Bennett's Pawns Show Contempt for Israel's Higher Education System

The ouster of the Higher Education Council head is yet another attempt to weaken the regulators, restrict their authority and subordinate them to the politicians.

Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett addresses the press, December 21, 2015.
Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett addresses the press, December 21, 2015. Olivier Fitoussi

Following a campaign of persuasion by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a plenary session of the Council for Higher Education has legitimized the ouster of the council’s deputy head, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, a year before her term ends. Members of the council, which is supposed to be an independent, apolitical body, approved (by a vote of 12-6, with one abstention) Bennett’s nominee to replace Messer-Yaron, Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman, who previously headed a tiny college that merged with Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in 2008.

Dr. Wadmany Shauman – a religious woman, just like Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, whom Bennett appointed to head the council’s planning and budgeting committee – hasn’t made much of a mark thus far in the field of higher education. Indeed, the council itself concluded that there is as yet no justification for granting her the title of professor.

Messer-Yaron, in contrast, was considered a preeminent figure in the higher education system. And over the past year she has worked to implement measures aimed at reducing the education minister’s influence over the choice of the council’s members and officials, in order to bolster the council’s independence and reduce political intervention in the higher education system.

Bennett isn’t the first education minister to get involved in filling what is considered the higher education system’s most senior position. His predecessor, Shay Piron, appointed Messer-Yaron to the job in place of Dr. Shimshon Shoshani, who was appointed by former education minister Gideon Sa’ar. But Piron made his appointment in consultation with representatives of the universities. Sa’ar’s intervention was more aggressively political – not only in the appointment process, but also in forcing the education system to turn the college in Ariel into a university, in defiance of the council’s professional opinion.

Bennett, however, has outdone both: He shelved the reform Messer-Yaron had been promoting for the past year and worked energetically to replace her.

Yet it’s not only the education minister who bears responsibility for this unsavory move. The members of the Council for Higher Education who participated in Tuesday's vote allowed him to turn them into pawns and rubber stamps in a process that demonstrated contempt for both democracy and the higher education system: The law states that the council should choose the deputy head, who serves as its de facto chairman, not merely approve the minister’s choice.

Even if Wadmany Shauman ultimately proves to be a good appointment, she’ll have great trouble acting independently, without regard for the desires of the minister to whom she owes her appointment, in light of the way Messer-Yaron’s term was cut short. Ultimately, Bennett’s move constituted yet another attempt to weaken the regulators and the professional civil servants, restrict their authority and subordinate them to the politicians.