Strengthening Israel’s North: A mission to stand the test of COVID-19

Reviving downtown Haifa is just one piece of our broader mission to strengthen the North, Israel’s last frontier.

University of Haifa. (photo credit: ZVI ROGER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
University of Haifa.
The increasingly prevalent sentiment during the still-nascent era of COVID-19 is that the pandemic will generate far more than short-term disruption for institutions and organizations of any kind. Be prepared for a permanent “new normal,” various experts have warned.
Nevertheless, a compelling argument also exists for maintaining the core identity of an institutional mission in the face of the current upheaval, while more subtly adapting strategic decisions to the times rather than completely abandoning that mission. In this regard, the University of Haifa provides an instructive test case.
In 2018, the university launched what we called a “multiversity revolution” with the goal of shaping Israel’s future based on a unique academic model: a multi-campus institution with locations around Haifa and throughout northern Israel, easing access for students and adding vitality to the city and region, while allowing a wide range of ideas and activities to flourish in a diverse community.
At the heart of the multiversity is our establishment of new infrastructure that promises to bring more jobs, security and stability to the North. Our most ambitious project in this realm is the forthcoming Lorry I. Lokey City Campus that will comprise at least four buildings located throughout the Port of Haifa and the city’s downtown area.
The campus is part of the university’s ongoing objective to expand its academic reach while driving the revitalization of downtown Haifa. The area experienced decades of economic decline and high crime rates following the British Mandate period. However, in more recent years it has emerged as a popular hub of art and culture, vibrant nightlife, and relatively affordable yet attractive housing options.
Reviving downtown Haifa is just one piece of our broader mission to strengthen the North, Israel’s last frontier. While economic development has consistently surged in central Israel and even in some peripheral areas like the South, the North has lagged behind and stands poised to be brought into the fold by initiatives like the multiversity movement.
The rise of the North will be propelled not only by the Lokey City Campus but also by other new infrastructure like the Helmsley Health Discovery Tower on the Rambam Healthcare Campus.
ON THE surface, COVID-19 poses a significant setback to this effort. Construction on the downtown campus cannot possibly continue at the pace that we hoped it would. And how can we plan for the long-term future of Haifa and the North when we are uncertain about the university’s basic operations, including prospects for a return to campus next semester and many students’ ability to afford tuition during fraught economic times?
The answer is that despite the seemingly daunting obstacles, we are confident that our vision for Haifa and the North will be as crucial as ever in the age of coronavirus. In fact, the Lokey City Campus is ideally positioned to fulfill its potential in the coming years, particularly due to its emphasis on big data.
The campus will be adjacent to Rambam - the largest hospital in the North and to large hi-tech areas. Across Israel and all nations, myriad future functions will be based on big data, particularly when it comes to personalized medicine, epidemiology and public health. Our downtown campus will operate at the cutting edge of these technological and industrial changes.
Once this crisis subsides, it is imperative that the University of Haifa’s mission in the North continues unabated. The North will likely take a significant financial hit during this time and institutions like the university have a responsibility to help the region get back on its feet.
More specifically, our institution’s responsibility is to offer students the support they need both now and when they return to campus. The university is busily organizing the funds to provide approximately 5,000 students with grants ranging from $1,000 to $3,000 in order to ensure that there is no financial obstacle to their continued enrollment during the COVID-19 crisis. We are also supplying students in need with laptops and alternative options for Internet access.
The new normal in Israel and worldwide is admittedly a radical shift with enduring consequences. But at the University of Haifa, we are making the commitment today that COVID-19 will not deter the realization of our big-picture goals tomorrow.
Ron Robin is president of the University of Haifa. Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.