kosher University because we have a heterogeneous community.

Your donors give money for what purpose?

Specific purposes. Albert Einstein gave all his intellectual belongings and his house in Berlin to the Hebrew University. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg gave us money. But the directions are variable. Some give money for a building that bears their name. Some develop a particular area. For instance the Safra family helped in establishing the Brain Sciences Center. Other people provide chairs or scholarships, or they finance general activities. The University is not wealthy and we need more funds to increase the physical infrastructure and give more scholarships to students.

What kind of qualities should a Rector have?

He has to understand, as well as having a clear vision of the future, and he has to have common sense in order to deal with the different communities.



6th November 2013