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Sociology professor Majd el-Haj has been named Haifa University's next dean of research, making him the first Arab faculty member to serve at the vice presidential level of an Israeli university.

While el-Haj called the appointment an achievement, he also said it attests to the deep discrimination faced by Arabs in Israeli academia.

In his new role, a position called "research vice president" at other universities, el-Haj will be responsible for the cultivation of academic research at the university as well as research cooperation with universities abroad.

The university senate, a body of the university's most senior professors, elected el-Haj, who will assume the position starting this coming academic year at the end of October.

Professor el-Haj is held in international esteem in his fields of research - multiculturalism and the sociology of education. He has extensively studied the Palestinian minority in Israel, conducting comparative studies with other minorities in the country and abroad.

In recent years, el-Haj has also studied the wave of immigration to Israel from the former U.S.S.R., and its impact on the socio-political structure of Israeli society. He also served as a member of the Council for Higher Education; chairman of a committee to advance higher education among the Arab population of Israel; and head of the Monitoring Committee for Arab Education.

Before the appointment, the highest position held by an Arab in an Israeli university was department chair. In light of this fact, el-Haj called the appointment historical, but added that it represents a larger problem.

"If it took the state and its academic institutions 57 years to appoint an Arab as dean, then this indicates deep discrimination. However, it also indicates potential and that nothing is impossible - despite the glass ceiling which is indeed in place for minorities, including women, Sephardic Jews or Arabs," he said.

Until 1995, there were only 18 Arab lecturers in all of the universities in Israel. This inbalance prompted the establishement of the "Maof" (vision, in Hebrew) foundation to encourage universities to hire more Arab faculty members. Today, said el-Haj, who is one of Maof's founders, between four and eight Arab lecturers join university and college teaching faculties every year.

El-Haj added that there are now 80 Arab lecturers in Israel, comprising about one percent of all the lecturers in the state. "There was a substantial entrance of Arab lecturers into universities, but the gap between what is desired and what exists is still large."