A college by any other name is … a controversy
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM — Moshe Silman is still in intensive care, at least four copycats have failed to immolate themselves alongside banks or government offices thanks to alert bystanders, politicians are accusing one another of being too soft on the Haredim or being too stubborn about one or another detail of what to do with them, and the Middle East is still the Middle East.
One of the two hottest topics of the moment is the upgrading of the Ariel University Center of Samaria to full university status, against those who opposed the move for good or nefarious reasons, and some who wish it would go away altogether along with the rest of Ariel and its 18,000 residents.
Until 2007 it was the College of Judea and Samaria. Its intermediate title as a university center suggested, without actually saying, that it was already a university.
The nomenclature associated with institutions of higher education is fuzzy in the extreme. Differences between colleges and universities, and other vague terms like center or institute, are there for the picking. “University” may generally be at the top of the prestige heap, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Weizmann Institute of Science, and a few others would quarrel.
In Israel the difference between a college and university is money. Universities get more, enough to support research by faculty members.
The arguments about the institution in Ariel are academic, financial, and political. The heads of Israel’s seven universities have been united in opposing the upgrading of Ariel’s name and status on the grounds of insufficient money in the overall pot for higher education, as well as their conclusions that Ariel’s faculty component is not up to what is required for serious teaching at the doctoral level. They claim that existing universities suffered greatly in budget reductions and staff downsizings in recent years, and that another university will worsen whatever chances they have of repairing the damage.
Ariel’s supporters claim that the size and quality of is staff does not fall below what Israel’s newer universities had achieved when they passed from college to university status.
Politics is the elephant in the living room. Ariel is not only in the West Bank, over the “green line” of the 1948 armistice that became Israel’s border until 1967. It is the most prominent incursion into what Palestinians claim to be theirs. Significant members of Israel’s cultural, artistic, and academic elites have declared boycotts on Ariel’s theater and concert hall, as well as its institution of higher education.
No surprise that Israeli academics are generally left of center on the topic of Israel and Palestine, along with just about every other issue. The trait may be somewhat less true of academics in the natural sciences, engineering, business administration, and economics than in other social sciences and humanities, but those gaps are more than made up by international allies of Israeli academics who have declared that Ariel is out of bounds.
The other side is also well represented. Settlers have weight in Israeli politics, and they have friends in overseas Jewish communities who have been generous with their wealth.
There is an institutional complication that will affect what happens. Israel’s Coordinating Committee for Higher Education makes decisions about the programs each university is entitled to offer, as well as the status of institutions. The Coordinating Committee represents the heads of universities and other institutions of higher education, and it opposes Ariel’s upgrading.
However, Ariel is not in Israel. The separate Coordinating Committee for Higher Education for Judea and Samaria (i.e., the West Bank), approved Ariel’s upgrading. Likud Ministers of Education and Finance, as well as the Prime Minister support the move, with the Minister of Finance promising more money to accommodate financial concerns.
Due to requirements for “occupied territory,” the ultimate authority for Judea and Samaria is the Civil Administration section of the IDF. Military personnel will have a say about the status of the Ariel institution, as well as what courses and degrees it is allowed to offer.
Another complication is that the budget committee of Israel’s Coordinating Committee for Higher Education parcels out the money coming from the government budget for higher education. It may require some political and administrative acrobatics to overcome its members’ reservations about Ariel.
The conventional wisdom in political science is that government decisions often do not play out as expected. Implementation is anything but automatic, especially in the case of decisions that are controversial. There is politics after an official decision as well as before a decision. In this case, the folks supporting a university in Ariel may be able to proclaim victory, but they will not have anything like Harvard–or even the Hebrew University–overnight, in the next year, decade, or maybe millennium, we should all live that long.
One can spin out scenarios until the cows come home, which is a metaphor popular at my former home in the University of Wisconsin.
Colleges and universities change slowly, if at all, in quality and prestige. Faculty tenure means that it can take 30 years to change the character of teaching. Or even longer, insofar as the old fuddies make the crucial decisions about new hires and promotions. Institutional prestige may linger longer than it should, and continues to influence where a country’s best students choose to study. They add their own accomplishments to each institution’s prestige.
In Ariel’s case, the politics will carry on long after there is a decision about nomenclature. Anti-settler feelings in higher education will affect things, along with pro-settler loyalties in Likud and parties further to the right. The standing of parties to the right of center may not be passing fashions in a situation where the peace process is in deep coma.
Among the possibilities is that with Ariel as a university, the weight of settlers and Likud may bring enough new money into the overall budget for higher education to benefit all the universities.
Yet there was an earthquake in another quadrant of politics on the day that the Coordinating Committee for Higher Education for Judea and Samaria decided on upgrading Ariel.
Kadima withdrew from the government coalition over the issue of drafting Haredim. Support for the Netanyahu-led government thereby dropped from 94 MKs to somewhere in the mid-60s or even less than a majority, depending on whatever subsequent realignments occur.
Among the new possibilities is an election in the next six months where support or opposition for continued benefits to the Haredim will be the central issue. Should that overcome Netanyahu’s rhetorical skills, the next government could be less friendly to the settlers as well as to the Haredim.
It’s too early to lay your bets. Yet it’s also too early for a grand celebration about the future of higher education in Ariel.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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