Diversity and the University: A Case Study from the Middle East

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 17–18, 2017

Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana

[Transcript edited for brevity and clarity.]

RON ROBIN: For the next couple of minutes, I’d like to take you out of familiar territory and talk about diversity in a context with which you may not be familiar, to give you a perspective on how universities come to terms with diversity in an area of conflict, in an area of contestation between different people. The case study I’m going to present, of course, is the university where I am currently president, the University of Haifa, where many years ago I also used to be a faculty member.

Before discussing the university in a few moments, I will provide a little background on the city for those of you who are a little fuzzy on the geography. Haifa is in the north of Israel. It’s a major port city very close to the Lebanese border. Through the window of my office I can actually see the Lebanese border and, on very clear days, I can see the Syrian border as well. It’s a narrow country—elongated and very narrow. It’s also very contested in the areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As you all know, we are in the midst of a very, very long dispute, and I don’t see its resolution in the immediate future. Hopefully, it will happen in the not too distant future, but unfortunately a resolution is not imminent.

Somehow, in the midst of all this conflict, there is a city where everything seems to work, and that city is Haifa. It is the center of a major religion—the Bahai religion, which is basically an offshoot from traditions in Syria and Iran. Bahai embraces all religions, encompassing tenets from the major monotheistic faiths. Its major prophet, who was persecuted in Iran, disappeared from Iran during the time the Ottoman Empire ruled the area and found refuge in Spain. The prophet is buried on the other side of the bay from Haifa in the city of Acre, a crusader city.

Haifa is a major city along a very large bay that stretches almost up to the Lebanese border. It is a city where Jews and Arabs have gathered peacefully for a very long time and it’s a city that works. That’s why you’ve never heard of it by the way—

AUDIENCE: [laughs]

RON ROBIN: We’re always attracted to conflict for obvious reasons. And when something works, it doesn’t create much of a commotion and I think that’s the case with Haifa. It is definitely one of the most beautiful cities you’ll ever visit.

The university is in the middle of a nature reserve on the outskirts of the city. It is home to about 18,000 students more or less equally divided between graduate and undergraduate students. At 46 years old, it is still a very young university. It is, in fact, the youngest university in Israel, and has by far the highest proportion of minority students in Israel. By minority students, I mean Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Most of the population in the state of Israel lives in the north of the country. So, when I’m standing at the top of one of the university’s towers and look to the north towards the Lebanese border, 50 % of the population in my field of vision is Jewish. If I were to remove the metropolitan area of Haifa, 25% of the population is Jewish. And that’s very much reflected in the university. We have 18,000 students as I have mentioned. I would say that 35% are minorities at this point.

Originally, we were a social science and humanities university. We have since moved into the areas of science, natural science, management, and law, but are still predominately a social science and humanities university. The number of tenure or tenure-track faculty is 650.

It is an unusual place given its composition and so we confront issues of diversity, but types of diversity that I think are very different from what you perhaps confront in the United States. I was trying to think what would be a very broad definition of diversity that I could use here and then extrapolate what is different perhaps in the Middle East. So, I define diversity here—and we can play around with this definition—as the active inclusion of a broad spectrum of demographic groups in the university, and the effort to foster mutual respect, combat prejudice, and create synergies between the different cultures by, among other things, identifying common denominators. I think that’s a broad and crude definition of diversity, but I assume you embrace these goals and practices when you apply the concept of diversity to your own universities and to the way you teach.

Now the question I’d like to ask here is: What happens to diversity in a contested society? In a society where conflict is so pervasive and runs so deep and is the cause of major political riffs? Where the conflict of ideas is inescapable? We cannot legislate it away. What do you do in a society like that? How do you further the mission of diversity in a place where the particular diversity of people and ideas itself seems to be the problem?

So I’ll tell you what we do in Haifa: we do not seek to avoid conflicts. In fact, we almost encourage them. We ask our students to be very vocal about their points of view. We often know they speak past each other and not to each other. We’re aware of that. But we do not want to sugarcoat the conflicts in any fashion. Because for all our students, irrespective of their backgrounds, this experience of engagement and of differing perspectives is the birth of reality. Most of our students have grown up in a bubble no matter what community they’re from. Only the university can pierce that bubble and provide an opportunity for people to confront each other inside the classroom and outside the classroom in a manner that doesn’t happen elsewhere in society. The university is the only open playing field in Israeli society for the different groups, different persuasions, different religions, and different ethnic groups to come together.

