Did the Universities Hear the Justices?

My trust has never, I think, been as abused as it was last month by the heads of our universities. I never imagined that I would be put in the position of condemning them, of all people, in public, as if there weren't enough other people - politicians, for example - to condemn.

My trust has never, I think, been as abused as it was last month by the heads of our universities. I never imagined that I would be put in the position of condemning them, of all people, in public, as if there weren't enough other people - politicians, for example - to condemn.

When I was education minister, numerous experts would regularly let me know that the psychometric exam is suspect, because it is culture dependent. In other words, it is particularly burdensome to young people from minority groups who wish to acquire a higher education - primarily those coming from development towns, low-income neighborhoods, the Arab sector and the new immigrant community. After my return to the back benches of the Knesset, I sponsored, along with my colleague Ilan Gillon, a bill that would have entirely abolished the suspect psychometric exam.

The Knesset's Education and Culture Committee, chaired by Zevulun Orlev, devoted hundreds of hours to discussing our bill. All of the agencies with a stake in higher education took part in the debate - the Education Ministry, the Council for Higher Education, the heads of the universities and Knesset members. And a miracle occurred: After some time had passed, all parties agreed that university acceptance would be based on the mitzraf method, in which the average matriculation exam score is weighted with a "beneficial average" of three out of four particular matriculation subjects. This replaced the previous method, which weighted the average of the matriculation scores with the score on the psychometric exam. Anyone who still wanted, could choose the psychometric exam. In other words, those who preferred to use their matriculation grades were entitled to take advantage of the comparative advantage of their scores; those who preferred the comparative advantage of their psychometric grades could use those instead. What could be more logical and fair than this: Every student could take advantage of his achievements in a manner that worked to his benefit.

But the committee of university heads was from the outset not interested in the new method, which proved bureaucratically difficult to administer alongside the existing method. Like every conservative body, the committee is content with the status quo and fears change. Moreover, the change essentially abolished the inter-university "Examinations Center," which, among other things, is a source of income for the universities. Although the university heads played a part in drawing up the new arrangement in the Education Committee - which is the only reason why I withdrew the proposed legislation to cancel the psychometric - they went behind the committee's back, and like thieves in the night announced the overnight cancelation of the mitzraf, after a brief telephone consultation with the education minister and the chairman of the Knesset's Education Committee.

They did not give the new method a real chance: After less than a year, they ostensibly had all of the data necessary to prove its failure. As evidence of the failure, the argument was made that the method worked primarily to the benefit of - Heaven forbid - Arab candidates. On these grounds, which they fed into the grapevine and made sure that the minister would hear as well, it was decided in the blink of an eye to cancel the mitzraf system, which the Education Committee in its original decision had agreed would be implemented for a three-year trial so that it could be put to a serious test.

Thus the hasty cancelation is also tainted by prejudice. Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy referred to this in a hearing on a petition filed against the universities' decision by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. "The mitzraf method made it possible for Ahmed from Tira, Levi from Yokne'am and Cohen from Ofakim to be admitted to university, because with the psychometric method, their chances were practically nil." And Justice Salim Joubran asked: "Hasn't the time come for Israel to grant greater accessibility to other population groups, perhaps at the partial expense of others?"

Justice Mishael Cheshin added his impression: "The universities eliminated the mitzraf method at the first opportunity; it seems as if they did not want it from the outset. Any change of the situation for the worse requires basic fairness. You cannot deal a blow like this from one day to the next."

In answer to claims made by the universities' representative, Justice Levy offered this quasi-conclusion: "We are now going back to the psychometric method ... In other words, you are taking an entire population and deciding that they will be hewers of wood and drawers of water. Maybe you will redeem us? Give this method [the mitzraf - Y.S] another year."

The justices of the Supreme Court are a restrained group. I cannot recall a time when they permitted themselves to express themselves in such a sharp manner. This time they did so - and with justification. The petitioners may have been asked to withdraw their petition on the grounds of the High Court's "lack of jurisdiction," but only after the justices went on record in a manner that still reverberates through the corridors of the Supreme Court. Will it also reverberate through the universities? I am not certain. The universities are indifferent.

There are quite a few professors in institutions of higher learning who are uncomfortable, to say the least, with the stand taken by the heads of their institutions. After what the justices had to say, will there be an insurrection in the university senates? Many professors are adept at analyzing why the masses do not go out into the streets in spite of all the harsh edicts and blows that they sustain. Will the professors now go out into the streets, or will they, too, continue to close themselves up in the ivory tower, and make do, like the rest of the public, with a few grumbled mutterings, simply to go through the motions?