USC leaders visit Israel with eye toward expanding academic ties

A delegation of trustees, professors and faculty from the University of Southern California (USC) benefited from the spring sunshine in Israel, an unexpected bonus (or perhaps lucky selling point) on a trip to explore increased academic ties with Israeli institutions.

The group returned to Los Angeles last week from a trip visiting four internationally renowned Israeli academic institutions — Tel Aviv University, the Technion of Haifa, the Weizmann Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem — as well as seizing the opportunity for a bit of sightseeing in a country many of them had never visited before.

USC already has several academic collaborations in Israel, and for some members of the faculty it was a chance to catch up with colleagues who are normally only at the end of a phone line or fiber-optic cable.

The USC delegation was led by President C.L. Max Nikias and included Provost Elizabeth Garrett;  Ken McGillivray, vice provost for global initiatives; Avishai Sadan of the School of Dentistry;  Michalle Mor Barak of the School of Social Work; and trustees Alan Casden and Jeffrey Smulyan.

The desire to increase cooperation with Israeli universities, in particular, is threefold, Nikias told The Journal, citing academic excellence as the primary motivator.  “You have here some of the very best universities in the world,” he said.  “We wanted to expand and strengthen the research collaboration between USC and universities here in Israel.”

The university also sends students to Israel every year as part of its study abroad program. Nikias proudly stressed USC’s high proportion of Jewish undergraduates (12 percent), many of whom choose Israel as their destination for a semester abroad — a trend that has become a key factor in the desire to develop ties with Israeli institutes.

Nikias also highlighted the university’s role as home to the Shoah Foundation Institute — the brainchild of USC trustee Steven Spielberg, which digitally records the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, some 52,000 to date, and each one lasting approximately two hours. These testimonies are used to educate about the horrors of the Holocaust, and the dangers of racial intolerance and importance of tolerance. 

“Exploring collaborations between Shoah and Yad Vashem or other museums or institutes here in Israel, I think is extremely important,” Nikias said. “That’s why the executive director of the Shoah Institute [Stephen Smith] is with us as part of this delegation.”

Indeed, Nikias and his wife joined Smith for a special tour of Yad Vashem, where they laid a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance in memory of the victims of the Holocaust and met with survivor Asher Ud.

The delegation also met a range of Israeli dignitaries, including President Shimon Peres, high-tech guru Yossi Vardi and economic maven Manuel Trajtenberg, as well as defense and research experts. 

Nikias, on his first trip to Israel, even managed to squeeze in a few hours to see the country — from the air, as a passenger on a helicopter ride.

“It’s so beautiful,” he enthused. “What really impressed me the most was all the green, all the agriculture.

“I took a lot of pictures!”