Moshe Vardi stands up and shouts
Moshe Vardi started his computer science career over 7,000 miles away, never planning to end up in the U.S.
“I finished my doctorate in Israel, and then I came to the United States just to do a post-doctorate at Stanford University,” Vardi said. “My plan was to go back to Israel, but cherchez la femme [look for the woman] — I met my wife in Palo Alto, and the rest is history.”
Vardi’s 30-year career at Rice includes appointments as a University Professor and Distinguished Service Professor, seven honorary doctorates and a slew of science and technology awards including three IBM Outstanding Innovation Awards.
Even after 40 years in the U.S., Vardi said his personality still reflects the culture of his home country.
“Israelis tend to be much more outspoken and blunt than Americans,” Vardi said. “I don’t know if this is my strength or weakness, but I’m very direct, and not everybody’s comfortable with my directness.”
One outlet for Vardi’s directness is writing. During the Fall 2020 semester, he authored several Thresher opinion pieces critical of Rice's decision to return to campus despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Another opinion, published in September 2022, discussed the purpose universities should serve in society.
“If you look at Rice’s mission statement, it’s about education and research and betterment of the world,” Vardi said. “We talk a lot about education … [and] we want to be a research university. We talk very little about betterment of the world. It’s there in the mission statement, but where are we talking about it? In classes, in where? It’s just not there.”
Vardi said he feels Rice students should focus on more than just academic and financial success.
“[To] the students, yes, go have a great career. But you have a responsibility for the common good,” Vardi said. “Nobody’s asking you to necessarily become Mother Teresa and go and spend your life in Calcutta feeding the poor, okay? But if everybody just thinks of themselves, we have a society that looks like the society we have.”
In his support for the common good, Vardi is passionate about the interaction between technology and society. He’s been leading Rice’s Technology, Culture and Society Initiative since its founding in 2018 and was heavily involved in the recent change to make Rice’s computer science curriculum more ethics-focused. In 2018, Vardi began teaching COMP 301: Ethics and Accountability in Computer Science. In Spring 2023, the computer science department voted to make it a required undergraduate course.
“The students really like the class because it talks about what computing is doing to society and social responsibility,” Vardi said. “There is no final exam in the class; it’s not a theoretical class. We ask them to write an essay about their own personal social responsibilities. And these essays to me are very, very moving.”
Rodrigo Ferreira, one of Vardi’s colleagues in the computer science department and the current professor of COMP 301, says he admires Vardi’s commitment to pushing his values forward.
“I think [Vardi] stands out in that he uses his position as a kind of springboard to talk about the social and ethical issues that matter to him,” Ferreira said. “He always finds time … to push forward this initiative and this set of values that he believes are important and that I, too, believe are essential for the future of computer science and the world.”
Vardi has also been outspoken about his experiences as a Jewish person on campus. On Dec. 6, 2023, he published an essay on Medium titled "A Moral Rot at Rice University," which he wrote in response to what he calls a pattern of antisemitism on Rice's campus, pointing to the passing of Student Association Senate Resolution 14.
Vardi said his original Medium essay received 30,000 views within two weeks of publication, far exceeding his expectations. The essay was also republished in the Houston Chronicle and The Times of Israel.
Though Vardi said the response to his essay was overwhelmingly positive, he did receive backlash. About a week after the essay’s publication, Vardi said an unknown person outside of the Rice community mailed him a note that read, “Americans are sick of Jews whining [about] how discriminated against they are. Most Jews are obnoxious [and] greedy. Look at yourself. Jews bring on most of their own problems.”
Vardi says this hatred, though uncomfortable, informs his identity.
“I may look white. I don’t consider myself white. I open my mouth; immediately people see I’m not from here,” Vardi said. “[They ask] ‘Where are you from?’ I say I’m from Israel, so it takes about 30 seconds for people to realize that I’m Jewish, and then I stand aside. The people who hate Black people also hate me.”
Negative or positive, Vardi says the potential response didn’t factor into his decision to write and publish the Medium article.
“I wasn’t thinking about what kind of response I’m going to get,” Vardi said. “I just have to say, this is not acceptable. I have to stand up and shout.”
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