Academia under fire

Ben-Gurion University’s president Rivka Carmi defends her institution as a ‘model of modern Zionism’ as she refutes claims that the Department of Politics and Government has become politicized.

By ANDREW FRIEDMAN
February 19, 2012 11:14
Professor Rivka Carmi

Professor Rivka Carmi 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In some ways, Prof. Rivka Carmi is a study in contrasts.

An attractive, well-dressed woman of 63, she is an eloquent and passionate spokeswoman for Israel, Zionism, Israel’s peripheral communities and of course for Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the institution she has headed since 2006.

On the other hand, Dr. Carmi’s unassuming, gentle manner makes it easy to imagine her examining a sick child, or discussing a serious medical condition with concerned parents. Chatting over coffee at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel (to be precise, only this writer had coffee; Carmi drank hot chocolate), Carmi says she never actually practiced medicine (she is a career academic, having conducted research in neonatology and medical genetics), but she retains a pediatrician’s ease with people and care for their well-being. Not surprisingly, she says that at the end of a long day as university president, she continues to daydream about caring for babies and developing cures for their diseases.

But nowadays, time to focus on medicine is a luxury Carmi can ill afford. In recent months Ben-Gurion University has been under fire from the Council of Higher Education, which in September issued a harsh report about the university’s Department of Politics and Government, citing “major weaknesses with regard to the department’s core discipline of political science which need to be addressed immediately” as well as concern that “the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.”

Finally, the report concluded that “the department should institute major changes toward strengthening its disciplinary and methodological core,” and said the situation in the department should be monitored “closely.” “If these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government,” the report said.

After the report was published late last year, and on the heels of a call by right-wing groups including Im Tirtzu for Carmi to resign, she spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the CHE report and a range of other issues.

I can certainly appreciate your desire to come to the defense of the Department of Politics and Government, but there’s no getting around the fact that the report outlines some very serious charges.

It’s important to stress two things: One, all the recommendations made by the CHE had to do with the academic makeup of the program.

According to the exact wording of the report, they (the recommendations) stem from one main point: the fact that there are not enough core studies as part of the curriculum.

So a) we accepted the findings and said we would work to improve the academic standards of the program, and b) the report is very clear that if we didn’t address these academic concerns, Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the department as a last resort.

Does the CHE have the authority to close down the program?

It isn’t clear to me, although I’m sure that if the CHE formed a committee and formally recommended closing the program, I’m sure that recommendation would be taken very seriously. But there’s a long way between there and what’s written in the report.

Don’t forget: The CHE created the program a decade ago with the idea that it wouldn’t be a “normal” political science program. From the outset, it was meant to be a bit outside the box, a bit eclectic, if you will, a program that would include a wide variety of voices. But eight to 10 years is about the amount of time one would expect it to take for an academic program like this one to stabilize. So it’s an appropriate time for the CHE to review the program, and the university is very fortunate to get the constructive feedback about areas we could improve.

Maybe we went a bit too far on the multidisciplinary side and haven’t been strong enough on the core political science side of things, but don’t forget that six of the 12 faculty members in the program hold doctorates in political science. The report admits as much: “On paper, the study program does not differ greatly from the more or less conventional programs in the other universities in the country.”

So if you really look closely at the report, without any bias, you’ll see that yes, there are some questions with the program. I’d argue some of the points, but on the whole we have accepted the report, responded to it point-bypoint and we will work to improve the program in line with the recommendations. The phrase “as a last resort, the university should consider closing the program” means that if we rejected all their recommendations and failed to shore up the core political science element of the program, then as a last resort they would consider closing the program.

Of course in the media, the notion that the politics program could be closed was treated as a fait accompli and it was reported that the department is in immediate danger of closing.

Still, you can’t get away from the question – could the CHE’s feeling that “the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism” point to the possibility that politicization contributed to this reality?

Absolutely not. No way. There is no connection whatsoever. Think about the largest departments at our university – engineering, physical sciences, medicine. The only faculty that even touches tangentially on politics is social sciences, and there it is natural to take a more political stance. That includes history, which can be taught in a political way. But if you go back to the subjects that by their very nature are political – there’s nothing that can be done about it. That’s the subject matter. If there are questions, if there are problems, it’s there.

