A University’s Vision Becoming Reality

by Glenn Rosenkrantz

President Aaron Ben-Ze’ev Drives University to Even Greater Heights of Prominence and Achievement

University of Haifa President Aaron Ben-Ze’ev walks through campus and sees Israel’s present and future.

Religious Jews, secular Jews, new immigrants, soldiers, minorities, those from the center of the country, and those from the periphery all pursuing and creating knowledge in a pluralistic and tolerant environment. And all committed to the value of research, dialogue and higher education to their own futures and that of society.

“We are a young, dynamic and diverse university, reflecting and expressing the structure of Israel,” he said this month in New York, one stop on an American tour to meet with supporters.

As a major research university populated by a wide cross section of Israelis – 18,000 in total – the university is a good snapshot of the country’s makeup and aspirations. Ben-Ze’ev and others – including academicians, donors and philanthropists – view it as a dynamic laboratory of coexistence and a catalyst for advancement and change, worthy of attention and support by those committed to Israel’s vitality.

“The full range of Israeli society can be found at our university, and so we reflect Israel’s future,” said Ben-Ze’ev, who has led the university since 2004. “Besides our academic and research excellence, our mission is to make people and our society better.

“We have pursued this for many years and not just now because it is popular. Universities are not just places to gain information. This you can do on the Internet. It should be a place of value, education, research and integration of populations.”

Ben-Ze’ev sees the university’s unique personality – derived in large part from the diversity of its student body, its location and its commitment to research and interdisciplinary studies – as a driving force for impact locally, throughout Israel and on a global scale.

“All universities are united in pursuit of academic excellence,” he said. “But because of where we are, because we are relatively young, and because of our students, we are dynamic and sensitive and connected to Israeli society, to environmental awareness, to social responsibility, and to international bodies. We are not the typical academic environment where we sit above it all and don’t get our hands dirty.”

The university’s location on the edge of the Galilee, the vast region of northern Israel that he and government officials – including President Shimon Peres – agree is primed and overdue for physical, economic and intellectual development, offers a case in point.

In Karmiel, a population center in the Galilee, Ben-Ze’ev would like to see a new university-sponsored research center for the study of applied biology. The expectation is that it would create new industry and integrate with it, and directly and indirectly employ hundreds of people with advanced degrees and skills and a long-term stake in the region’s economy and security.

Such a project would help to transform the Galilee and the university’s reach and effect there, he said, and advance its place as a major research university in the country and throughout the world.

“Developing and upgrading the Galilee is a national task and challenge,” he said. “The long-term vitality and security of the region and the country depends on it. We believe in this and will contribute to this. It is our mission to increase our involvement throughout the region. This would be a major step in this direction.”

The new research center would be one of the newest among many for which the university is known. It would join the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, which takes advantage of its location on the Mediterranean Sea to add to international understanding of the marine ecosystem, and the Institute for the Study of Affective Neuroscience, conducting and promoting research on affective disorders.

“When people think about the University of Haifa, they think about the youngest and most dynamic university in Israel,” Ben-Ze’ev said. “They associate it as a place of major research and interdisciplinary studies with a fresh perspective. This is the reality and the vision.”

The university’s continuing emergence as a regional, national and global research center across disciplines is reflected in a variety of ways. Research grants to the university during the last five years have grown nearly threefold, fellowships to graduate students in the sciences is increasing, and new research programs and labs are being established.

The university recently founded the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Scholars program, which will create a doctoral tract and a cadre of scholars supporting long-term academic and scientific research in this field.

The university is also active in geo-political affairs. An honors and advanced degree program in peace and conflict studies uses Israel and the cultural diversity of the campus and region to examine the pursuit of peace, adding to the national and international dialogue.

Physical improvements to the university have been made in recent years with American donor support. A library expansion and renovation, funded by Younes and Soraya Nazarian of Los Angeles, and a new café and garden, made possible by the Rieger Foundation of Santa Barbara, CA, have enhanced students’ social and educational experiences.

As a professor of philosophy, founder of the university’s Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Emotions, and current chairman of the Association of University Heads in Israel, Ben-Ze’ev is well positioned to address the spectrum of challenges in fostering and growing a world-class research university.

He cited successes in convincing governmental leaders of the importance of Israel’s universities, and in supporting them. Yet it is still a struggle in a country where much of the population lives in the mid section, where much government funding goes, rather than to the periphery areas, he noted.

“In a state where there is such a polarized political system, we have to persuade the decision makers to invest,” he said. “I believe there is a change now in that mood. I expect to see more support and involvement by the government in higher education.”

Still, he said, the University of Haifa is a relatively young university. And the role of donors and non-governmental entities outside of Israel – from those who recognize the strides made by the university, the important research center that it is, and its central place within Israel and the Galilee – is critical for continued growth in stature and effect.

“We don’t have the resources for speedy development, yet we are entering a new stage in which every development will require more funds,” he said.

His tour through the United States this month allowed him to meet with long-standing supporters of the university and to meet new ones, clearly a critical role for an accomplished president with a record of achievements and successes. He described it as one of his biggest challenges as the head of a major and growing university.

“We have a dynamic organization in the United States,” he said, referring to the American Society of the University of Haifa, the chief fundraising arm for the university in North America, now chaired by Arthur K. Wachtel of San Francisco.

“Supporters see the importance of our activities from a academic point of view, from a moral point of view, and the point of view of strengthening Israeli society. They feel it is a very worthy cause, and it is.”