Playing politics with academic governance bodes ill
Reading the intense discussion which has been taking place on the email list of Academica-IL (to which a few thousand Israeli academics are registered), one would definitely reach the conclusion that the academic community is up in arms at the decision by the right-wing Education Minister Naftali Bennett to summarily dismiss the vice-chair of the Council for Higher Education, Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron, just two years after her appointment by previous education minister Gideon Sa’ar to replace the outgoing incumbent, former education ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani.
On paper, Bennett has not done anything he is not entitled to do. The law grants authority to the education minister to appoint the head of the University Budget Committee, or VATAT, and the deputy chairperson of the Council for Higher Education, or CHE.
In effect, it is the minister himself who is the head of the CHE, but he or she does not normally intervene in the running of the universities and other institutions of higher education.
The CHE and VATAT have operated as a semi-autonomous planning authority, ensuring the smooth running of the country’s universities and, more recently, the many colleges which have also been granted degree-awarding status, thus expanding significantly the number of students in Israel who can receive further education once they have completed high school and national service.
The government decides on the annual budget for the CHE and VATAT and has traditionally enabled these bodies to plan, authorise, evaluate and fund the diverse study programmes and to support research initiatives without any undue interference from politicians. But this has changed significantly in recent years.
Beginning with Sa’ar’s direct political intervention in the appointment of members of the CHE according to their political affiliations and preferences and his attempt to shut down an excellent academic department at Ben-Gurion University because of the political views shared by some of its faculty, this has now become even more blatant under Bennett.
While he is unable, at this point, to make further changes in the composition of the CHE (it changes once every five years), he has already appointed a relatively unknown professor of law from Bar-Ilan University, an institution with which he shares obvious political affiliations, to chair VATAT (in the place of Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, who finally stepped down to become a member of Knesset in the last elections).
Then last week Bennett took the unprecedented step of firing the CHE vice-chairperson who, by all accounts, is one of the most professional people who has ever occupied this important position.
Previous to her taking on the CHE, Messer-Yaron was president of the Open University of Israel, preceding which she was a senior professor of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University, with an international reputation for her high-quality research.
While Bennett has refused so far to make any statement concerning the reasons for his decision, she is clearly too independent-minded and without any clear political affiliations or loyalties for a small-time politician like Bennett to cope with.
During her two years in office, Messer-Yaron proposed a major restructuring of the way in which the universities are administered. Without sacrificing quality, she proposed to gradually return the decision-making power concerning research and teaching to the people who actually know something about it, namely the academic faculty themselves.
This was clearly unacceptable to the many political and public figures who have become involved in this sector in recent years as a result of political appointments, but whose ability to make any meaningful, qualitative decisions about the country’s universities is alarmingly poor.
Perhaps the most political and damaging decision which was taken by the political appointees in recent years was the creation of a parallel CHE for the West Bank, which in turn immediately authorised the recognition of Ariel College as a fully fledged university, after the majority of members of the CHE and VATAT steadfastly refused, for a mixture of sound political and quality standard reasons, to undertake such recognition.
So rather than listen to the voices of the senior academics, Minister Sa’ar created a new body – whose legal status is unclear – so that he could rush through the decision prior to the 2013 elections, gaining some obvious political points among his Likud electorate. When, as is expected, Sa’ar makes his political comeback as a potential successor to Benjamin Netanyahu, this will be one of the decisions which will no doubt stand to his credit among the party faithful.
The fact that this decision caused immense damage to Israel’s academic reputation and made it more difficult to combat the pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and pro-academic boycott groups around the world was of little significance to the right-wing politicians, who clearly have an agenda to take over control of the country’s academic institutions.
Bennett, as he is wont to do in many areas, has gone one step further. Without any shame or explanation, he has removed the one person who was prepared to restructure a weakening CHE in an attempt to put it back at the forefront of the international academic community.
Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see who he will appoint in her place and to what extent this appointment, like the chairperson of VATAT, will be beholden to him for political considerations and will do his bidding.
Academics are, by nature, very diverse in their opinions about almost every topic under the sun. It is true that on too many occasions they spend too much time philosophising and arguing without making the critical decisions that are necessary for the strengthening of the research community here in Israel.
This has led, in the past, to government restructuring of the universities in a way that has proved to be detrimental to the country’s academics, transferring much of the decision-making power to public figures and administrators who have little understanding of academia beyond the need to balance the bank account at the end of the year.
The national fora of university presidents, or VERA, and rectors, have also proved to be largely ineffective in the face of the decisions taken by VATAT and the CHE. They have proved to be very weak at collective lobbying on behalf of all of the universities, always preferring the narrow interests of their own institutions in what has become an increasingly competitive environment as determined by what is known as the VATAT model for funding, put in place and imposed upon the universities by Trajtenberg.
The government works according to a classic divide and rule system, in the knowledge that there will always be one or two of the institutions' heads who will vote differently to their colleagues, thus fragmenting any possibility of university collective action against the political and non-academic intrusions into the way that universities go about their business.
But this most recent decision by Bennett appears to have united the forces, from left to right and from conservative to liberal.
While all agree that legally Bennett is entitled to appoint the chairperson of the CHE, the fact that no education minister has previously dismissed a chairperson in the middle of her tenure, along with the fact that this ties in with the increased politicisation of recent years and the weakening of the power of the universities themselves, has clearly set a lot of alarm bells ringing.
It is not yet clear what will happen now. Academics from across the spectrum are threatening to challenge the decision, although it is not clear what the legal grounds will be. Short of refusing to cooperate with VATAT and the CHE, which is almost impossible since the latter hold the purse strings and the ability to authorise all new academic programmes, it is unclear what effective action can be taken, short of striking.
It is clear that this latest decision is responsible for pushing the country’s once proud institutions even further into an abyss – both locally and even more significantly internationally.
As a first step it requires all of the country’s university presidents and rectors to act as a single voice in opposing the dismissal of Messer-Yaron – although their silence during the past week would perhaps indicate that some of them are also party to the decision and may not necessarily oppose it, for their own personal or institutional reasons.
Bennett should seriously take into consideration the damage he is doing to the country’s universities – faced with falling standards and an international attack through BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).
If he really cares about the future of the country’s universities he should reconsider his unacceptable behaviour and decision, admit his mistake and reappoint Messer-Yaron and allow her to complete the important work that she is doing on behalf of the country’s academic community.
David Newman is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. The views expressed are his alone. This article was first published in The Jerusalem Post.