Sustainability taking center stage

How has sustainability become such a central component of the University of Haifa?

Recently, the University of Haifa has articulated a new strategic vision, committing to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as our core strategy. We’re the only Israeli university that took the SDGs as a strategic initiative and made an effort to integrate them into our activities, at all levels.

Getty Images
Even though it’s a framing that was only recently adopted, it fits in perfectly with the university’s pre-existing social and environmental orientation. We’re the only Israeli university currently ranked by the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking [the only performance tables assessing universities against the SDGs]. We’re also uniquely located to carry out research and activities related to sustainability, from our campus on top of the Mount Carmel nature reserve to the labs across the Mediterranean and the new downtown campus, a center for social good. Now, we’re excited to do even more.
Why did the university decide to further its commitment to sustainability?
When you think about the role of universities, usually what we advertise is research, education and training. Often, the fourth goal – or commitment, even – is forgotten: to have a direct impact on the world around us.
Students and researchers can leave their mark on the world in many different ways: they can influence policy-making – we have faculty members sitting on different government and national committees; they can translate academic knowledge to the public through the media; and they can engage students with social activities as part of the curriculum.
Universities still have a special role in society, and we must not forget this. We are privileged as professors, as faculty members, and we have a commitment to make this world a better place.
What are some examples of the university’s positive-impact initiatives?
We run eight legal clinics providing pro bono services to underprivileged communities, covering issues such as freedom of information and equal opportunities. Working on these social and environmental cases with professionals is part of our students’ practical education.

Another example is the Haifa Innovation Labs, which I head. Their focus is taking innovation and entrepreneurship to make a difference on social and environmental issues. Our capstone course is called The Innovation Nursery: students are faced with a challenge and, over the course of one year, work to develop a prototype solution. Last year, students developed sensors to read the brainwaves of people with late-stage ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), allowing them to communicate. Technology, AI, engineering — all different kinds of disciplinary expertise came together, and it was really touching.

Are there opportunities for students of all educational levels — undergraduate through to postgraduate — to get involved with these projects?
Just to give you one example, the Haifa Innovation Labs isn’t part of any one particular academic unit. It’s university-wide, and the aim is getting people from different disciplines and levels of education.
You have people working on social and environmental aspects in every department. We’re adding more and more content related to the SDGs into our offerings, and I’m hoping — though it’s not final yet — that every student who leaves the university will have to take at least one course where they’re exposed to the challenges facing humanity and the environment. But ultimately, it’s up to the students: if they want to go beyond that, the opportunities are there.
How do you think the ties with industry that students start to develop through these programs will benefit them after graduation?
Ties with practice — the private, government and non-for-profit sectors, which are all equally important — are critical for the success of the university. We see our sustainability initiatives as standing on four legs: research; education; operations, meaning internally implementing what we preach; and public engagement.
They’re also important for students. I’m a big believer in interdisciplinarity and challenge-based learning. On one hand, people with distinct backgrounds bring diverse expertise, and diversity is a great leverage for innovation. On the other, working on actual problems contributes to the students’ education. You see this now in the workforce, too — they’re looking for diversity and inclusion, not only to give equal opportunities, but also because it improves solutions.
The third aspect has to do with opening career paths. Engaging with practice enriches students’ resumes and grows a network that will help them get a job. If they’re involved in interdisciplinary projects and exposed to entrepreneurship, new horizons open up.
How do you hope the university’s vision will inspire students after graduation?
The young people I meet are very conscious, they’re aware of global and environmental challenges. Yet, often, once you go into the education system, you become very practical and forget why they are there in the first place. We don’t want them to forget their values. We would like to strengthen their ambition to make an impact in the world — we want them, when they go out of the university, to be ambassadors for change. After all, the future is really in the hands of the young generation.
Related Articles