The University and City Event - Impressions

Admittedly, when I first heard the topic of the convention – the university and the city – I wasn’t too interested. It just didn’t seem relevant. However it occurred to me that this was possibly because the experience at the Hebrew University is that of the disconnection between us and the city, and I looked forward to hearing new things. I unfortunately missed the beginning, waiting for a late participant. When I entered, the hall was full. Every seat was taken and people were standing at the back and sitting on the stairs.

The audience was paying rapt attention to Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who was wrapping up by describing the importance of strategy: choosing a pilot project and learning its lessons, while gaining the academic guidance that the Urban Clinic could provide. Next up was Tel-Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who started by congratulating us urban planning graduate students on our choice of studies, saying he enjoyed seeing students interested in urban issues. His focus was the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo, an institute I knew next to nothing about. According to Huldai, this college was intentionally placed in a rundown Yaffo neighborhood as part of a plan to revitalize the area.

Locating a college within an urban fabric brings not only academics to poorer areas, it brings actual economic benefit, claimed Huldai, explaining the effect the students have on the area simply by turning this place into a destination – they eat, drink, buy goods and some even live in the area. This he compared to the location of the Hebrew University and its (non)effect on the city, to spontaneous laughter and some scattered applause. In all fairness, some students later noted that Tel-Aviv University was not mentioned at all – which raises some questions. Barkat responded honestly that, basically, you work with what you get. You have to deal with a certain physical reality. I agree – the specific historic conditions that led to the university’s location in the far corner of the city have led to a given situation, maybe not so ideal – and the challenge is what exactly to do with that now.

The most interesting lecturer, in my opinion – possibly because he was not a politician – was Nechemya Friedland, head of the Academic College of Tel-Aviv –Yaffo. He talked about the difficulty of gaining the trust of the Yaffo residents, who had heard many promises before. He stressed the importance of opening the college to the residents, both literally and figuratively, in order to prevent feelings of jealousy or animosity towards the college. To this end, he mentioned a few strategies and programs: allowing the local schools free use of the campus facilities, allowing free access to the libraries, integrating adults without higher education into the regular classes, the creation of intensive multiple-year mentoring programs and more.

The most important thing, said Friedland, was the focus on helping the community, and not turning the students into social activists. The students are there to study, and then they will leave; the community cannot become dependent on them. He also said the best way to manage community relations is to integrate it into the ongoing day to day management instead of limiting it to one specific corner of the community relations department – to the college, he said, it’s just part of being a college.

Last to speak was MK Stav Shafir who discussed one of the crucial differences between university campuses in Israel and abroad – fencing off for security reasons, and the need to find solutions and bridges “beyond the fence”. She also discussed the university as meeting place, a place of diversity – and a basis for exporting knowledge to the wider community.

The questions from the audience had a slightly accusatory nature; questions like “What are you doing and why aren’t you doing more?” A few students asked about the university and its ties to the adjacent Giva Hatzarfatit. Two speakers represented the residents and asked how the university wishes to hear and cooperate with them, and one of them expressed sincere and wholehearted wishes to work together with the clinic to improve their relationship with the university after years of disappointments.

Friedland chose to end with a challenge thrown back to the students – instead of asking what the university can do for the community, he said, go out there yourselves, see what the situation is and tell the university what is needed. If you try you’ll see people are willing to help. A lively discussion ensued after the lectures with some other students, with some expressing optimism and excitement, while others echoed the skepticism of Yaffo residents as related by Friedland. Is this a new start “for real” this time? What does this mean for the future of city-university relations? Let’s wait and see.

Shira Lichtenbaum - I'm an urban planning graduate student and Jerusalem resident. I married last year and currently work in a preservation architecture office. I'm the daughter of American olim, so I grew up in here in Israel but in an English speaking household.