Tel Aviv University Votes in New Rector Amid Claims of Sexism

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A building on Tel Aviv University campus
A building on Tel Aviv University campusCredit: Ofer Vaknin

The Tel Aviv University Senate approved Thursday the election of Prof. Mark Shtaif as Rector of the Academic Institute, amid internal debate over sexism impacting the vote.

During a heated debate on the issue in the senate prior to the vote, it became clear that the search committee decision to nominate Shtaif over Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor fell along gender lines: Four men voted for Shtaif, versus the three women who preferred Kronfeld-Schor. The senate voted to approve Shtaif's nomination with 208 in favor, 83 against, and 31 abstentions.

"For the first time, the senate held a discussion on gender equality and its implications, including the fact that so far, only one woman has held the position of rector," said one participant.

The search committee was chaired by Tel Aviv University President Prof. Ariel Porat, and the vote stirred criticism of the institution from within. "In a situation where both candidates are worthy, it is to be expected that the heads of the university would exercise broader social considerations," said a senior source familiar with the details.

During Wednesday's three-hour senate hearing, Prof. Naama Friedmann, who participated in the search committee, said that Kronfeld-Schor was better qualified than Shtaif according to the various criteria for the role, which were decided on in advance. Prof. Daphna Joel, who is also a member of the committee, said she doubted whether the decisions that led to Shtaif's election were made properly. Porat rejected these remarks, while other speakers noted that it should not be acceptable for men to continue to fill the three most senior posts of president, rector and CEO at an academic institution that prides itself on gender equality.

Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, in 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Tel Aviv University said in a statement that "following a comprehensive and thorough selection process, the Senate members approved with a great majority" Prof. Shtaif's nomination. It added that despite claims otherwise, "The voting process is held strictly according to the rules."

In a letter sent to the senate after the electronic vote, senate member Prof. Tamar Herzig wrote that the hearing revealed profound gender biases in the institution, and that the hand-waving of the arguments presented by search committee members sends a message: "Even if you are chosen for your qualifications and achievements in other committees or positions at the university, once your professional judgment is not fully coordinated with the goals of the university leadership, you will be subjected to sexist accusations of the sort hurled at women since time immemorial, with the aim of belittling and silencing them: liars, unstable, or being too sentimental to do the right thing," she wrote.

In another letter, Prof. Yonatan Goshen-Gottstein called on his peers to reject the motion. "We, about 400 senate members, can be a force for change," he argued. "We can be proud of making the world a more equal, fair and self-aware place. And when we return to the campus once the pandemic is over, we can look our [female] colleagues in the eye and know that we have done the right thing."

According to Prof. Arnon Avron, "A decision made by a majority of four men opposite three women is a ticking bomb." He called the search committee decision "illegitimate, even if it follows protocol."

Prof. Ehud Heyman, however, said he sympathizes with "the anger over ongoing gender-based discrimination," but argued that "it is clear to all that in our institution, it would be more right… to progress through evolution."

Prof. Ronen Avraham said: "The violence and ranting convinced me that there is one side almost willing to burn down the house for the sake of my agenda, feminism. That is not the way." To which a female colleague, Prof. Outi Bat-El Foux, responded: "People poured their hearts out and harsh things were said, but this isn't ranting. We're not burning down the house, [but] refurbishing it."

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