Making Ariel University a reality

Like the draining of the malarial swamps of yore, Ariel University Center represents the triumph of the Zionist dream.

By MARC ZELL
July 23, 2012 22:44
Aerial view of Ariel settlement in West Bank

Aerial view of Ariel settlement in West Bank 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

‘There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university, a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see.”

The words penned by the late English poet laureate, John Masefield, give expression to the best of what has come to be known as the modern university. One would think, therefore, that last week’s near-unanimous decision by the Council of Higher Education-Judea and Samaria to grant accreditation to the Ariel University Center of Samaria as Israel’s eighth university would have been welcomed with open arms by the academic community and public alike. Such, however, is not the case.

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AUC’s recognition as a university was and is being vigorously opposed by the Presidents’ Committee representing the country’s seven other universities. To add insult to injury, the head of the allpowerful Budget Allocation Committee of the Israel Council of Higher Education, Dr. Emmanuel Trajtenberg, a leading figure in framing the government’s response to last year’s social justice protests, not only lobbied strenuously to thwart AUC’s accreditation, but attempted to “persuade” the AUC administration to forgo formal university status by offering a so-called compromise whereby AUC would retain its temporary university center status (as yet undefined in law) in exchange for generous financial allocations and other privileges heretofore accorded to institutions of higher learning having university status in Israel. He is still urging the powers that be to delay or deny accreditation on non-academic grounds.

Fortunately, the AUC Executive Committee rejected any such compromise on the grounds that the Council of Higher Education-Judea and Samaria) had laid down clear and unequivocal academic criteria in 2007 for AUC’s accreditation after a five-year period ending in July 2012.

As part of the accreditation process, in February 2012 a blueribbon panel composed of leading academicians from Israeli’s leading universities, including Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Robert Aumann of the Hebrew University, recommended unanimously that AUC be given full and permanent university status, lavishing praise upon the institution not only for having met the council’s stringent criteria, but surpassing them in most every respect.

LIKE THE greening of the Negev, the draining of the malarial swamps of yore, the absorption of millions of immigrants and the creation of the Start-Up Nation, AUC represents the triumph of the Zionist dream. Founded in a basement in the village of Kedumim in 1982 with a handful of students, AUC (then known as the College of Judea and Samaria) had a student body of only 500 in its bar mitzva year in 1995.

It was then that Prof. Dan Meyerstein, a world-renowned chemist, and a senior faculty member at Ben-Gurion University, accepted the presidency of the fledgling institution. In the 17 years he has served as president, together with AUC’s founder and visionary, former finance minister Yigal Cohen- Orgad, and former foreign minister Moshe Arens, AUC has grown into a formidable academic research institution with a student body numbering some 13,000, 85 percent of whom hail from pre-1967 Israel, including some 500 Arab Israeli students.

AUC has a faculty of nearly 300, instructing in 24 faculty departments spanning a wide range of disciplines from natural science, applied science, bio-medical science, engineering, business, management and education to the humanities. It has set a national record for absorbing new-immigrant academics from the former Soviet Union. It has the highest number of students of Ethiopian origin, more than any of Israel’s other institutions.

This year alone, in anticipation of its new university status, AUC is about to welcome 30 young PhDs, 20 of whom are Israelis and Jews coming from leading universities in the United States and Western Europe, thereby helping to reverse the brain-drain phenomenon. In its relatively short existence, AUC has achieved recognition as one of Israel’s leading higher education institutions in a number of fields including physical therapy, robotics and materials science, and boasts highly acclaimed schools in architecture and communications.

IT WAS no wonder then that both the blue-ribbon accreditation team and the Council of Higher Education-Judea and Samaria) disregarded the skeptics and the naysayers and approved AUC’s university status.

All would be well, except that, incredibly, the process is not yet over. Because AUC is located over the Green Line, it is subject to a sui generis legal regime. AUC’s new status must be approved formally by the commander of the IDF Central Command, who serves as military governor of Judea and Samaria. As an army officer, the commander is subject to the jurisdiction of the defense minister, Ehud Barak.

As strange as it may seem, the military governor acting at the behest of the defense minister could delay or even veto the decision of the Council of Higher Education, the blue-ribbon panel, and the enthusiastic recommendations of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. In the volatile political climate created by the withdrawal of the Kadima Party from the coalition government and the looming prospect of general elections, the ultimate fate of AUC’s accreditation cannot be taken for granted.

While it is said that nothing happens in Israel that is not affected in some way by politics, it is to be hoped that Minister Barak and the military governor, together with Prime Minister Netanyahu, will endorse the decision of the Council of Higher Education, their fellow ministers and the blue-ribbon panel, and not allow AUC to become a pawn in the political maneuverings that inevitably precede elections.

First, Minister Barak should respect the wishes of AUC’s 13,000 students and faculty, as well as the Israeli national student organization and dozens of faculty from Israel’s other universities who warmly welcome AUC’s ascension to university status.

Second, Minister Barak should respect the rule of law, laid down in the 2005 government decision to approve AUC’s university status upon fulfillment of the council’s academic criteria and the more than satisfactory completion of the accreditation process as prescribed by the only body with legal authority to promulgate them.

Third, Minister Barak should remember that adding another qualified academic research institution to the community of Israeli universities increases competition and promotes academic freedom.

Why should the excess concentration of power be disclaimed in the economic arena only to be preserved anachronistically in the academic realm? Competition is healthy. It creates opportunities and fosters creativity. It creates jobs and spurs ossifying institutions to improve their research and pedagogical offerings, not to mention to streamline their management and administration.

Finally, and no less importantly, it is a vote for Zionism. AUC was founded on the premise that it was possible to create a modern university in Israel in which both the faculty and the students proudly embrace the Zionist dream, symbolized by the rule that every classroom at AUC must display the flag of Israel. While academic freedom is cherished at AUC, AUC has little tolerance for the kind of anti-Zionist dogma that has spread cancerously in many other university faculties in Israel.

That AUC is today a thriving institution of higher learning with an international reputation for research and excellence is nothing short of miraculous. Its accreditation as a full-fledged university would be a crowning recognition of the courage and foresight of its founders, faculty and students.

There could be no more potent rejoinder to those here and abroad who seek daily to delegitimize the Zionist enterprise and to weaken the magnificent human experiment called the State of Israel. It is time for this dream to become reality.

The writer is a practicing international attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Washington, New York and Toronto. He is a member of the AUC Executive Committee.


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