The minutes of the meeting at which Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Council of Higher Education, announced his intention to dismiss his deputy, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, show that other council members made little effort to challenge Bennett’s decision.
Bennett claimed that he had received complaints from university heads about the performance of his deputy, who is the council’s de facto chairman, but none of the other council members attempted to ascertain the nature of the complaints. Her dismissal a year before her term ended was controversial, and the minutes show that some council members were surprised by the move. But while they praised Messer-Yaron’s professionalism, no one actively tried to dissuade him.
At the following council meeting on January 12, 12 council members supported Messer-Yaron’s dismissal and her replacement by Bennett’s candidate, Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman. Six council members voted against, and one abstained.
Like the minutes, the vote is meant to be classified and the CHE refused to reveal how council members voted. The minutes, such as they are, were only released following a request under the Freedom of Information Law submitted by Dr. Yaacov Bergman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Bergman protested that the released version omits a list of those who were present as well as the names and even genders of the speakers. In addition, what was said was summarized and not reported in full.
According to the minutes, at the opening of the debate Bennett told those present that “There is no doubt that Prof. Messer-Yaron has experience.” He presented his reasons for his decision, among them “a need for a service orientation,” as the minutes state. According to Bennett, “This isn’t a political matter and there is no intention to intervene in the work of the deputy chairman. The change must be made now, because we are now starting to build the five-year plan and it’s a critical moment.”
One council member said he or she was very surprised by Bennett’s decision, adding, “We need in principle procedures in the CHE so that the education minister can’t replace the deputy chairman easily, because this undercuts the work and the dynamic within the CHE. Prof. Messer-Yaron was known to all of us and so there were no surprises. The fact that she is opinionated and proactive is no fault.”
This same speaker said that Messer-Yaron was the best deputy he or she had seen at the CHE, and the speaker had been through five different education ministers.
Another member stressed that most of the council had no clue such a move was imminent and that Bennett should have consulted with a least some council members. Another member stated that he or she had a different approach, and that in the past council deputies had resigned when the minister changed, since the deputy chairmanship is essentially a position of trust.
Bennett added that he had met many people in the higher education system, including the heads of universities and colleges, and Messer-Yaron’s performance was frequently raised. “The CHE is both a regulator and a service provider,” Bennett said. “A regulator needn’t be beloved by the entities it oversees, but it is still required to be attentive and service-oriented.”
Bennett added that he was looking for someone who had good interpersonal relations, was flexible and quick to respond. He said he had held more than 30 meetings with heads of various higher education institutions, and Messer-Yaron’s performance was discussed at almost all of them. He was thus taken aback to hear that council members were surprised by his move, saying “there’s a weird dissonance here.”
Bergman, after reading through the minutes, conducted correspondence with various academic officials and demanded to know why no one at the meeting had asked Bennett directly why Messer-Yaron was being replaced. “What are we to learn from this about the quality of debate at the CHE?” he asked.
Moreover, when this internal correspondence addressed Bennett’s claim that the university heads were aware of his plan to dismiss Messer-Yaron, the chairman of the Committee of University Heads, Technion President Prof. Peretz Lavie, told a questioner that “The Committee of University Heads had no idea that Bennett was planning to end Prof. Messer-Yaron’s term.”
Messer-Yaron’s dismissal has caused a crisis of confidence between Bennett and the academic community. More than 1,500 researchers and academics have signed a petition expressing no-confidence in the CHE and in Bennett, and which described his conduct as “aggressive.”
The petition also demanded the convening of a public committee to appoint a new council in a transparent fashion that would set clear criteria for membership. Signatories included members of the National Academy of Sciences and Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Aaron Ciechanover. Bennett has yet to respond to the petition.
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