As students celebrated the end of the academic year at the country’s higher education institutions this week, non-tenured faculty and academic staff at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem prepared for a long struggle.
The Jerusalem Post learned on Thursday that the non-tenured lecturers in the Faculty of the Humanities intend to withhold final student grades for the semester in protest against mass dismissals and budget cuts.
The move reflects an escalation following a month-long skirmish between the Non-Tenured Research and Academic Staff Union and the university, following the announcement of NIS 2 million in budget cuts in the humanities. The decision will lead to the dismissal of some 80 lecturers and staff faculty members, as well as cutbacks in teaching hours and courses.
“These dismissals directly harm the students as well as the humanities faculty,” union chairwoman Esther Sarok told Post on Thursday.
According to Sarok, this issue began last year when the humanities faculty had to dismiss some 80 non-tenured lecturers and staff in order to reduce its budgetary deficit. Following the announcement, the union petitioned the Jerusalem Labor Court to prevent the dismissals and an unofficial agreement was reached between the two parties.
“We came to an understanding that if they [the university] needed to cut back additional teachers, they would give notice by February 2014 so that teachers would have time to find alternative employment,” explained Sarok. “However, I just received a final list of about 80 teachers and staff the faculty intends to fire three days ago – at the end of June.”
The union chairwoman called the university’s actions “immoral” and said by escalating the union’s response they were sending a message to the university that “we are not willing to place our head on the guillotine.”
Earlier this month the union held a one day warning strike to protest against the budget cuts, canceling classes, tutorials, and lectures. In addition, some 200 non-tenured faculty, along with the support of the university’s student union, held a protest at the Mount Scopus campus.
“We are asking the university to freeze the budget cut until next year, when teachers will have the opportunity to find additional employment,” she said. “We are talking about faculty, some of whom have been with the university for 10 or 15 years and have no chance to find jobs at other universities or colleges at such a late date in the year.”
Sarok called on the university to “rethink” its actions and said it needs to address the problem by raising the funds required, “not to fire these excellent teachers.” She said the union would be willing to bring the issue in front of the Knesset Education, Sports, and Culture Committee as well as in front of the Council for Higher Education, and “if necessary back to the Jerusalem Labor Court.”
“It is inappropriate and immoral, and I hope that we can come to an agreement in good spirit and reach an understanding,” she said.
The Hebrew University spokesman’s office released a statement Thursday regarding the cutbacks. “The Hebrew University’s Faculty of Humanities is engaged in a process of streamlining, renewal, and improvement.
This includes refreshing the curricula of various programs, increasing scholarships to students, and additional measures aimed at ensuring the faculty’s continued academic development,” the statement read.
“This process also includes canceling small courses with limited numbers of registrants, while hiring senior researchers who engage in both research and teaching (unlike external educators who only teach specific courses).”
According to the university, the cutbacks are “not about firing people,” because the issue at hand deals with external teachers employed under short-term contracts.
As such, the external lecturers are employed on a temporary basis and are “intended to respond to a curriculum that is dynamic and continually changing, according to the university’s academic needs.”
The university spokesman called this a “natural process that every organization undergoes” in order to “renew” and better manage its resources, charging the union with declaring a strike in the middle of the faculty’s considerations.
“The faculty is examining its agreements with external lecturers, in order to meet its requirements, and as agreed with the union. Unfortunately, while a process of consultation and consideration was still taking place, the union decided to declare a strike, which harmed the ability to continue a negotiating process,” the statement said.
The university said it is “carefully and meticulously” examining the issue and called on the union and all involved parties to do the same.