We work to preserve this opportunity for our students at Haifa. Our student body encompasses all of the different “tribes” of Israeli society. There is a secular Jewish tribe. There’s the Modern Orthodox tribe. There’s the ultra religious tribe, the Muslim tribe, and the Christian tribe—the list goes on and on. “Tribe” is an apt description of these groups because of how tightly enclosed they are. And the only place where these enclosures are pierced open is on the playing field of the university and the classroom.

So, when fully exposed to the various ways of living and thinking in Israeli society, how does one find common ground? It is such a divisive society—where in the world resides the common ground?

To address this question, we decided to take baby-steps. We would take small steps in the direction of reconciliation around specific values to which all students could relate. And after thinking about this for a very long time, long and hard, we decided that the first area of reconciliation would be gender equality. We thought figuring out a common denominator in the issue of gender quality would raise a minimum of resistance.

And I can say it works because 65% of our student body, irrespective of their backgrounds, are women. Some of them come from very small, very traditional villages and have very traditional roles (or whose mothers at least have very traditional roles) in those villages. But, nevertheless, their families are courageous enough to send them away to university, where obviously they will go through some kind of transformation. There’s an opening there for change.

So we preach gender equality everywhere—in the world, on campus, in the classroom. We preach it at our public events; we preach it everywhere. We preach it unapologetically in a society where normally you’re expected to explain these things, but we don’t. Women are the agents of change even in the most traditional families, and we know they are going to go back home after they have imbued these very important tenets and they’re going to bring up their families very differently as a result. And then the next generation, we hope, will be very different.

And so this was why we chose gender equality as our first foray into finding a common denominator among various aspects of society. We then moved on to another concept, one I think is familiar to anyone working at a university, and that is meritocracy.

We preach meritocracy, but many students who come to our universities come from disadvantaged backgrounds. (By the way there are seven universities in Israel. They’re all public, all funded by the government.) While most universities will target the top five percent of students, we have decided that as a policy we will go for at least the top 25 percent. Many diamonds in the rough exist in that 25 percent who did not have the necessary preparation for college beforehand, and who, with auxiliary help of one kind or another, can now help create a very inclusive and expanding middle class.

So, we preach meritocracy, but do we take into sufficient consideration the backgrounds of our students? At Haifa, we now hope that we do. We hope our strategy works, but are awaiting the results. In the meantime I’ll tell you an anecdote.

Yom Kippur, which is a very solemn day in the Jewish calendar among secular Jews in the United States, takes on a very different tone in Israel. In secular cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv, shops are closed and there’s no car traffic on the road, but the streets are full of bikes, skates, baby carriages, and people shouting and screaming and having lots of fun.

So, on Yom Kippur, my wife and I were walking down the main street in Haifa. All the stores were closed, with no cars on the road, but a lot of laughter and cheering and bikes and skates. It had been years since we’d spent Yom Kippur in Haifa, having lived in New York for the last decade.

I said to her, “This feels very familiar, like the last time we saw this ten years ago. But there’s also something very different.”

It was the amount of Arabic we heard on the street—now, there was much more.

Haifa has always been a stratified city. It used to be Arabs at the bottom of the mountain and Jews on top. It is still stratified, but those who have “made it” live on the top of the mountain in integrated neighborhoods. And so, our university has made a small contribution to the integration of a small city, a city of only 300,000, no more.

And Haifa works. I once asked the mayor why it does and he gave a somewhat facetious response. He said, “You know, it works because the three rock stars never made it to Haifa. Neither Jesus, Mohammad, nor Moses ever made it to Haifa.” And there is something to that. There is a lack of religious tension. There’s only one major shrine in Haifa and that is Elijah’s Cave. And in Elijah’s Cave, all three major religions worship and light candles together. They all managed to figure this out together.

I really don’t know what the secret of this is. I have to believe as an educator that it has something to do with education, because educators tend to be very optimistic people and believe that what we do in the classroom makes a difference. And I would like to believe our city offers a crystal-ball view of the future. I have my doubts, but I’d like to believe that. There’s a format, or a formula, we have developed in Haifa that could serve a very tragic region as it moves forward and tries to figure out its future.

It’s been a great pleasure talking to you and thank you very much.

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Spring 2018: Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom