Ariel University
Ariel University Photo by AP
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The Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education is to meet this afternoon at Bar-Ilan University to vote on whether to recognize the Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university. The planning and budget committee of the state's Council for Higher Education had recommended against it at this time.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced Sunday he was "paving the way" for the establishment of the first university in the West Bank by making use of "special funding." Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar sent a letter to the chairman of the Judea and Samaria higher education council expressing his support for transforming the Ariel institute into a university.

Sa'ar expressed his support for the move although he is chairman of the state's Council for Higher Education, which opposed the move. The 15-member Judea and Samaria education panel was established in 1997 after the state's council refused to discuss issues involving academics in the territories. As the highest authority in the territories, the law establishing the council was signed by the commander of the Israel Defense Force's Central Command. It states that members of the council are to be appointed by the head of Central Command, either from current or past members of the state's Council for Higher Education.

The military commander is the final authority governing decisions by the Judea and Samaria education council, which will be the case with its decision regarding the Ariel University Center. Following political moves to annul the recommendations of the state Council for Higher Education's planning and budget committee, the committee's chairman, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, sent a memo to the chairman of the Judea and Samaria education council, Prof. Amos Altshuler, outlining why he believes that panel lacks the legitimacy to decide whether to recognize the Ariel institute as a university.

In the memo, which Haaretz has obtained, Trajtenberg said the panel was tainted by conflict of interest and did not meet the standard of academic scrutiny upheld in Israel and abroad. "Discussion must not be on a political-ideological basis," Trajtenberg said, adding that this would "fatally harm academia." "The very question as to whether the Ariel University Center is worthy/should receive recognition as a university, when asked in a manner unconnected to a broader context (planning, economics, etc. ) is very problematic and reflects at best longing for a long-gone earlier time - At worst it is a purposeful and serious deviation from an egalitarian and fair basis," Trajtenberg wrote to Altshuler.

Trajtenberg continued that it was inconceivable that "such an essential decision be discussed and made by a body in charge of one general institution of higher education (and two teachers colleges ) out of 67 institutions [of higher learning in Israel], in which only three percent of all students are enrolled."

Trajtenberg also pointed out that the panel which recommended the Ariel institute's transition to a university had not been properly constituted. "In Israel, because of its small size, such committees must in almost every case consist of experts from abroad who it may be proven do not have connections to the areas under scrutiny in Israel."

The fact that Altshuler himself had headed the panel, Trajtenberg said, "meant that there was no separation between the recommending committee (the panel ) and the body charged with deciding on the recommendation," referring to the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education.

Trajtenberg gave as an example the possibility of establishing a medical school in Safed. "The question was not whether Bar-Ilan University (or any other institution ) would establish a medical school of its own, even if it very much wanted to, but whether the State of Israel needed another medical school. In the end, Bar-Ilan was indeed chosen, but whether before or after the fact is critical."

Trajtenberg went on to ask: "Is it conceivable that any institution demand that it be determined whether it is 'worthy' of establishing an excellent center in some realm, without the above-mentioned process, without studying the need and conducting a competition? Should public money be spent in this way? Should limited resources, human and material, be used in this way?"

Trajtenberg pointed out in the document that the panel had used "only a number of narrow academic standards" and that it had "relied almost solely on materials generated by the Ariel University Center and its progress reports."

Thus, the meeting of the standards set "cannot attest to the research or teaching quality of the institution and certainly not with respect to any university standard."

Trajtenberg concluded that the process which the Judea and Samaria education council used to make its recommendation was so essentially flawed that "there is a fundamental difficulty in accepting it, without reference to its conclusions."

Trajtenberg criticized Steinitz's transfer of earmarked funds to the institution to further its recognition as a university. "These funds are nowhere near the amount required to fund a university," Trajtenberg argued.

He added that the transfer of these funds could impinge on the funding of the rest of the country's universities and colleges. Trajtenberg said the question was not the academic qualifications of the panel's members, which he did not doubt, but "the mandate of the committee from the outset, and the manner of its work in light of this."

A member of the panel, Israel Prize laureate Prof. Daniel Sperber, said he was both hurt and angered by Trajtenberg's letter. He said that six members of the committee were "at least Israel Prize laureates, not people new to scientific scrutiny." Sperber said "to say we did not do real work is very insulting. I don't know what his motives are, but he had a whole year, it is in poor taste, you do not leave such a thing to the day before the decision." Sperber said the Ariel University Center was a "magnificent institution despite the hostility toward it from certain groups."

The committee of university heads responded that "any additional budgets should have been given to the existing research universities which have been starved for funding for years." The committee urged the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education to consider the data presented to it by the planning and budget committee of the Council for Higher Education in its decision on Tuesday.

The Ariel University Center responded that Trajtenberg's actions "served only the monopoly of the university heads," and that it was Trajtenberg who was guilty of a conflict of interest. The Ariel institute also said the panel appointed by the Judea and Samaria education council had acted with Trajtenberg's approval and that "its report proves beyond all doubt that we meet and exceed every academic requirement set for us and so it recommended recognizing us as a university."

The university center also said Trajtenberg's "actions were in opposition to cabinet decisions, the opinion of the deputy attorney general, to the recommendations of the Council for Higher Education and to the national interest in encouraging higher education in Israel."

Meanwhile, Altshuler informed the 16th member of the council, National Student Union chairman and social protest leader Itzik Shmuli, that he would not be allowed to vote, because the necessary details about him were mistakenly not passed on for approval to Israel's military commander in the West Bank, which oversees the council. In response, the National Student Union said it was concerned that Shmuli's right to vote had been revoked because Shmuli had not stated ahead of time how he would vote, as had other members of the council.