Israel’s paradigm for a return to campus

Despite recent increases in the number of coronavirus cases, Israel’s relatively effective response to the pandemic from the onset — with 318 deaths and over 17,000 recoveries at the time of writing— has enabled the country to prepare for a nationwide return to college campuses.

The landscape surrounding this issue is more uncertain in the US, where the staggering COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 100,000 and where the 23-campus California State University network has already committed to a remote semester for the fall, likely setting an influential precedent for the decision-making processes of various other American universities and university systems.

Since the health conditions presented by the pandemic change by the day and often by the moment, Israeli institutions’ impending return to campus is far from a simple proposition whose success is guaranteed. Yet Israeli academic institutions now possess a unique opportunity to provide a paradigm for the future reopening of campuses around the world.

At University of Haifa, the pandemic’s challenges have underscored that although this crisis has been devastating, it has also served to highlight the innovation, fortitude, and resilience that comprise the beating heart of a university and the community it serves.

University of Haifa is operating under a strict code established by Israel’s Ministry of Health, Treasury, and Planning and Budgeting Committee, designed to encourage normal operations while ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty, and administration. Our academic and administrative staff returned to campus on May 3, at which time our researchers and the students they work with were permitted to resume their activities in laboratories and research centers. While the spring semester’s classes were completed remotely, the university offered modified on-campus classes for the summer and is scheduled to fully reopen campus in the fall.

The anticipated reopening of campus would not have been possible without our swift response to the new normal in the early stages of the pandemic. Virtually overnight, we delivered 500 classes online; our nursing and public health students joined the frontlines of the healthcare system’s relief efforts; and students volunteered throughout the country to help their communities.

Simultaneously, our institution has looked beyond its walls for the purpose of pioneering the innovative solutions to the challenges of the pandemic era. Our faculty scholars have launched new pandemic-focused research on topics including public resilience and trust, tourism, virus contamination among lower-income individuals, crowdsourcing and crisis management, the costs and benefits of the lockdown and economic shutdown, human characteristics and daily functions that promote health, tele-rehabilitation, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety homeschooling, government communication policy, poverty, and more. In fact, as one of Israel’s seven research universities, we have received 20 percent of the government’s grants which are subsidizing research projects related to COVID-19.

Further, the university’s Clinics for Law and Social Change are protecting individuals and their human rights by providing legal representation, advocating on behalf of marginalized communities, and contending with some of Israel’s most pressing social challenges that have been exacerbated by the crisis. Students from our nursing school partnered with peers from our Occupational Therapy Department to lead a group of volunteers in providing emergency assistance and relief to the city of Haifa’s elderly population and surrounding communities.

In the coming months and years, we will increasingly dedicate the resources of our campus and community toward the objective of supporting the recovery and renewal of the Israeli and global societies. The core of this mission is to provide our students with the financial, academic, health, safety, and other forms of support to continue their education and enable their path into the workforce; they are the thinkers, leaders, and change-makers the world needs, and we can make no greater investment than ensuring the vitality of their education and future.

Ultimately, contemporary society’s greatest universities are builders of community. Accordingly, University of Haifa is continuing to implement its “multiversity” mission — our role as a major driver of progress in our city and region. Since 2018, the University’s central institutional strategy has been to build a multi-campus institution with locations around Haifa and throughout the north of Israel, easing access for students and adding vitality to the city and region, while encouraging a wide range of ideas and activities to flourish in a diverse community.

Today, and especially after the coronavirus crisis subsides, our multi-campus community is poised to generate the jobs, security, and stability which will help Haifa and northern Israel bounce back following a prolonged economic downturn and social malaise. A revival is on the horizon, and reopened college campuses in Israel and worldwide are well-positioned to spearhead the recovery.

About the Author
Prof. Ron Robin is president of the University of Haifa and chairman of the Committee of University Heads of Israel (VERA), where he serves as the leading voice for Israel’s academic community.
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