Universities Keep Salaries Secret Despite Government Pressure

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Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Every year, the Finance Ministry’s annual report on public-sector salaries provokes outrage about overpaid dockworkers and electric-company executives.

But one sector that has escaped scrutiny is Israel’s state-supported universities, which have refused to provide the treasury’s Wages Commissioner with data on the salaries they pay.

More than six months ago, the treasury asked the universities to provide the information, but the schools have delayed providing the data.

Efforts by the Wages Commissioner to get direct access to the salaries by a computer link have also been frustrated.

“There is something wrong when institutions of higher education fail to act at a time when all other supervised bodies, including the health-maintenance +organizations, the ports and Israel Electric Corp., have acted in a timely fashion,” Kobi Bar-Natan, the wages commissioner, said in a letter to Menachem Ben-Sasson, president of Hebrew University and chairman of the Council of University Presidents.

After a damning State Comptroller’s report in 2009 on how the universities manage their budgets, the lack of data on salaries created a crisis that was resolved only when the universities agreed to release partial data.

Today the universities provide average salaries for their employees without providing specific figures for individuals.

Last May, when the commissioner approached the universities on the matter, he was told they were working on assembling the data. More recently, they have said they are looking into it.

The Council for Higher Education told TheMarker on Tuesday that it is actively negotiating with the treasury.

“The universities have proposed a solution and they are willing to move forward and resolve the details,” the council said in a statement.

“As part of the talks, the universities have provided information they have to the Wages Commissioner, but the commissioner has asked for direct access to wage data and personal information of employees even though nothing like that is required for it to fulfill its task.”

Israel’s universities are getting 5 billion shekels ($1.27 billion) from the government for the current academic year. Under the Budget Foundation Law, any institution that gets state support is required to supply salary data.

In defying the law, as they have for the last 15 years, the universities say they are defending academic freedom, contending that the Higher Education Law overrides the budget law.

Last year, they appealed the High Court of Justice to exempt them from the legal definition of state-supported institution.

A year before that, a group of them, including Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion as well as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, asked the court to remove them from supervision of the Wages Commissioner and make them answerable only to the Council for Higher Education on the matter of salaries.

“Administrative freedom is closely connected with academic freedom. There can’t be academic freedom without complete administrative and financial independence,” the universities said in their petition.

“Over the years a situation has been created in which the treasury has repeated sought to act on what it sees as its authority under the Budget Foundation Law while the appellants have consistently stated that the Finance Ministry has no authority over them.”

The court has not yet ruled on the petition.

The treasury has good reason to be pursuing the issue. It has evidence that institutions of higher education routinely pay salaries in excess of regulatory limits, at least at some of the universities, but the information it receives is only partial and arrives late.

In a report two years ago, the State Comptroller was particularly critical of Bar-Ilan University.

It alleged that the university’s previous president, Moshe Kaveh, was giving inappropriately high salaries to senior administrators. Among other things, it said many were getting salary increments and bonuses to which only academic staffs were entitled. The practice appeared to continue in 2013.

For instance, the university’s comptroller received 54,800 shekels a month before taxes in 2013, 16,500 more than the ceiling set by the treasury. Its personnel director was paid a gross 54,000 shekels, 10,700 more than the ceiling.

The vice president for building and maintenance got 58,900 shekels, compared with a regulatory ceiling of 43,400, according to the State Comptroller.

Such violations also occur at Hebrew University, which has been contending with a financial crisis for many years now. One vice president received 7,800 shekels a month more than the maximum permitted while a division head was earning 46,300 shekels in 2013, about 8,000 more than allowed.

Treasury officials contend that violations are occurring at other institutions as well.

For instance, the vice president for computing and technology and the internal comptroller of Tel Aviv University are being paid more than permitted under the rule. At 75,200 shekels a month – the highest among university chiefs -- the president of the Weizmann Institute, Daniel Zajfman, is believed to be above the ceiling.

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