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  • Dr. Henry Kressel

    kressel_front.jpgIn September 2009, Henry Kressel, PhD, '55YC, was elected chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yeshiva University - the first alumnus ever to serve as its chairman. He succeeds Morry Weiss, who devoted 26 years of extraordinary leadership to YU, serving as chairman for the past five years. Dr. Kressel joined the board in 2005 and has since chaired its Academic Affairs Committee and served on the board of the Sy Syms School of Business. He is a renowned scientist, engineer, corporate manager, industry leader, author and investor.

    He is a senior partner at Warburg Pincus LLC, a global private equity firm, where he is responsible for investments in high technology companies. A world-recognized expert in electronic devices, Dr. Kressel holds 31 U.S. patents and led pioneering research on lasers, transistors, solar cells and other devices. The recipient of several professional awards, he was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Before joining Warburg Pincus in 1983, he was vice president at the RCA Corporation, responsible for electronics research. He also has penned more than 120 scientific publications as well as three books, including, most recently, Competing for the Future: How Digital Innovations Are Changing the World, published by Cambridge University Press. A fourth book, Investing in Dynamic Markets: Venture Capital in the Digital Age, will be published in 2010.

    After majoring in physics at Yeshiva College, Dr. Kressel went on to receive an MS in applied physics from Harvard University, an MBA from the Wharton School and a PhD in material science from the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the recipient of an honorary doctorate from YU. He was appointed regents lecturer at the University of California (San Diego) and serves as an advisor on technology commercialization at the University of Cambridge (U.K.). Dr. Kressel is married to Bertha Horowitz, an alumna of the Samuel H. Wang High School for Girls [Central] and Teachers Institute for Women. His daughter, Kim, is a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law now living in Israel, and his son, Aron, is a plastic surgeon in New York City.

    YUTomorrow, this web site's sister magazine, recently talked to Dr. Kressel about his time at Yeshiva College as a student and the reason why he decided to join the leadership of the University decades later.

    What led you to enroll in Yeshiva College back in the early 1950s? 

    What made that educational experience so valuable? 

    My parents and my sister Dora died in Auschwitz, and I came here after the war from France with my sister Clara. I entered Chaim Berlin High School, a yeshiva in Brooklyn, in 1947. When I graduated in 1951, I decided that I wanted to combine my Judaic education under great teachers with a first-class secular education because I wanted a broad education, even though I knew that science was going to be a career goal. Only YU offered this option.

    We've heard you talk about the importance of a liberal arts education. We gather you first began to appreciate that when you were at YU. 

    Why do I think I got such a great education? It wasn't because the campus was so wonderful - it wasn't. It was mainly the one big building, still in use, that also contained the dorms. We didn't even have study space in the small dorm rooms shared by three students, so at night we went to the classrooms to use the desks. But we did have great teachers and smart students. Ever since I was a kid I was interested in science. I was inventing gadgets when I was 10 years old, so I decided to major in physics but also took as many math and liberal arts courses as possible.

    How have your college experiences, and later academic activities, influenced your thinking about the role of a university like YU? 

    Louis Pasteur once said that "chance only favors the prepared mind." And this is what Yeshiva College gave me: a broad Judaic and secular education and the habit of self-study. My experience at Yeshiva College was unique, and I increasingly came to appreciate the value of my college experience as I learned a great deal about other universities in the course of my lecturing and advisory services at major institutions such as the California Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California and Cambridge University. A close interaction between students and faculty is a characteristic of great schools. The YU environment fostered this relationship in both the Judaic and secular studies programs. Looking back, I found that this had been most helpful in the advanced courses that prepared me for graduate work. When I graduated, I got a prestigious fellowship to Harvard and found myself very well-prepared. I always found that my thorough YU education in the fundamentals of advanced math and physics was a huge asset as I moved into different technical fields.

