Tribute to TAU Benefactor and Leader Dame Shirley Porter
By Lindsey Zemler
Tel Aviv University honored Dame Shirley Porter, a lifelong philanthropist whose name is synonymous with TAU and whose contributions have made a truly resounding impact. Guided by vision and determination, she is a pioneer of the environmental movement in Israel and at TAU, and is an ongoing contributor toward the fields of art, education and health.
On her 90th birthday, November 29, the TAU Board of Governors held a tribute event on Zoom, which included speakers on the pressing issue of climate change – a passion and cause Dame Shirley has advocated for decades, and was moderated by Prof. Colin Price.
TAU President Ariel Porat said: “By creating the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Dame Shirley and the Porter Foundation have accelerated research, teaching and international collaborations addressing our biggest challenges. Today, Porter School graduates fill many influential positions in academia, municipalities, NGOs, startups and governmental offices – both here in Israel and globally.”
Clearly touched by the warmth of the tribute, Dame Shirley said, “I’m thankful to all the people who helped bring my green dream to fruition. In the 20 years since its inception, the School has achieved remarkable goals…in business and the environment, recycling, education, law, sustainability and numerous other fields.”
Family tradition of dedication to TAU
Dame Shirley currently serves as the Deputy Chairperson of the TAU Board of Governors, is a longtime Chair of the Campus Development Committee, and leads the TAU Green Campus Initiative. She is the second of four generations of TAU Governors and supporters, starting with her parents Sir Jack and Lady Cohen, who were early major donors to the University.
Dame Shirley, together with her late husband Sir Leslie Porter, continued the Cohen-Porter family tradition of philanthropy to TAU. Sir Leslie, who passed away in 2005, received a TAU honorary doctorate and was TAU's first and only Chancellor, after serving as Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors.
Dame Shirley and Sir Leslie's children, John Porter and Linda Streit, are both TAU Governors, and are continuing their parents and grandparents’ legacy of giving and involvement. Linda is a former longstanding faculty member of TAU’s Department of English and American Studies and currently heads the Student Affairs Committee, and John is active on the Campus Development and Maintenance Committee. Linda's daughter, Joanna Landau, is a successful entrepreneur and she too is a TAU Governor.
Dame Shirley's mother, Lady Sarah Cohen, at Cohen-Porter Family Swimming Pool.
Chairman of the TAU Board of Governors, Prof. Jacob A. Frankel, stressed to the Zoom participants, “Dame Shirley has achieved the ultimate goal of all parents, imbuing in her children and grandchildren her legacy of contribution, dedication and engagement, in whatever fields resonate with them. TAU is her home and she has made sure that her extended family feels at home as well.”
Passion for change
From her early career days as a public servant, Dame Shirley has been known for seeing the potential for improvement, and then making a change. Starting off in her birthplace of London, she established herself as an environmental advocate by running a successful campaign to clean up the city and improve quality of life while serving as Hyde Park councilor and, later, as Lord Mayor of Westminster. Dame Shirley was the first person to create an Environmental Committee in the Westminster City Council. Later, she focused her attention on Israel, which has always been a second home for her and her family.
Dame Shirley and Sir Leslie founded the Porter Foundation in 1970 to support projects in both the UK and Israel. In the 1990s, it became evident that Dame Shirley’s enthusiasm for solving environmental issues came at a good time for Israel, where the environmental movement was starting to take root.
Through the Porter Foundation, Dame Shirley embarked on projects to spark urban change and protect nature. One of the most significant projects was the clean-up of the highly polluted Yarkon River area in North Tel Aviv. Determined to revitalize the area and decrease harmful effects on the surrounding nature, Dame Shirley and her family built the Daniel Rowing Center, named in memory of her grandson. Their vision and persistence paid off. The river and the adjacent area were rejuvenated, illegal buildings were removed, a promenade was built, the municipal drainage systems were changed to prevent runoff into the river, and environmental monitoring was introduced. Moreover, the project included the first bike paths, creating what has become a highly popular recreational area of the city today.
In another important campaign soon after, the Porter Foundation partnered with TAU's David Azrieli School of Architecture and nature protection organizations to present an alternative plan for coastal development near Tel Aviv, emphasizing the importance of coastal conservation for Israel’s agenda.
A dream come true
The lasting success and impact of these projects inspired Dame Shirley to do more. She and Sir Leslie had another dream for a flagship project, to be implemented through the Porter Foundation in Israel: Establishing the Porter School for Environmental Studies at TAU (now called the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences). The School was launched in 2000, as an interdisciplinary academic framework within the traditional university structure.
Dame Shirley and Sir Leslie Porter at the Cornerstone-Laying Ceremony for the building.
Dame Shirley has accompanied the School throughout its entire journey, supplying both funding and direction at critical stages of its evolution. To implement an interdisciplinary program was exciting and revolutionary, but also challenging.
Dame Shirley strongly believed that true change would come only through interdisciplinary environmental studies. "I understood that if people were educated about their environment, they would come to value and appreciate it," she said. "I thought that the Foundation could achieve the most by working with an institution of higher learning – Tel Aviv University was our starting point."
From the beginning, the Porter School made a name for itself by holding conferences and roundtables that reflected both global and national environmental developments, bringing together diverse organizations and institutions as partners. Linking academic study with social change was always a pivotal goal of Dame Shirley, and her establishment of interdisciplinary environmental clinics harnessed research findings to improve society.
Dame Shirley and the Porter Foundation’s ambitions for the School extended to building a dedicated home and, in 2014, TAU inaugurated the Porter Building for Environmental Studies. The "Eco-Building” was constructed as a living sustainability laboratory for testing innovative methods and systems, such as producing renewable energy and minimizing water consumption. It was also the first green building in Israel to receive LEED platinum certification.
Today, Dame Shirley, who now permanently resides in Israel, continues to support various environmental bodies in Israel, including the Council for a Beautiful Israel (which awarded her the "Yakir Prize”), Green Course (Students for the Environment) and the Society for Protection of Nature (SPNI). Her leadership and initiative have created defining moments for Israel to take a position on the world stage to address environmental issues, and her continued support is an honor to TAU.