Campuses are a bit of a paradox. We know that colleges and universities serve as the breeding grounds for innovation, collaboration and discovery. Yet due to the natural turnover that occurs in the student population every four years or so, the institutional knowledge — the memory of the useful or important — of such ideas often fades into the ether.
If retaining knowledge over time is difficult under ordinary circumstances, then those laboring to support Israel in the campus environment face even more challenging circumstances. Certainly there are many organizations, including my own, that work on this issue in the campus space and do their best to present and support innovative and engaging programming. But each individual campus is a distinct and dynamic environment, with needs and interests that change every year, as the campus population continually cycles and renews. The programs and initiatives that worked on a given campus last year may not work again this year; at times, precisely because they did work last year.
As students pass through the campus environment, the path from novice to leader to alumnus is, to the outside eye, remarkably short. As rapidly as students turn over, the turnover rate for campus professional staffers is just as high. Hillel professionals, Jewish Agency Israel Fellows, and even the campus staff of national organizations, rarely remain in a campus-facing position for more than a few years; in some cases, the students on campus remain longer than the staffers.
If the solution seems obvious — write down the programs and initiatives that work, and preserve them for those who follow — there’s still the question of who determines what is important. Certainly, sharing experience will be important to those who follow; but the pressures of the present environment, and the future-planning of those who are already transitioning, typically take precedence. Again, it is human nature to focus on what is in front of us and allow others who follow to find their own way as we once did. As a result — in any environment, but particularly in the campus advocacy environment — far too often the incoming generation finds itself having to reinvent much of what might have come before.
This very notion of lost memory, of broken continuity, is what inspired the Israel on Campus Coalition and its partners to form Ask Herzl, a website that upon launch will allow users to submit, share, store, and download programming ideas and help to counter the natural short-term memory loss.
The solution is not simply a technological one. Up until this point, breaking out of the cycle of short-term memory loss on campus has been challenging because the best sources of knowledge — the campus activists themselves — are both decentralized and inadequately incentivized to contribute to the collective knowledge. Famously, even the initial concept for an online encyclopedia failed, because the founders had not yet captured the appropriate incentives for users to share in a collaborative and truly open environment. Technology such as the Internet lowers, but does not eliminate, barriers to communication — because it does nothing to create incentives to share. Once Jimmy Wales and his collaborators lighted upon an open-source, collaborative environment, however, the first truly user-driven knowledge base was born — and for the rest of the story, one only needs to check Wikipedia itself.
In the world of Israel advocacy, collaboration is key. Campus advocates want to improve the perception of Israel on their campus as effectively as possible. This means research, surveys, and critical thinking, but it also means reaching out to other advocates from across the country who have had successes on their own campuses. To effectively counter the recurring problem of short-term memory loss, the campus community needed not to only create the technological capability to share, but also to support the infrastructure that identifies and encourages the sharing. To the credit of the Ask Herzl partners, the entire campus Israel community has worked hard to think collectively and creatively on addressing those needs, with the help of internal promotions, awards, and other incentives. Continued success will require continued investment in creative incentives and the human infrastructure to support collaboration over the long term.
The desire to promote Israel — the incentive to defend her from those who brand her as illegitimate — already exists; soon, the campus Israel network will have a space to funnel memory to accomplish those desires.
Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.