    I cannot leave this subject without talking about a class I took. I had the good fortune to take an advanced English composition course with Herman Wouk [author of such classics as The Caine Mutiny and War and Remembrance]. It was an experience that shaped my career and interest in writing. It was the first time I really grasped what the English language was because we read the classics in addition to writing lengthy compositions that he carefully corrected. And I mean corrected, line by line, where he showed us how a change in word or phrasing can improve the text. In fact, he sat down with each student as he reviewed these compositions. Having been exposed to the guidance of one of the great masters of the English language was an unforgettable experience.

    It sounds like those insights also helped you when you focused on Academic Affairs as a member of the Board of Trustees. How exactly? 

    Universities are centers of scholarship and research with the mission of preparing students for success in their future professional endeavors. As an outstanding university, we must continue to foster excellence in our schools. In fact, plans are under way to add new graduate programs consistent with student needs. But Yeshiva University has an additional mission in parallel with nurturing outstanding graduate and undergraduate schools: It plays a unique role in shaping the future of Judaism. Therefore, we must continue to extend those programs that strengthen the worldwide community built around Judaism and its ethical teachings. How do you see the role of the undergraduate education at YU in terms of its unique programs?  

    The quality of our dual program is key. We must continue to educate our students to graduate with the right attitudes, ethical standards, Judaic and secular knowledge, training and mental development to effectively operate in a world that will continually change around them. By doing that, they will be equipped to pursue careers of their choice along with the opportunity to enter the best graduate schools relevant to their interests. Alternatively, many students will enter the work force directly, and they must be prepared for that. Being active members of the Jewish community must be as much a part of their lifestyle as advancing their professional careers. When I left YU, my ambition was to devote my career to physics. This ended up to be only a part of my career, and obviously no one could forecast the opportunities that opened up as my career evolved but for which I was prepared to recognize and act upon. YU has the environment and the infrastructure to achieve that objective.

    Also, parents must appreciate the fact that sending a child to YU is putting him or her in a unique college that provides a remarkable environment for gaining a first-class Judaic and secular education, which will prepare them extremely well for a successful career, whether in business or the professions. They will also be prepared to become leading members of the Jewish community. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of an outstanding undergraduate education that prepares students for a world which will continue to change rapidly and in unexpected ways. Globalization and rapidly changing technology will continue to shape future professional opportunities. Students must be prepared to benefit from such emerging opportunities. Their college education will set the foundation for that ability.

    Doesn't that also go back to the unique nature of this institution and the challenges it raises for undergraduate education? 

    Experience has taught me that outstanding institutions focus on excellence within a set of clear strategic objectives. Under President Richard Joel, that's exactly what is going on at YU. The graduate and undergraduate schools have received a great deal of investment toward strengthening their faculties and course offerings. Our schools know what their missions are, and they're continuing to build a competitive edge in the right areas.

    In our undergraduate schools, we've made major investments in strengthening various departments with the addition of new faculty and a faculty promotion policy based not only on teaching performance, but also on the quality of academic research. While I am proud of the progress in major departments, I want to note particularly that we have rebuilt our science and mathematics departments. The results are showing. For example, the women who graduate from Stern are among the best students at Einstein, and our students continue to gain admission to the best universities for graduate study.

    Years after graduating from Yeshiva, you returned. Why? 

    It is that combination of a first-class, Judaic and secular education program that makes YU a unique undergraduate institution. But there are challenges when you try to offer balanced but high-quality dual programs. As we shape our undergraduate education program we are mindful of issues to be addressed. For example, with only a certain number of hours available to students, what is a realistic course load to achieve this dual objective? Also, how do you maximize the value of a faculty that has to operate over three undergraduate schools? How do you break down divisions that may arise? These are all questions we're trying to explore and answer as we continuously strive to improve the student experience. However, there is one fact that surfaces again and again and has not changed since I was a student: YU has the brightest and most motivated men and women, and they greatly benefit from an educational program that stretches their minds.

