Academic freedom under threat

Universities have to put their own houses in order and ensure that scientific excellence determines the status of its members.

May 17, 2009 21:53

The president of Tel Aviv University, Zvi Galil, is to be congratulated for his unequivocable statement last week in support of Omar Barghouti, a research student at his institution. This follows a concerted campaign to have the student expelled from the university because of his political views, including his support of an academic boycott of Israel. A petition demanding action, signed by some 20,000 people, was sent to the university president and to some of the university supporters outside Israel. It is likely that the matter will be tabled for discussion at the forthcoming Board of Governors meeting to be held in the next few weeks. In his response, Prof. Galil makes it clear that the political views of any student or member of faculty are of no relevance in determining that persons standing at the university and that the only relevant criterion is that of academic excellence. The issue of academic freedom is particularly sensitive here, given the nature of the public discourse which takes place in this highly politicized country. It is not uncommon for professors to write op-ed columns in the international news media, or to appear on radio and TV programs in which they present their views, critical or otherwise, on a variety of social and political issues. Given the fact that many of the country's social science faculty are actively engaged in research which focuses on the Israel/Palestine conflict, their public positions are often perceived as carrying more weight - whether it be the doomsday demographers and security experts of the right wing, or the binationalist one-state solutionists from the Left. Despite the frequently heard criticisms of, and attacks on, left-wing academics, it is perhaps ironic that the only organization of Israeli professors which has been founded as an academic lobby with the specific intent of advancing a political cause is the right-wing Professors for a Strong Israel. It doesn't take more than glance at its Web site to see that its members hold extremist views. Founded in 1988 to (in its own words) "counter the activities of some left-wing members of the academic community in support of anti-Zionist and 'post-Zionist' political parties, the association expanded its activities after the signing of the Oslo agreement in opposition to the policies of the Rabin government that endanger the security of the State of Israel." It came out strongly against the disengagement from Gaza, was publicly critical of then prime minister Ariel Sharon for "betraying" the State of Israel and put forward views whose legality is highly questionable. BUT ACADEMIC FREEDOM is not only about the political views of its faculty. Many areas of research and teaching are threatened by other forms of outside intervention. Most notable is the medical and pharmaceutical community, where research funding and even the publication of papers may be constrained by the private funding organizations and their links to the pharmaceutical industry. Many readers will remember the American TV show and subsequent movie, The Fugitive, the plot of which focuses on the attempt to frame the film's hero, Dr. Richard Kimble, because of his attempt to make public the false results of medical research which had been funded by a powerful pharmaceutical company. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, and the medical profession remains subject to pressures and influences from economic and political interests to advance specific drugs and treatments, regardless of whether these are always in the best interests of the patient. Academic freedom and independence is also threatened by the global move toward greater privatization of these institutions. The decrease in governmental support of universities has thrown the doors open to a mad rush for private donors and philanthropists, many of whom condition their donations on the teaching (or nonteaching) of specific topics, or of the removal of outspoken professors with whose views they do not agree. Despite the cut in public budgets for higher education and scientific research, there is a paradoxical increase in the attempt by governments to intervene in the administration of universities. The new budget, approved by the cabinet and about to be passed by the Knesset, almost included a series of clauses in the arrangements bill (Hok Ha'hesderim) which, if implemented, would seriously threaten the independence of academic institutions. The Finance Ministry wanted to create external bodies, which have little knowledge of what scientific research is about, to evaluate the performance of these institutions, along with changing the structure of the VATAT (the national committee which determines the funding of the country's universities and colleges) so that non-academics would constitute a majority. These two proposals were only removed at the last moment following a protest by the rectors of five of the country's seven universities, but with a clear warning that this was only temporary and that these controversial clauses are likely to be reintroduced at a future date. These proposals follow the imposed change in the organizational structure of the country's universities which was implemented three years ago, following the recommendations of the Maltz Commission, and which effectively removed much of the decision making power of the universities from the hands of the academics to administrators and external appointees. GIVEN THESE GROWING challenges to academic freedom and academic independence, it is perhaps not surprising that today the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University will be holding an international symposium on the topic of "Academic Freedoms - Academic Responsibilities," while next week the Van Leer Institute will host a public meeting of leading members of the academic community, past and present, to discuss critical issues threatening academic and scientific independence in Israel. But as the title of the Ben-Gurion conference would indicate, with freedoms come responsibilities. Most academics who engage in teaching, research and administration spend a great deal more than 40 hours per week in return for what is a paltry salary when compared to their counterparts in the Western world (and which often accounts for the brain drain of some of the country's top scientists to greener pastures elsewhere). But there are also some who do not fulfill their minimal commitments to the university and whose limited teaching and constant absences can bring the world of academia into disrepute. They are a small minority but do great damage to the image of the universities and are, in turn, partially responsible for the attempts by external agencies - be they private philanthropists or public governmental agencies - to intervene in the running of these institutions. The universities have to put their own houses in order and ensure that scientific excellence, and only scientific excellence, determine the status of its members. At the same time, they must resist all attempts to chip away at the principles of academic freedom and independence. A country which ceases to value the spirit of open debate and scientific neutrality is a country whose democracy has much to fear. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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