Mass resignation signals loss of trust in minister

Six members of the Council for Higher Education, or CHE, resigned last Sunday in protest against the dismissal of its deputy chair, Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron, by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and the appointment in her place of a senior lecturer, Dr Rivka Wadmany Shauman, a move that is strongly opposed by academics.

According to Haaretz, it is the first time that members of the council have resigned en masse in protest against a decision by an education minister.

Bennett’s office said replacement members from the academic community would be appointed shortly.

The existing council, with 22 members until the resignations, was appointed in February 2012 for a five-year term that runs until 2017, and is chaired by the minister.

The council approved Bennett’s recommendation of Rivka Wadmany Shauman, a council member and head of planning and development at Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College to replace Messer-Yaron, Haaretz reported. But her appointment was a break from tradition because she was not a full professor.


When her appointment was first mooted, 45 academics sent a letter to members of the council denouncing the decision, arguing that it amounted to a politicisation of the position.

The council members who resigned last Sunday were Professor Moshe Maor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Judith Gal-Ezer of the Open University of Israel, Professor Eli Zeldov of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron of Tel Aviv University, Professor Fadia Nasser-Abu Alhija of Tel Aviv University and Professor Chaya Kalcheim of the Hebrew University.

In their resignation letter they called for an immediate disbandment of the council and the appointment of entirely new members using a transparent process.

"The steps and measures taken have hurt the essence of the work of the Council for Higher Education, its independence and the nature of its activities," the six wrote. "These steps undermine the academic community's trust in the 12th Council for Higher Education."

Professor Gal-Ezer told Ynet that the six had been mulling over the move for a long time. Their main motive was their concern about the removal of Professor Messer-Yaron from her post as deputy chair.

“It wasn't clear why she was removed from her position; we did not receive any clear or convincing messages from the minister [Bennett]. She's a professor, a professional with vast knowledge of higher education, and did an excellent job,” Gal-Ezer said.

“A doctor [Shauman], rather than a professor, was appointed to replace her. She [Shauman] is a senior lecturer who is dependent on the Council for Higher Education's appointment committee for her own advancement, and so because of a conflict of interests, she cannot deal with the appointment of professors."

Following the dismissal of Messer-Yaron as vice-chair more than two months ago, rectors from all over Israel and 1,500 academics signed a protest petition against Bennett’s actions on the council. They asked for a public committee to be formed to set minimum qualifications for membership and for a new council to be appointed.

Messer-Yaron was well qualified for the post. Before taking on the position of vice-chair of the council, she was president of the Open University of Israel, and before that she was a senior professor of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University, with an international reputation for her high-quality research.

But during her office she had proposed a major restructuring of the way in which universities are administered, gradually returning decision-making power concerning research and teaching to academic staff.

The signatories of the petition said her replacement “does not have a leading professional standing in her field, as is required of an academic leader”.

David Newman, dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, said in University World News in December that Bennett “without any shame or explanation” had “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”.

The mass resignation leaves a question mark over whether the council can continue to do its work, since according to the law there is a required quorum of 19, but only 16 members remain.

Council members are proposed by the government to the President of the state and appointed for five years. Two-thirds of them must be “persons of standing” in higher education.