Hebrew University Plans to Revive Humanities Faculty Amid Massive Cutbacks

After plummeting for years, student numbers are not on the increase, says dean of faculty.

Students at an Israeli university.
Emil Salman

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has initiated a plan to continue to develop its humanities faculty, in the face of massive cutbacks and the closure or merging of programs.

The faculty has experienced budget cuts of some 6.5 million shekels in the past three years. As students numbers have plumetted, 131 junior staff members have been fired and 53 additional positions reduced, leading to the cancellation of dozens of courses.

The repeated dismissals have led to recurring clashes between the faculty and junior staff in the past three years. The faculty appeared to be dying, despite its international reputation and a teaching staff that has boasted international figures such as Lea Goldberg and Martin Buber.

Professor Dror Wahrman, who became faculty dean a year-and-a- half ago, has drafted a plan for organizational and structural changes. “We mapped how many teaching hours were required for every program to provide an adequate B.A. and a variety of additional programs of choice,” Wahrman says.

In a bid to streamline and update studies, some curricula will change after being unchanged for 30 or 40 years .

“We must coordinate among our staff and with other departments if the new plan is to succeed,” says Professor Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower), who holds the Artur Rubinstein chair of musicology and is a member of the reform plan’s steering committee.

“Students come for three years and then go on their way. Some won’t have another chance to study like this in their lives, so every lesson must be a learning experience. Clearly we must renew our research, but also our teaching. There are fewer courses but each course will be tighter,” she says.

“I want a long-term plan that will maintain stability, assuming that the resources we receive are stable,” says Wahrman. “We looked at how many students we have to assess the budget and, to my surprise, the overall number has risen.”

Under the plan, 15 percent of the programs offered this year are new. So far, no additional programs will close down, apart from Egyptology and possibly one other program.

The departments of Jewish Studies, History and Hebrew and Jewish Languages will continue functioning, despite the small number of students who sign up for them, because the university’s policy is to continue to develop them, he says. In the Bible program’s first and second years, for example, there are only two students. Hebrew Literature, once one of the faculty’s flagships, has only 14 students in first year and 10 in second.

“We cannot explain why we lost students in this program,” says Wahrman. “It’s a field that hasn’t lost many students in other universities in Israel. We reduced the compulsory classes and increased the choice ones. If this doesn’t work, we may have to merge programs.”

The faculty would also like to keep English Literature, Comparative Literature and French and Italian Literature. “Many classes overlap, so we built a joint core consisting of about a third of the curriculum and every field fills in its unique parts in its lessons,” he says.

The university management has been criticized for firing lecturers aged 40 and 50, after 10-15 years teaching in the faculty. Wahrman says he will have to fire junior staff members next year, as well, but will do so after negotiations and will try not to harm lecturers approaching pension age.

The faculty has recruited some 30 new senior staff members in recent years, bringing its complement to about 200 senior staff members.