University of Haifa President Amos Shapira is blunt about what he believes should be Israel’s top priority.
“Israel has no other advantage other than its human resources,” he said, “and the investment we make in education.”
Shapira knows something about using resources. Prior to assuming the office in October 2012, he served as CEO of Cellcom Israel, the nation’s largest cellular company, and before that he headed El Al, the national airline. In his business career, Shapira championed the integration of Israel’s minorities into its workforce.
On a visit to Los Angeles last November, Shapira sat with the Jewish Journal and explained why returning to University of Haifa, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s in economics in the early 1980s, makes perfect sense. Some 30 percent of University of Haifa’s student body is Arab — the highest ratio of Arab students of all the country’s universities. His school, he said, is a laboratory of Israel’s future.
“Israel will not be able to survive if we don’t learn to build a shared experience,” he said.
Shapira believes deeply in what he calls Israel’s “mosaic” of cultures and religions — and he said education is the key to every piece of it fitting together.
“The United States can survive a high level of inequality and tension because it’s so big,” he said. “Israel must take care of these tensions.”
Although the school boasts highly rated programs in the humanities and in Mediterranean studies, University of Haifa, located in the far north of the country, has long played third fiddle to its more famous counterparts, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.
Shapira, like a good businessman, sees a way to turn these challenges to his university’s advantage.
“We have no medicine, no natural sciences,” he acknowledged, “but we have the best humanities and social studies. We are the best in the study of learning disabilities.”
As a CEO of some of Israel’s largest companies, Shapira spearheaded an effort to get 300 of Israel’s leading firms to promote the employment of humanities graduates in the business sector.
As for the location, Shapira notes that corporations like Intel are also based in northern Israel, and that the nation’s future is in many ways reliant on developing the north.
“If Israel were an island of peace and the north just had a few bed and breakfasts, no one would care,” he said. A successful research university is central to developing a stable, thriving population in one of the country’s most ethnically mixed regions.
“We respect the diversity of Israel in a way no other university does,” Shapira said.
As proof, he cited University of Haifa’s large percentage of Arab and Druze, as well as Orthodox Jewish students and faculty.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time these groups are learning and doing research together,” he said.
Shapira, who is 62, is lean and restless. He ticks off his priorities with an executive’s decisiveness: Boost the university’s outreach to educate Jewish and minority students in schools throughout the region; bring in dozens of top researchers across many disciplines, and raise $200 million in four years to do this, and more.
“This is the dream,” he said crisply, leaving no doubt he’s accustomed to seeing his dreams through to reality. “The whole university is an endeavor to create excellence while developing a tolerant atmosphere.