This post is by guest contributor Amit.
The first Jewish university in history, the Hebrew University, was established in 1925, on Mt. Scopus outside of Jerusalem. In 1948, when the state of Israel was established, the university was moved to several buildings in town – most notably the Terra Sancta College, which was returned to the Latin Patriarchate several years ago. The University became a public institute and was put to work churning out doctors and lawyers and teachers for the new state. Ben Gurion also made it part of his personal agenda to establish the Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which is the world’s largest repository of copies of Hebrew manuscripts. Slowly, the universities became part and parcel of the governmental educational system, all the while sacrificing more and more of their financial freedom in return for promises of government money.
Less and less money, obviously, has been coming in, as the Israeli treasury is adopting not only a Thatcherist economic worldview, but is run by a professional level that has no college education save in economics. So the universities are cutting back on chairs and lab funds and library money. 800 senior professors have left Israeli universities in the past ten years, an amount that is equal to the current number of professors at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute together. Anyone who has gone to an American college can remember at least one Israeli professor, I’m sure, and more PhD candidates and holders are leaving all the time.
The universities are also trying to save money by employing less and less fairly. Adjunct professors are fired every eight months so the universities won’t have to give them a pension plan. Research assistants are as well. The cleaning and security staff is outsourced to external contractors so the universities won’t have to give them benefits university employees are entitled to.
Against this backdrop, the senior faculty (i.e. tenure-track professors), is demanding that the government raise their salaries by 30%. The government will not budge. The professors chose not to direct their anger at the general deficiencies of the universities, because then their strike would be broken by the courts – so they focused on the fact that the public sector has received more pay raises in the past ten years than they have, and this is an argument the labor courts cannot counter, and under Israeli law the strike can go on indefinitely. The university presidents asked for injunction orders nonetheless, which created a tremendous breach of trust between them and their former colleagues.
The students – who have been working and coping with a 50% courseload at the same time – are suffering both from the strike, which now looks as if it will cancel the semester, if not the school year – but also from the general state of higher education in Israel – don’t really know whom they should be supporting. Should it be the professors, who ignored the students’ strike last year, and who seem not to be starving (like the teachers, who just finished their strike) – or should it be the treasury, who is itching to implement a plan to triple tuition and fund less and less of the universities’ budget proportionately?
It is, quite truthfully, the battle of the stupid professors – who created a strike which excludes all but the richest of the universities’ employees – and the evil treasury, who would like nothing more than to stop government funding for all but the most necessary of sciences (which would be business administration, thanks for asking).
The professors and the treasury are meeting now to try and broker an agreement. The university presidents announced that if there is no settlement by Friday noon, the universities in Israel will close – for the first time in their 80-year history – until further notice.