More than academic

The upgrading of Ariel University's status to full-fledged university should be a cause for celebration, not infighting and threats of academic boycott.

Ariel College 311 (photo credit: Ariel University Center Website)
Ariel College 311
(photo credit: Ariel University Center Website)
Until now it was more than a college, not quite a university. But on Monday, the institute of higher education located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel officially graduated to full university status.
Under orders from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Central Command chief Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon approved giving the Ariel University Center of Samaria the status of “university” after receiving legal approval from the Attorney- General’s Office. Back in July, the 16-member Council for Higher Education of Judea and Samaria voted in favor of upgrading the institute’s status, and the cabinet ratified the decision in September.
Unfortunately, controversy has plagued the entire upgrading process. And a High Court petition has been filed against Ariel University’s change in status. Heads of all seven incumbent universities fought the move from the beginning, though Bar-Ilan University’s President Moshe Kaveh has since withdrawn his opposition. These heads have claimed that the already cash-strapped universities, which are suffering a brain drain because they cannot compete with salaries offered abroad, will be hurt if Ariel is granted university status. An already inadequate budget will be spread even thinner.
But the fact is that increased competition among the universities will not harm academia. If anything it will foster growth and cross-fertilization. Already, thousands of academics have been forced to leave Israel to find work at universities abroad. The creation of an eighth university will create additional jobs and might even bring home Israelis presently working in foreign institutions.
Nor will Ariel University take funds from the other universities as claimed. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz sent a letter Sunday to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar in which he said that if Ariel University Center is recognized as a university, he will transfer a grant of NIS 50 million to the institution over a two-year period.
Heads of established universities have also claimed that Ariel has not reached the requisite academic excellence needed for upgraded status.
But the center has nearly 30 departments for BA, MA, BSc and BArch studies in three faculties and three schools.
It has doubled its number of peer-reviewed publications, has established cooperative efforts with dozens of universities and research institutions, and has hosted numerous international academic conferences. As a result, a committee at the Council of Higher Education concluded that the center has met all of the academic criteria required to justify an upgrade to university status.
Another reason for opposition is politics. Last year, hundreds of professors declared an academic boycott against Ariel because it is located beyond the Green Line. In June, Weizmann Institute of Science President Daniel Zajfman declared at a gathering of university heads that he would cancel any academic or professional cooperation with Ariel if it were declared a university. Such declarations seem to be motivated by a belief that kowtowing to anti- Israel sentiment abroad will somehow appease the bigots.
But the fact is professors in some American and European universities have already called for academic boycotts against Israel regardless of the Ariel decision, because of the “occupation.”
Israeli academics should not make the mistake of placing their political agendas before the more important ideal of academic freedom. It is perfectly legitimate to oppose Ariel as an obstacle to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But opponents should also recognize – and respect – the fact that a majority of Israelis views Ariel as one of the settlement blocs that will remain part of Israel in any two-state solution reached with the Palestinians.
And for the sake of true and lasting peace and an end to the conflict, a majority would probably support moving Ariel University.
Forty years have passed since the last time a university (Haifa) was established. Over that time, Israel’s population has grown by 230 percent. Ariel University, first established three decades ago as an extension of Bar-Ilan University, has come to perform an integral role in Israel's academic world. Its student body of 13,000 is diverse and includes Jews and Arabs. The upgrading of its status to full-fledged university should be a cause for celebration, not infighting and threats of academic boycott.