The University of Haifa is poised to become the “multiversity of the North,” Prof. Ron Robin, its new president, told The Jerusalem Post.
Robin recently sat down with the Post to unveil his multi-year vision and to discuss strengthening academic ties with China and the importance of combating the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
“We now have the opportunity to move the university to a new plane,” he said. “We were always somewhat ensconced in our own world and we are about to break out.”
Robin, who took on his new role in October, has channeled his experiences from around the world and brought with him a fresh vision and lofty goal for the 45-year-old institution.
Born in Tel Aviv and raised in South Africa, Robin taught for some 20 years at the University of Haifa, and served as dean of students for five. In 2005 he left the country, “thinking I would never come back,” he said.
Robin then accepted a position at New York University where he quickly rose to become senior vice provost for global faculty development, overseeing the university’s programs in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
“Until Ami Ayalon called and persuaded me to come back home,” he said of the chairman of the university’s executive committee and a former head of the Shin Bet.
“The university is on the cusp of such miraculous changes that I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would have such an amazing time – it is a phenomenal job,” he added.
Robin said the young institution, perched atop Mount Carmel amid a nature reserve, has outgrown its surroundings. Originally built for approximately 7,000 students, the campus is no longer able to facilitate the university’s ongoing growth that now serves in excess of 18,000 students.
“We are a small university and we have yet to expand our infrastructure. We are at a crossroads – do we stop recruiting people or do we find a creative solution for how to expand?”
Robin’s “creative solution” aims to expand the university into a multiple campus institution, establishing portals all over the North of the country and strategically collaborating with smaller colleges to introduce new fields of study and provide new opportunities for academic research.
The university has already begun to forge partnerships and expand within the city as well as with several colleges, including the ORT Braude College of Engineering in Karmiel – which will merge with the university next year, providing the addition of an engineering department, currently lacking at the institution.
While Robin acknowledged that the university could not compete with its neighbor – the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, renowned as a leader in the sciences and engineering – he noted that his institution will seek to further strengthen academic fields in which it is already an established leader, primarily in the fields of marine sciences, cognitive and brain sciences, psychology and education.
“We want to be part of the community and establish a significant presence, which, quite frankly, we are not right now.”
Robin said his expansion plans received “the blessing” of the government and the Council for Higher Education.
“The North of Israel is 50% Jewish, take out Haifa and it is only 25% Jewish,” he said. “Everyone understands the importance of integrating Arab Israelis into the [higher] education system.”
The university president said he believes his institution is the right “agent of change.”
“We are the creators of Israel’s new middle class – one that is open, encompasses everybody and allows all segments of society to partake in the ‘Start- Up Nation,’” he said. “We are spreading the Israeli dream to areas that are on the margins of society right now.”
Under Robin’s vision, the university is not only looking to expand within the country but, like many universities in Israel, is also looking outwards, primarily toward the East.
“We would like to establish a physical presence on university campuses in China,” he said.
To that end, the university, in collaboration with East China Normal University, the largest in Shanghai, established the Joint Translational Institute on the Chinese campus.
“A group of our faculty will live there and work there and train graduate students together with professors from [that] university to solidify ties,” he said.
Robin explained that “the Chinese are pouring money into higher education that far surpasses anything available in the West.”
The new joint center will also allow researchers from the University of Haifa to compete, together with their Chinese colleagues, for research grants from Chinese research foundations.
“Having access to these funds can catapult our science forward,” he said.
Robin said he aims to secure similar arrangements with other leading Chinese universities and further expand his university’s multi-campus vision.
While his focus has turned to China, Robin has not turned his gaze from the “worrisome” BDS movement taking hold of campuses in the West.
“There is no better refutation of BDS than the University of Haifa,” he said.
While Robin said he believes the movement is “starting to lose steam” he expressed concern about the phenomenon.
“I am worried about the unofficial BDS, where an editor gets a paper from an Israeli and doesn’t even open the letter,” he said. “Where people shun Israelis without making a big statement about it – this is significantly more dangerous – you can’t control it, you can’t write a law or make a policy when individuals do it without making a statement.”
Robin said he was “frustrated” that leaders fighting against the BDS movement had not “turned their gaze toward Haifa.”
“How can you talk about apartheid when you walk through the halls of this university,” he said. “We are the ultimate model of how a society which faces major challenges has figured out a way to establish a common denominator.
“We are a crystal ball and if you want to gaze and see what the future of the country is going to look like, look to our university,” he said.