The Justice Ministry ordered Ariel University on Thursday to avoid any irreversible steps concerning the establishment of its new medical school, and to make it clear to students who sign up that the official approval given the medical school is now under review.
In a letter to the heads of Ariel University and the Council for Higher Education, the Justice Ministry says one of the members of the CHE’s planning and budgeting subcommittee, Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman, may have had a conflict of interest in her vote in support for the new medical school in the large West Bank settlement of Ariel.
The ministry’s instructions are intended to prevent the university from acting as if the ministry has irrevocably signed off on the medical school’s establishment, even though the university knows that the review could result in the approval being revoked, requiring it to be reapproved.
No similar warning has been issued for any other academic institution in recent years.
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It was reported last year that the establishment of the medical school would be funded in large part by a donation of $20 million from American Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson, who is also the owner of the free Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom. The school is to be named after Adelson and his wife Miriam.
The letter to the university, signed by two deputy attorneys general, Dina Zilber and Raz Nizri, confirms details reported in Haaretz three weeks ago: Wadmany Shauman met with the heads of Ariel University in December 2017 and made her approval of the new medical school conditional on her being promoted to the rank of professor. In early 2018, she even sent an updated resume in preparation for a discussion in the university’s appointments committee. This discussion of her promotion began in May, two or three months before the decisive meeting of the planning and budgeting subcommittee in which the new medical school was approved.
In November 2018, Ariel University decided to promote Wadmany Shauman to the rank of associate professor, which will take effect “if and when she receives an academic appointment at the university.” This is an unusual promotion, partly because she has passed retirement age and because the Council for Higher Education had previously denied her request to raise her to the rank of professor. Only a few days before her promotion did Wadmany Shauman announce she would abstain from participating in future meetings concerning Ariel University.
Zilber and Nizri wrote that the facts they were presented with could well show that Wadmany Shauman should have reported the matter to the CHE’s legal adviser back when the possibility of being appointed as a professor by Ariel University first came up. “She apparently should have avoided dealing with matters concerning the university back then,” they wrote.
The two deputy attorneys general also requested additional documents and clarifications from the university, but said that for now it appears that her conflict of interest began when she sent her updated resume in January 2018. Nizri and Zilber also wrote that if Wadmany Shauman did have a conflict of interest, other decisions will have to be examined which may require further discussions on matters concerning Ariel University, in which the CHE had an internal disagreement. In such a case, an additional discussion will be held on the implications that could lead to a revocation of the decisions. The decision on establishing the medical school at Ariel came at the end of a stormy meeting of the planning and budgeting subcommittee in July, in which Wadmany Shauman’s vote was the decisive one.
In a controversial move in early 2016, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also serves as chairman of the Council for Higher Education, appointed Wadmany Shauman as the council’s deputy chairwoman – after the removal of his previous deputy, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron of Tel Aviv University. Wadmany Shauman served in the post until March 2017, then Bennett appointed her as a member of the planning and budgeting subcommittee.
In response to the reports of Wadmany Shauman’s possible conflict of interest, Bennett said at the time that they were “nonsense” and that “there are those who want to harm Ariel University in any way possible.”
MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union), who asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to examine the affair, praised the Justice Ministry’s decision “to make an in-depth examination of the approval of the establishment of the medical school. After all, this is a decision with political and social implications and it is better that they are made in a proper manner and not as the art of the deal by Bennett, who applied heavy pressure on the planning and budgeting subcommittee.”
Gilad Barnea, an attorney who sent the Council for Higher Education a warning about possible legal action regarding the approval of the Ariel medical school, said the Justice Ministry’s announcement was “the necessary and crucial step in light of all that has been exposed so far, and in particular in light of the malignant conflict of interest and the improper attempt to establish facts on the ground.”
Ariel University said it “has prepared and is preparing for the opening of the coming academic year for medical studies in October 2019.” The university said it is operating “according to the instructions of the appropriate authorities, and we will act according to the instructions of the Justice Ministry. Any delay in opening the program will harm the national interest of significantly expanding the possibility of studying medicine in Israel.”
Neither Bennett nor Wadmany Shauman have yet to comment on the Justice Ministry announcement.