Ignoring their own

University boards need to consider students and students must champion their least prosperous teachers.

student demo jlem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
student demo jlem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
According to accepted wisdom, the senior-most university professors are striking to safeguard the excellence of Israel's academic teaching and research. Should their strike fail, they claim, Israel will per force lose its vital edge in its ongoing struggle for survival, the already hardly insignificant brain drain will dangerously intensify and our higher education will be irremediably devastated. They repeatedly emphasize that this isn't a strike about money, certainly not about their income only, although the direct demand they make is for compensation for salary erosion since 2001. They indeed had been promised adjustment in previous negotiations and the government is indeed remiss in living up to its own undertakings, which should obviously raise the issue of the insufferable ease with which officials delay decisions and pass hot potatoes to their successors to handle at some future juncture. Yet this is by no means the worst example of the lack of credibility which officialdom had generated for its own pledges. Moreover, the erosion about which the professors carp isn't as catastrophic as they make it seem, considering the negligible inflation of recent years and the strength of the shekel. Besides, they enjoy considerable perks which aren't calculated into their pay packets, including quite impressive (or scandalous, depending on one's point of view) expense accounts, so substantial that many senior lecturers are hard put to spend them on gadgetry, trips, etc. This particular sector of academics is scarcely the most economically deprived or the most worthy of additional outlays from the public coffers. True, Israel's senior lecturers don't earn anywhere like their counterparts overseas, but even had all the corrections they demand been made on time, the vast gap would hardly have been narrowed. No matter how their demands are dressed up, the bottom line is that they are striking for higher pay. Had academia's future topped their scale of priorities they would have gone to bat for entirely different causes. They would have noted that they constitute a minority among academic staffers on their own campuses. Tenured juniors are compensated far less but even they are the lucky ones in relative terms. Each year an increasing share of the teaching duties is contracted out to outsiders - freelancers who are employed at truly shameful wages, without tenure, social security, academic rights and perks, and not even research opportunities. What began years ago as a stopgap measure has mushroomed into means to outsmart the system and hire cheap labor (albeit highly educated). By now some 30 percent of all lecturers are outsiders who work on short-term contracts. If anything promotes brain drain it's not a few shekels less monthly for the highest echelons, but the outright exploitation of their lowest-ranking colleagues - invariably the younger talents and, by nature, the future of Israeli universities. Had the senior staff really had that future uppermost in mind, they would fight against the hard-hearted denial of opportunities to those who ought to be advanced and cultivated most. Yet professors atop academia's totem pole acquiesce to the mistreatment of their subordinates and thereby turn themselves into accomplices. The problem obviously isn't their own doing and largely derives from budgetary cutbacks over many years. But the fact remains that the lecturers are doing nothing for those truly underpaid, while seeking to augment their own income. This is typical of Israeli academia's malaise, where each university sector agitates only about its own peeves, while studiously ignoring the big picture. The senior professors want more money, the students want to pay lower fees and the university boards want more government cash transfusions. Until all sectors consider the interests of all others, the universities will not offer the best tuition to their students and research will suffer. The senior lecturers should be capable of a multidimensional approach. Without it, different groups within the campuses will pull in their own direction and things will inescapably go from bad to worse. The most undesirable result of the present showdown is the most probable one - the senior staffers will eventually elicit some salary hike and will go back to work, while the unfair treatment of lower rank lecturers will continue unabated. Things will only get better when the seniors look after juniors, university boards consider students and students champion their least prosperous teachers.