But that section of the report also says our students feel free to give their opinions, they feel free to express opinions that are opposed to their professor’s thoughts. Furthermore, if you look at the more than 800 tenured professors and tenure-track faculty members at BGU, you would be hard pressed to find 10 people who are members of the radical Left. Maybe 10, no more.

I think those numbers are probably lower than the percentages of the general public. If we’re talking about eight radicals out of 800 faculty members, that’s 1 percent of our university professor community. How much of the general population in Israel identifies with the radical Left? It’s got to be higher than that.

One of the most well-read people I know is also one of the most conservative – in the American sense of that term. He says he never got involved in academia because “with my political views, there’s no chance in this world I’d ever get tenure.” Do you agree?

No. Honest. I’ve been in academia a long time, I know how people get tenure, I know what universities are looking for. We are looking for academic excellence. No one on tenure committees knows what the political stances of applicants are, no one cares about them, either. And last but not least, we’ve got similar numbers of radical right-wingers and radical left-wingers on staff, about 10.

So how do you explain the fact that young people that lean toward right-wing views consistently say they would prefer to study at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya rather than the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa or Ben-Gurion?

I can’t speak in their name, and I never asked why they are avoiding university political science departments, but I can say with certainty that they feel much more comfortable at the IDC than at HU or BGU.

It’s always more comfortable to be around people who share similar views to yours. But I’m really not sure I accept your premise that young right-wingers are abandoning our universities, or even our political science departments.

We’ve got many, many right-wing students.

Over the past two years, the editors of our student paper have been members of Im Tirtzu. We have more right-wing research students than left-wing ones.

I’ve spoken to students about this, and it would be a lie to say it didn’t bother some of them. This is a crucial point: None of our students say they are intimidated to voice their opinions. Of course they have to defend their views, and it is the nature of political discussions to get heated sometimes. But these young people – most of whom are army veterans – know full well how to stand up for themselves and how to defend their positions.

You’re going to tell me they are intimidated because a professor doesn’t share their views? The Politics and Government Department was singled out by a small group of extremists, and they have done a terrible injustice to Ben- Gurion University, which to me is the model of modern Zionism. After all, what is Zionism? It is building a national home for the Jewish people. And what are we doing in the Negev? We are building the future of the State of Israel. And make no mistake about it – the future of Israel isn’t in the Tel Aviv area. It is in the Negev, and the university is involved in every aspect of the community – culture, healthcare, economy, community relations and more. We are involved in creating a hitech park in the area and several important green energy initiatives and more. We are involved in bringing high-quality manpower to Beersheba and the Negev.

Let’s go back to last summer’s social protests. What is the university’s place in social protest movements like that? What could or should the university contribute towards creating social justice?

It’s a tough question, and one that touches on a much more fundamental question: What is the university’s place in society? If we look back in history, the university was created to be an elitist ivory tower, to question, to think out of the box. To encourage critical thinking.

Over the years, things have changed a lot. To a certain degree, today’s universities are more for professional training – on an academic level – for doctors and lawyers and engineers, etc. The question over the past few years touches on another question: does the university have a responsibility to give something back to the community? Just about all Israeli universities were born with this idea that the university owes something to the community. Of course, a university’s research, at the end of the day, will bring about medical advances, defense technologies, economic advances and other things, definitely serves the country. But these issues are on a theoretical level. No one has any doubt that these developments are of immediate benefit to the country and to society at large.

But the more principled question is to what degree the university should lead social processes. There are fundamental values issues like women’s standing in society, equality, reducing gaps between rich and poor, advancing culture, etc. It all depends on who you ask.

Some say it’s not the university’s place.

They’d say that if there are some people in the university community who are committed to those things, great. But not as an institution.

They’d say the raison d’être of a university is research and teaching, and no more.

I see it a little bit differently. Of course, there is no question that the essential mandate of a university is to teach and to research. But there has to be some relevance to the goingson in society of some sort or another, to have an impact on society. As soon as you conduct research and begin teaching, you already begin to have an influence on society.

But in a country like ours, it’s more than that. We have to think about how we remain relevant to the needs of the society. I’d compare it to the IDF. The army’s essential mandate is to defend the State of Israel. It’s an army, after all. But historically, the army has also helped with immigrant absorption, the army has helped with settlement, education – all these are areas that are really outside the scope of defending the country.

Here, a university must make itself relevant to the society. And yes, in the past universities have been known to take a leading role in social movements and protests. But I don’t think it’s the correct role of the university.


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