Shalem College in uncertain times

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks to the meeting of the Board of Governors of Shalem College, then in formation, New York, August 11, 2011. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

Friends, we live in uncertain times. It would have been preferable to establish Israel’s first liberal arts college at a moment when Israel’s present was stable, its future was predictable, and markets were steadily rising. In fact, when the college was first conceived in the mid-1990s, those conditions almost seemed to apply. But fate has it that the implementation comes at a time of uncertainty, and this effort has become a test of how we deal with uncertainty. As we presume to prepare future students intellectually to deal with just such situations, it’s wholly appropriate that we should have to pass the same test ourselves. Let me proceed from the general to the specific in my assessment of how uncertainty might impact us, and how we might deal with it.

This has been a summer of discontent in Israel. There have been very large demonstrations in public squares, tent cities have sprung up, and earnest and not-so-earnest debates over Israel’s direction fill the newspapers. No one expected this, and it has aspects that attract and repel. I won’t impose on you my own views of the issues, on the promise and the peril in the slogan “social justice.” I do want to share some thoughts on the implications for Shalem College. There’s much to encourage us in these events—and a few things to give us pause.

It is inspiring to see multitudes of young people thinking about the current and future course of Israel—and not just think, but speak out. It is inspiring because our own venture arises from an idealistic vision that Israel can be better, that the work of pioneering is far from over, and that the way to push forward is to stir the minds of the young. To anyone who thought that Israel’s young people have become detached or apathetic, this summer has been a wake-up call. They’ve prompted a debate over the core values that should inform Israel’s social policies. They’ve posed the question of what constitutes the virtuous state and the good society—a question largely abandoned by Israel’s politicians, harnessed as they are to sectoral interests.

In the balance, this is good for our project—for what is our college devised to do, if not provoke debate over what constitutes the virtuous state and the good society? Isn’t that why we believe our students should read the best in Western and Jewish and Zionist thought? So that they might understand how great thinkers debated and answered these questions? Of course, in the street protests, these same questions are sometimes politicized, simplified, even vulgarized. But that doesn’t mean that young people aren’t thinking more deeply about them—those in the tents, those in the streets, but also the great majority watching from the sidelines. This makes our project even more timely.

Shalem College has the opportunity to become a leading venue where the young of Israel of every stripe come to think deeply and together with us about the virtuous state and the good society. Israel must change, Israel will change, and today’s young people will be the agents of that change. Is there any more direct way to reach far into the future, than to cultivate those young minds now awakened to their responsibilities? And is there any more exciting place to be, to share in that process, than Shalem College?

So these developments are welcome. But let me sound a cautionary note. These protests resonate widely, because they reflect the growing fear of Israel’s middle class, that decent middle-class life in Israel is becoming unaffordable from day to day, from price rise to price rise. I expect Shalem College to have students from all sectors, but the majority will come from the middle class. In our most optimistic moments, we envision these students (or, more likely, their parents) paying handsome tuition for our offerings. But as the price of everything rises, the middle class falls back on whatever subsidies it does have. Public higher education may be the greatest of Israel’s subsidies to the middle class. I pay more for cottage cheese than you do, but I pay only a fraction of what you pay to send my children to a decent university.

The spiraling cost of everything else is turning private higher education into a luxury product, out of reach of the middle class. We must be wary lest we become an enterprise that’s simply unaffordable. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: our mission isn’t to service an elite, it is to create one. To do so, we have to put ourselves in the mindset of potential students and their families—and do everything to assure that we stay well within reach.

Let me come now to the specifics of the college. Here, too, there is uncertainty. Our aim was to open Shalem College in fall 2012. We’re in summer 2011—fourteen months from the opening we had hoped for. We aren’t accredited, and we don’t know when we’ll be accredited—it’s guesswork. We’re making progress, we’ve had positive signs, but the process is still a black box. I’ve begun to describe the accreditation process in Israel this way: imagine that in order to open a business or launch a product line, you needed the permission of all your top competitors. That’s precisely how accreditation works in Israel.

I don’t want to preempt the systematic discussion of this subject this afternoon. I just want to state my guiding principle—the same one I stated the very first time I addressed this board. We should open as soon as accreditation permits. In the balance, delay hurts us more than it helps us. There will be seat-of-the-pants aspects to the opening. So what? In the lore of every other institution of higher education in the Israel, there are seat-of-the-pants stories. The largest university in Israel, where I spent 25 years, began just this way: improvised and scrappy. And until we have living, breathing students, and an operation that’s functional, our fundraising will be handicapped as compared to that of comparable institutions that do have living, breathing students. The enthusiasm of the young is naturally stirring—more so, I think, than our own middle-aged determination. And it’s easier to sell an idea and a place, than an idea alone.

Friends, the inaugural day of Shalem College is drawing closer, even if we can’t now circle a date on the calendar. Of course, there are uncertainties. As I’ve said before, if it were easy to do this, someone would have done it already. It would have been a lot easier for Shalem to have remained one more think tank, with a fairly predictable impact. But we yearned to do much more—to mold the minds of hundreds and ultimately thousands of young people who will decide the future of Israel. To get there, everyone at this table has taken a risk—reputational or financial or both. All of us want to reduce and manage that risk—that’s why this board meeting is so important. But we will be richly rewarded for the risks we take today.

Allow me to steal a line from Henry V, in Shakespeare’s play of that name, who celebrates “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”—and, I might add, sisters—and I would just slightly alter the rest as follows: “And gentlemen in New York now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.” We are here, Shalem College will be, and we will have reason to be proud of it. And of that, I’m quite certain.*

*Shalem College opened its doors in October 2013.