    You obviously believe that lay leadership is critical to the future of the institution and the fulfillment of its mission. What steps do you think can increase that participation? 

    In the 1970s, I was a guest lecturer here at seminars in physics in the Belfer Graduate School of Science. In fact, I even had the opportunity to mentor a PhD student who went on to become a physicist in a major Israeli company. His PhD thesis was so good that I quoted his research results in my own textbook on lasers. Then I lost touch with the University until 2003, when I joined the board of Sy Syms at the suggestion of my friend, Manfred Rechtschaffen, a YU alumnus. This led to an introduction to President Joel by another friend, Irwin Shapiro, a YU alumnus and trustee. President Joel's clear vision for the future of YU was so compelling that I decided that helping him to realize this vision was going to be one of my major personal programs.

    You've spent a great deal of time as an inventor and in commercializing cutting-edge technologies as well as managing business activities. How will your experience influence your activities as Chairman? 

    YU has produced outstanding alumni in all of its schools who have been extraordinarily successful. But more of them need to become committed to working actively for advancing its mission. We already have many alumni who are active across the various schools and for the institution as a whole. These people are dedicated - even fanatics - in working for YU, both financially and participating in activities that increase the reach and reputation of the University. We need to attract a lot more of them and to enlist more non-alumni who share our vision to work with us. That means that we have to work even harder to get the message out about the YU mission and its accomplishments and do this across many geographies.

    In 2008, you began funding a new Kressel Research Scholarship. Why did you think that was important? 

    I've learned that there is no short cut to success. Institutions must have a sound strategy that matches expectations with available resources. Sure, inspiration is needed but success comes primarily from working 24 hours a day, six days a week, just to move the puck forward in a desired direction. Teamwork is key. There is always something that needs to be done, so every single day must count in moving toward a desired goal. We're fortunate at YU that we have a president who is amazing, tireless, knows how to build teams and gets people involved. We have many lay leaders who are totally devoted to this institution, including a growing number of young alumni. But the lay leadership team is never big enough for the enormous amount of work to be done. President Joel leads the charge and I, and others, will do everything we can to help.

    Last question: Does anything stand in the way of success for YU? 

    We want our undergraduates to continue to gain access to the top graduate schools for professional education. Competition is stiff. Graduate schools don't just look at grades and recommendations. They want to see applicants with prior involvement in research that demonstrates creativity. So Bertha and I thought that it would be useful to have a program for undergraduates where they could pick a scholarly research project and work with a faculty member to demonstrate what they can do. When they go to graduate school, they will have had the experience of real research, experience that will also help them to define their career interests and shape their professional development. So far, it's been quite successful. In fact, a recent graduate won a National Science Foundation Fellowship for graduate education in chemistry, a singular accomplishment. Such fellowships, which fund three years of graduate study, are rare and very much sought after.

    Continuing to build excellence in our schools and programs is a never-ending task, and there is no such thing as declaring victory. The world changes and along with it comes the need to meet the changing needs of our students. Such effort calls for a close working partnership between the lay and professional leadership as we seek improved ways of rendering our services. We are fortunate in having highly committed lay leaders and an outstanding professional leadership, faculty and student body. Furthermore, the facilities and buildings have been greatly expanded and upgraded in recent years, so we have an attractive physical environment for our students and faculty.

    We need to sharpen our focus on the right priorities and get the funding to make them realities. What are some specifics? First, no institution like ours is supported by tuition alone. We have to get the right kind of financial support for our various schools and programs. Second, we have to focus on getting the message out to the world on the value of what we do and continue to attract top-quality students. Third, we have to remember that our core value as an institution is not only to train people, but to continue to expand what we value in our Jewish tradition. That translates not only into educating our students, but into education in a broader sense, and involving the community at large. That is the role of a leading international center of learning. And we must never forget that an important part of our mission is nurturing the historic Jewish message - the importance of upholding ethical values, service to the community, seeking a better life for people, and providing justice for all.

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