Prof. Yehuda Danon
Prof. Yehuda Danon Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The board of trustees of the University Center of Samaria in the West Bank settlement of Ariel approved the appointment of a future president of the institution last week, on the expectation that it will get full status as an Israeli university this fall and become the first Israeli university in the West Bank. The school's current temporary status as a "university institution," conferred by the Israel Defense Forces, is set to expire July 15.

The potential upgrade to permanent full university status has sparked opposition by well over 1,000 faculty members from universities within Israel, who signed a petition that was submitted to the Education Ministry earlier this year, calling for a halt to what they termed "the attempt to enlist academia in service of the occupation." Concern has also been expressed by the heads of Israel's universities, as well as by the professional staff at the Education and Finance Ministries, over the prospect that the change would shift funding from universities in Israel proper.

Hebrew University President Menahem Ben-Sasson said that "the day after the [Ariel] university is designated as such, it will, with justification, request huge resources. All of us will pay a heavy price of mediocrity." He also suggested that, if a new university must be created, maybe it should be somewhere other than in a settlement, "Nazareth or Dimona, or perhaps turn Sapir College in Sderot into a university."

The change has the support of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, though Steinitz has not instructed his staff to find funding for the institution, should the upgrade take effect. But sources at the treasury and at the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education in Israel, which oversees colleges and education, have also expressed concern that a diversion of funds to Ariel could undermine the entire Israeli higher education system.

The Ariel institution currently has close to 13,000 students and currently receives government funding at levels that are higher per student than most colleges, though not full universities, within Israel proper.

Sources at the University Center of Samaria said opposition to the upgrade by the heads of Israel's existing universities smacks of hypocrisy. They cite as an example Bar-Ilan University, whose president, Moshe Kaveh, has opposed university status for the Ariel institution despite the fact that Bar-Ilan has 39 students studying cooperative academic studies with the University Center.

The Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, which oversees Israeli higher education in the West Bank and is appointed by the Israel Defense Forces' Central Command, issued an opinion in support of the upgrade and submitted that opinion to the budget planners at their counterpart in Israel proper. A committee at the council had concluded that the institution has met all of the academic criteria required of it to justify the upgrade. Among the major developments it noted are a doubling of peer-reviewed academic publications, cooperative efforts with 44 universities and research institutions, the establishment of nine research institutes at the Ariel school and the institution's sponsorship of international conferences.

If the upgrade to university status is approved, Prof. Yehuda Danon, a physician by training, will take up his position as first head of school in September, if the upgrade is in place by then. Danon was founding director of Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel and is a former surgeon general of Israel. Danon would replace Dan Meyerstein, who has headed the school for the past 17 years.