The Web site of the Ariel University Center of Samaria was bursting with digital fireworks on Wednesday in celebration of a decision to upgrade the 13,000-student college to become Israel's eighth research university. "We have a university!!" screamed a banner across its home page. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, was in similar mood. "This is a festive day for Ariel and for higher education in Israel," he said.
But not everyone in Israel is celebrating. And the decision to upgrade Ariel is likely to have far-reaching repercussions for the country's higher-education sector. The move has been publicly opposed by one-third of Israeli faculty, the heads of Israel's seven existing research universities, and other higher-education officials.
The college, founded in 1982 as a regional branch of Bar-Ilan University, is the only Israeli institution of higher education in the Israeli-occupied West Bank apart from two teacher-training colleges. Located in Ariel, a settlement of more than 20,000 residents near Nablus, it became independent in 2004 and has sought university status ever since. Such status would bring it prestige as well as access to public research funds. The move may also have political motivations, with some saying it would strengthen Israel's presence in parts of the territory that Palestinians claim as their future state.
Critics say the upgrade will tarnish the reputation of Israeli academe abroad, allowing Israel's enemies to portray its scholars as actively participating in the occupation.
Others have less-political concerns. In a recent letter to Mr. Netanyahu, the leaders of the existing universities described the proposed upgrade as "a fatal blow to the higher-education system." They said that Israeli higher education was already suffering from a decline in public financing and that there was "no real need for a new university in Israel."
Two weeks ago, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of Israel's statutory Council for Higher Education, which oversees Israeli colleges, firmly recommended that a decision on upgrading Ariel be delayed pending a broad review of the country's higher-education system and the need, if any, for an eighth research university in addition to the distance-learning-based Open University and more than 60 colleges.
But because of its location in the West Bank, the Ariel college also answers to a parallel supervisory body—the Council for Higher Education of Judea and Samaria—that is overseen by the local Israeli military commander, not the national Council for Higher Education. Seven years ago, the West Bank council formed a committee to review Ariel, a process that resulted on Tuesday in the council's adoption of a report defying their counterparts in Jerusalem.
A Military Decision
Earlier this week, Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the central Planning and Budgeting Committee, wrote to his counterpart in Judea and Samaria arguing that it was inconceivable that "such an essential decision be discussed and made by a body in charge of one general institution of higher education (and two teachers colleges) out of 67 institutions, in which only 3 percent of all students are enrolled." He said the chairman of the Judea and Samaria council had also led the committee evaluating the college and therefore had a serious conflict of interests.
But Yigal Cohen-Orgad, chancellor of the Ariel college, told The Chronicle that the objections had been raised far too late, and he questioned the motivation behind them. "The distinguished committee established to determine whether the Ariel University Center should be awarded full university status has been presenting its interim reports to Mr. Trajtenberg and his predecessors for several years," said Mr. Cohen-Orgad.
He said the universities were operating an exclusive club and simply did not want to share government research grants with another institution, wherever it was situated. He said university heads had spent more than 40 years failing to produce objective criteria for Israel's next university.
But other college heads said Israel's higher-education system was still recovering from a "lost decade," when public-university budgets were slashed by up to one-third and faculty hiring slowed sharply. They argue that it is too early to share still-scarce research resources with a new university.
"We don't approve of this decision," Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and chair of Israel's Committee of University Presidents, told The Chronicle. "The whole procedure was extremely disturbing in terms of academic standards."
"This was supposedly a recommendation to the Planning and Budgeting Committee, to be considered in view of national planning needs. Our decision was that at this time there is no need for another university, but the whole system of Israeli higher education in general should be revisited and re-evaluated in the next year," she said, charging that Ariel's supporters had used its West Bank location to bypass the regular planning mechanism.
The decision now goes to Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, acting military governor of the West Bank.
"The decision will be conveyed to the Ministry of Defense, which will then convey it to the head of the Central Command," said Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman.
That leaves the final say in the hands of the defense minister, Ehud Barak.