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(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
What was until recently known as the College of Judea and Samaria at Ariel has now unilaterally changed its name to the Ariel University Center of Samaria. In so doing, this higher learning institution has upgraded itself from a regional college to a university-in-the-making and coined a new moniker - "university center" - for a new intermediate phase between a college and a university. This has sufficed to generate blistering political heat and, from some quarters, out-and-out opposition.
Although part of the large settlement blocs slated by broad national consensus to remain Israeli, Ariel is most certainly over the Green Line. As a consequence, Education Minister Yuli Tamir of the Labor Party has vowed to foil Ariel's aspirations to university status. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, however, has expressed support.
If ultimately Ariel were to win its battle for full university accreditation, it would become the first Israeli university founded in 34 years.
From 1982 to 2005, Ariel - Israel's largest public college - was an extension of Bar-Ilan University, but it never made a secret of its plans to eventually pursue independent university status. In 2005, the government voted to create two new universities from existing colleges - one in the Galilee and the other in Ariel.
The reception to the plan by academia and the Council for Higher Education (CHE), which is headed by the education minister and charged with the actual accreditation, was hostile. Indeed in 2006 the CHE rejected the idea of any new universities, thus also thwarting Galilean hopes. Conventional wisdom ascribed the move to political bias against Ariel, strong enough to sacrifice the Galilee project in order to scuttle Ariel's university.
That said, no Israeli university was ever well received by veteran higher learning institutions, which looked askance at any potential competition. The scathing animosity by the Hebrew University toward the fledgling Tel Aviv University of the 1960s is legend. Everything was done to frustrate TAU's establishment - from aggressive political lobbying to vituperative attacks.
The argument was that little Israel could not afford to have two universities and that nothing should be done to detract from Jerusalem's monopoly - though Haifa did boast the engineering-oriented Technion, while Ramat Gan's Bar-Ilan was reluctantly tolerated because of the assumption that a religious institution would pose less of a threat. TAU's founders asserted that the country's growth demanded increased academic opportunities. It was a tooth-and-nail battle in which TAU was proven right, as the birth of other universities was soon to demonstrate.
What should count in Ariel's case isn't knee-jerk opposition by established universities or political predispositions within the CHE but, rather, the quality of work Ariel produces. The location and size of the city of Ariel shouldn't be the issue.
Ariel has some 9,000 students - more than TAU when it first sought accreditation. Ariel certainly engages in research, not only teaching - which is the prime prerequisite for a university. It's a far cry from the six small warring Galilee colleges, slated to comprise that region's new university. Moreover, Ariel generates admirably pluralistic academic output - more pluralistic than that of some veteran universities.
While this may seem to be an argument over semantics, it could have consequences for Ariel's academic future. Growth is also a function of recognition. To attract more research funds and more PhD candidates, Ariel must be recognized. This is how TAU took off from a small struggling outcast. The recognition it won made its promise a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Ariel sought to circumvent the antagonistic CHE by applying to the Judea and Samaria CHE, which oversees higher education in the territories and which recently approved Ariel's new MBA program. Last year CHE-JS agreed to approve Ariel's university status if it met certain requirements, which Ariel now maintains it has. Ariel has six research centers and recently signed an agreement with an American biotech firm to develop new pharmaceuticals.
Judging by population-growth statistics alone, a new university "would benefit Israel's economy and society," as Olmert has written Ariel's president. The question of whether Ariel deserves the leg-up to reach that destination, rather than political, should be entirely academic.