“No one handed us the University on a silver platter," declared Professor Emeritus Kenneth (Kenny) Preiss of the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management and the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management. As someone intimately involved in the conception, long gestation and birth of BGU, he was one to know.
Raised in South Africa, where he earned a degree in Civil Engineering, Preiss first came to Israel in 1958, served in the army and then designed civilian buildings, including some in Beer-Sheva.
After earning a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering in England, Preiss taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana. But despite an offer of tenure and U.S. citizenship, in 1966 he made the crucial decision to return to Israel and join what was then the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research.
Founded with the help of UNESCO, the Institute, which was under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office, conducted research in desert science and technology; Preiss was given responsibility for the technologies of desalination, solar energy and geophysics. But Institute Director Joel Schechter, former Mayor David Tuviyahu and others dreamed of creating a university. Tuviyahu brought Preiss into the group that would establish the precursor to BGU – the Institute for Higher Education in the Negev.
The first courses taught were in the fields of biology and mechanical engineering. Lecturers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Technion in Haifa taught together with the few academics then at the Institute and elsewhere in the Negev. “We would fly people down to give lectures; when experimental facilities were needed, a taxi drove the equipment back and forth from Haifa." Classes were held at HIAS House in central Beer-Sheva, but they soon ran out of space and lectures were held in a row of small shops.
Despite support at the top level, including then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, there was considerable opposition – from other universities, the Treasury and government officials – to the idea of a university in Beer-Sheva.
“The name Beer-Sheva University," said Preiss, “suggested something local and provincial. The name University of the Negev, which had a more universal significance, was chosen." After David Ben-Gurion passed away in 1973 the name was changed to “Ben-Gurion University of the Negev."
Kenny held the Sir Leon Bagrit Chair of Computer-Based Global Industrial and Scientific Development until his retirement (2007). He was proud to have led a core of University researchers who, with two dozen engineers and scientists from the Negev, made significant contributions, from 1968-1988, to the technical combat capability of the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command. “Many of the solutions developed were implemented into the whole IDF, and one in particular, to remove mines in front of tanks, became standard equipment also for the U.S. and many other armies," he said.
What motivated Preiss to make Israel his home? A poem from his school days back in South Africa included the line “'Be still prepared to die.' I understood this meant that I should not waste even a day on superficialities. From a very early age, it was clear that the most important thing for me was to contribute to Israel and the future of the Jews. Not only me. My colleagues at the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research really felt that we were pioneering scientists. This was Zionism at its best."
"In memoriam" by Yoram Reich, Ofer Shai