Israeli University Heads Challenge Decision to Open Med School in West Bank Settlement

University heads claim the move to open the school at the Ariel University was a ‘diktat by politicians’ that will pave the way for governmental interference in the educational system

The Committee of University Heads is demanding new deliberations on the decision to allow Ariel University, in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, to open a medical school.

In a sharply worded letter, the university heads cited the decision as an example of steps that are causing academics to lose confidence that the entities responsible for overseeing the higher education system can protect it from undue interference from the government.

“There are no grounds for hasty decisions, certainly not timed to look like a diktat by the politicians,” the committee of university heads wrote to the chairman of the Council of Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats.

Last week, at a meeting of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, the three university representatives on the committee read a letter of protest decrying what they said was political interference by Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the committee’s work.

Now the criticism by the heads of the universities is broadening the confrontation. Unlike past complaints of a similar nature, this time, Bar Ilan University is a party to the criticism.

At last week’s meeting of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, Professors Yeshayahu Talmon, Mouna Maroun and Yossi Shain stated: “Recently the Planning and Budgeting Committee has made decisions in an expedited and improper fashion, even circumventing the committee.”

That criticism focused on the speed with which Ariel University was given approval to open a medical school, even though “there were substantive answers missing” to a number of questions.

The Planning and Budgeting Committee is responsible for allocating the government’s 11 billion shekel ($3 billion) higher education budget among the various universities and colleges. The public criticism of the approval process for the medical school is considered extraordinary, as is the letter sent this past Thursday to Zilbershats by the Committee of University Heads, which represents Israel’s research universities.

In the letter, the president of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Joseph Klafter, wrote that the protest letter from the three university representatives on the Planning and Budgeting Committee over the way decisions have been taken “constitutes a very strong warning bell.”

In a direct reference to the three professors’ allegations of Education MInister Bennett’s intervention in professional matters, Klafter added: “We view with great concern the growing lack of confidence in a body that we believe is of extreme importance – the Council of Higher Education – the only buffer between academia and the politicians, and the Planning and Budgeting Committee – the entity responsible for allocating the state’s resources to the higher education system, which as part of its job is also supposed to engage in long-term planning and thinking.”

In their letter, the university heads demanded that “the basis for the data presented to the members of the Planning and Budgeting Committee as a background for [its] decision” on the Ariel medical school be produced.

They also demanded that the issue be reheard by the committee, with consideration given to the arguments put forth by committee members who opposed approval of the medical school in Ariel.

It isn’t clear that the Planning and Budgeting Committee would be well disposed to the request, but it attests to a widening rift between the panel and the university heads.

According to a university source, the letter reflects “a concern that the PBC will be turned into a rubber stamp for Bennett.” The source added: “In recent years, we’ve been forced to look on sadly as the Council for Higher Education completely toes the line on every decision the minister wants to pass, even when we’re talking about totally political decisions.”

According to university sources, the decisions include the law that made Israeli academic institutions in the West Bank the responsibility of the Israeli Council for Higher Education and the effort to dictate a code of ethics to academia. One source added: “Recently we have been witness to a worrisome process that is also occurring on the PBC, which up to now had conducted itself in a totally professional manner with regard to the allocation of state funds.”

Similar criticism was voiced over the weekend by a group of academics, the Basha’ar Academic Community for Israeli Society, to which many university faculty members belong. “The protest by the professors who are PBC members is a warning of … an erosion of the mechanisms responsible for the higher education system,” the group said.

In response, the Planning and Budgeting Committee said: “The letter from the university heads is full of distortions and contains elements of slander. The decision-making process on the matter of the medical faculty in Ariel was flawless. The first decision on the matter was made in November 2017 and the professional teams submitted all the material necessary for the session. The entire session was held according to procedures.” The PBC added: “It is regrettable that every time an issue comes up that might undermine the ‘university guild,’” a reference to a closed trade or professional association, “their representatives on the PBC choose to oppose the issue for reasons that are not to the point. We will continue to lead the higher education system and work for its continued development.”