In About-face, Israeli University Heads Decide to Admit Settlement University to Joint Body

After a nearly decade-long dispute, Association of University Heads admits Ariel University located in West Bank settlement

After almost a decade’s struggle and a petition to the High Court of Justice, Israel’s Association of University Heads decided to admit Ariel University to its ranks.

One of the main reasons for the move was the university heads’ fear of heavy pressure by the next education minister, who will most likely come from the right. Should they wait until then, the move would be seen as a surrender on their part, they said.

“We are one High Court petition away from being forced to accept Ariel,” one university president said. “We had to decide whether to disperse or let it in. We preferred to take the initiative rather than wait for the next minister or wait for a court verdict.”

According to informed sources, the decision is expected to be passed without opposition at the association’s next meeting in two weeks.

Until now the association had objected to accepting the university in the West Bank to its ranks and in recent years the issue was a source of constant tension between the university heads and rightist ministers, who exerted heavy pressure in favor of Ariel University.

The association, consisting of seven research university presidents and the Open University as an observer, is a voluntary body. It represents the universities before ministries, the Council for Higher Education, the Planning and Financing Committee and others. Since it isn’t statutory, rightist ministers like Naftali Bennett and Zeev Elkin couldn’t force it to admit Ariel University, which they hold dear for political reasons.

The struggle included open threats like stopping the cooperation with the association and covert threats regarding issues that are important to the universities.

A senior university official told Haaretz that “the struggle against Ariel is the previous war. We fought and lost. Even though I’m convinced it was born in sin and there are doubts as to its academic quality, it’s hard to continue to object to it on a legal basis.”

One of his colleagues said the decision being drafted stems also from the desire “not to give a prize to the next education minister.”

In this regard, association members cite the High Court of Justice’s decision on Thursday. The court permitted Education Minister Yoav Gallant to examine whether a petition signed by Professor Oded Goldreich of the Weizmann Institute, which called on the European Union not to cooperate with Ariel University, could deprive him of the Israel Prize for mathematics and computer science.

Another source said that as long as Ariel’s status as a university was “based on the Judea and Samaria council of higher education’s decision, which was ratified by the army’s Central Command, there was no justification to accept it to the association.”

However, he added that the situation changed fundamentally after the Judea and Samaria council of higher education was abolished in February, 2018, when the Knesset voted to put Ariel University under the control of the same accreditation body as other Israeli colleges and universities. “Formally Ariel is an Israeli university and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said the source.

Another official added: “We expected an international outcry would be raised. It didn’t happen.”

The main implication of accepting Ariel to the association is that its decisions will probably not be unanimous anymore, a source said.

Other officials slammed the decision and its timing. Professor Nir Gov of the Weizmann Institute said that in the last two to three years previous university heads, who “experienced firsthand the ugly process in which the Likud government’s education ministers did all they could to upgrade Ariel’s status, have been replaced. The new generation treats it like an Israeli university to all intents and purposes. Ariel is the clearest symbol of the higher education’s politicization. The presidents’ agreeing to it is a badge of shame. For pragmatic reasons, the presidents decided to put their values into deep freeze and toe the line with the ruling power and its demands.”

Gov said he wasn’t sure the university senates will oppose the decision even if “most professors think they should. The government succeeded in instilling in them a fear of expressing that [view].”

Another source said that if the association wants to renounce its principles, it should do it as part of negotiations, not for nothing. “There’s no reason to believe that the next minister will make do with this step. He’ll also try to prove that he subjugated academia,” he said.

In the past decade numerous confrontations took place between the association and Ariel University. In 2012 the university heads petitioned against the decision made by the Judea Samaria council for higher education, which was promoted by then education minister Gideon Sa’ar, to turn the Ariel college into a university. According to the petition, serious flaws were made in the three major considerations – academic, planning and budgetary – to recognize the college as a university.

The High Court denied the petition, saying that even after the recognition, the Judea and Samaria council for higher education would still have to consult with the Planning and Budgeting Committee.

But the obligation to consult with the committee gradually lost its meaning after it became another tool in the political game.