Universities are not a business

May 14, 2010 19:38

Brain drain result of "slash and burn" academia.

Students at Hebrew University.

StudentsAtHebrewU311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

During Hol Hamoed Pessah, like any typical academic, I worked at home, reviewing application files for the Kreitman post-doctoral fellowships for my faculty, the Humanities and Social Sciences, at Ben-Gurion University. A good few hours of work.
The Kreitman Fellowship program is a prestigious grant fund endowed by the Kreitman family more than a decade ago to Ben-Gurion University to encourage it to attract excellent doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows. Priority for the post-doctoral fellowships is given to students from other universities, to expand the horizons of a university on the periphery. Five post-doctoral fellowships are awarded each year by the university, renewable for an additional year.

On average, these fellowships pay NIS 6,700 a month, with additional travel funds for conferences. The average age for a post-doctoral fellow is middle-to-late 30s. Dissertations must have been completed within the last three years.

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This year, our faculty alone received more than 60 applications for this fellowship, and this in spite of the fact that it pays more than NIS 1,000 less than the average monthly income. The selection process begins with the actual candidates themselves – they must find a post-doctoral adviser in the university who is willing to take them on. Each department ranks its applicants and submits a list to the Kreitman School of Advanced Studies, which is then reviewed by each faculty doctoral committee.

As a member of the committee, I reviewed 11 applications from five different programs. The applications consist of a standardized form with basic biographical information and educational background, a curriculum vitae (an academic resume) with a list of academic publications, a brief statement of the proposed research and a minimum of four letters of recommendation, including a standardized form with a scale of potential: below average, average, somewhat above average, good, unusual, outstanding, exceptional.

There are no mediocrities here. Remembering that we are dealing with fresh doctorates, young scholars, their academic achievements are tremendous. All but one are Israeli, but they have studied all over, doing their doctoral research at all of the local universities and at leading institutions in the US and in Europe. They all have multiple scholarly publications, ranging from a minimum of three to more than 30.

To make this clear, when an academic is granted tenure, five to seven years into his or her career, he/she is expected to have produced a minimum of 12 high-quality academic publications, preferably, but not necessarily exclusively, in peer review academic journals. Some disciplines require a book in lieu of three or four papers. Newspaper articles do not count. Indeed, several of the candidates’ doctoral theses were in press, to be published as academic monographs.

The lowest “grade” assigned anyone in the recommendations was “unusual” and it appeared only twice. Everyone else was either outstanding or exceptional and the number of “exceptionals” was surprising, even to me. I have only very rarely assigned such a grade in a recommendation. The word “brilliant” came up in these letters in high frequency. This is not grade inflation. This is the cream.

IT IS inspiring to read such files, knowing that I received only a fraction of those in our faculty, one of seven faculties and schools offering advanced degrees in our university. The talent and potential is tremendous. Every one of these young scholars has already made a contribution to his or her field of endeavor. Every single one is willing to work for two years at Ben-Gurion University for less than the average yearly income for the opportunity to continue research and teaching, and for the small chance of ultimately being offered a proper academic position.

Of the more than 60 applicants in my faculty, we expect to award perhaps four fellowships. This may seem bad, but the real picture is even worse. I am currently advising three doctoral students. Within the next year or two, they too will be applying for post-doctoral positions. And they are all too aware of their precarious situation. They have invested years of work, at sub-average wages (doctoral students make significantly less than post-doctoral scholars) to achieve the doctorate. There is no one waiting with open arms at the end of the race to congratulate them on their achievement and offer them some worthy recompense. They will either follow their predecessors to greener horizons beyond our borders, or in many cases they will simply abandon the field. I am not sure which is worse.

Announced government plans to plug the brain drain are not addressing the fundamental structural problems of Israeli academia. Plans to found new research institutes, independent of the universities, somehow ignore the fact that our universities are among the leading research institutes in the world. Why create entire new research institutes when the universities already offer advanced infrastructures for any kind of research one might want? University faculties are being cut, are shrinking, even as student numbers are rising, and as the brain drain is bemoaned.

The issue at stake here is the role we assign higher education in our society. If our university system is to be another business, a research and development corporation whose primary function is the bottom line, then brain drain will be the inevitable result of market forces which offer enticements overseas and an ever belt-tightening atmosphere in the country. And yes, we might indeed be able to emulate the great private universities of the US, were the government to grant our universities the billions of dollars in endowments that these schools thrive on.

Universities here should not be seen in this way. Rather, they ought to be viewed as a service industry, one which provides crucial training and innovation in our society, a service no less critical to our well-being as a nation than the military, the police, the health care system or primary and secondary education. As such, good management practices are necessary, but absolute growth is also necessary. Instead, government policies over the past decade have slashed and burned a system which, weight for weight, was undoubtedly one of the best in the world.

THERE IS a cruel twist to all of this. Within the university system we are offered incentives, in the form of increased budgets, for ever greater numbers of research students, especially doctoral students. We ourselves, the lecturers and professors, are enthusiastic about what we do – there is a genuine thrill to science and scholarship – and we naturally transmit that enthusiasm to our students. It is false advertising. The nature of the beast right now is that of the 61 applicants for the Kreitman post-doctoral fellowships in the Faculty of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, perhaps three have a future doing what we have enthusiastically trained them to do. These young scholars and scientists have already demonstrated their excellence and superiority. It is we, in the larger sense of our nation, our government and our society, who are failing them. And in this, we are failing ourselves.

The writer is a professor of archaeology at Ben-Gurion University.

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