(photo credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Six members of the Council for Higher Education announced their resignation on Sunday in the wake of a growing rift between members of academia and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also acts as head of the CHE.
The resignations have effectively shut down the activity of the council, which by law requires a minimum of 19 members to operate.
The members who resigned were Prof. Moshe Maor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Yehudit Gal-Ezer from the Open University, Prof. Eli Zeldov from the Weizmann Institute of Technology, Prof. Fadia Nasser Abu-Alhija from Tel Aviv University, Prof. Chaya Kalcheim from the Hebrew University, and Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron from Tel Aviv University.
Among the main reasons behind the resignations was the controversial dismissal by Bennett of Prof. Messer- Yaron and the subsequent appointment of Dr. Rivka Wadmany Shauman as the vice chairwoman for the CHE.
“The measures and steps that were taken harm the essence of the work of the Council for Higher Education, its independence, and the spirit of its actions,” the six members wrote in their letter of resignation.
They called to disband the current council and appoint new members who meet basic criteria for the position, to be selected in a “transparent process.” They also called to appoint a new vice chairman for the CHE.
The resignations came on the heels of a petition signed by more than 1,500 academics warning of a “crisis of confidence” between the academic faculty and the CHE.
“Your conduct regarding Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron and the appointment of a replacement who does not meet the required threshold for the position has caused us to lose confidence in the current Council for Higher Education, and in you specifically as chairman of the CHE,” the petition stated.
MK Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg (Zionist Union), who served as head of the Planning and Budgetary Committee (PBC) of the CHE until 2014, criticized the current coalition for its attempted politicization of the independent body.
“The CHE and the PBC for decades have led higher education and research in Israel to reach impressive achievements – from Nobel Prizes to the technological base for the construction of the Start-up Nation. This success rests mainly on the independence of these entities from politics,” he said.
He added that this successful policy was “in danger, in light of the worrisome trend of this government to politicize its appointments in every regard.”
“We cannot let this phenomenon expand to academia in Israel,” he said.
Despite the opposition from academics and opposition members, Bennett received backing from members of his coalition as well as from the head of the National Union of Israeli Students.
Gilad Erditi, head of NUIS said in a statement that the “criticism is missing the target big time.”
He said that by law the head of the CHE is the education minister and the demand that the vice chairman “lead the policy” of the council is one that is not “linked to any proper governance.”
“The main problem of the CHE today and in the past is that the council tries to manage the academic institutions on a micro level; it does not understand that its role is to manage the system on a macro level,” he said.
“For a macro position, many people are suitable, even if they do not have the title “professor” in front of their name,” he said, alluding to Bennett’s appointment.
He added that he hopes the current upheaval will result in a “significant sharpening of the place and role of the CHE, so that it will grant independence to the institutions in management and will challenge them at the level of general policy.”
Chairman of the Knesset Education, Sports and Culture Committee Ya’acov Margi said he backed Bennett’s decision to appoint a new vice chairwoman of the CHE.
“Prof. [Messer] Yaron failed in the past two years and has done everything to minimize the accessibility to higher education for new populations. Prof. Yaron did everything to stop the development of the academic colleges,” he said.
“The scientific level of higher education will not be comprised with her replacement and every attempt to intimidate and to use independent research and knowledge is an excuse to seize the horns of the altar.”
MK Merav Ben-Ari, chairwoman of the Lobby for Students and Higher Education and member of the Knesset Education Committee also expressed her support for Bennett.
“As chairwoman of the [Knesset] Lobby for Students and Higher Education I back the education minister’s decision to fire the vice chairwoman of the CHE. It is time to infuse a new spirit in the CHE,” she wrote on Twitter.
The Council for Higher Education said in response to the resignations: “We thank the resigning council members for their services to higher education. The CHE continues its actions, and in their place in the coming days new council members will be appointed from Israeli academia.”