It is board of governors season in Israel. The newspapers are full of expensive advertisements welcoming the respective members of their boards who have come for weeklong meetings in which the universities unveil new plaques, announce the establishment of new programs, and honor their respective supporters and donors.
This year it is all fairly low key. The recession has hit hard almost everywhere and those few loyal supporters of universities and other public institutions who have still found time to come here and consider new donations are to be applauded for their generosity of spirit and pocket.
Board of governors meetings give new meaning to the concept of Pessah Sheni (a second Pessah). The university is spic-and-span in preparation. Additional cleaners are brought in to reach those parts which the normal cleaner does not have time for. The pigeon droppings are removed from the tops of the buildings, the grass appears greener, the pathways are washed, and the local hotels are spruced up and asked to be on their best behavior. In true Salah Shabati style, new plaques and additional names are inscribed throughout the campus while, in some cases, last-minute lawns appear outside as yet unfinished buildings.
The competition for resources among the seven major universities is fierce. In recent years, the fund-raising, donors and public affairs departments have become transformed into highly professional and efficient units, seeking the best ways to sell their institutions. Notwithstanding, the activities aimed at persuading potential donors to support one institution over another, especially in these hard times, has become quite ruthless and one could easily forget that the support of any university or hospital, even if it is not "yours," is part of the general support for Israel. Working with some of the donor organizations, one could be led to thinking that it is akin to industrial espionage to say a good word about a competing institution, or to agree to give a public lecture on behalf of anyone with whom you are not directly affiliated.
BOARDS OF GOVERNORS meetings have their own unique rituals. One of the strangest is the award of honorary doctorates in ceremonies which are copied from North American institutions and which are often quite inappropriate for Israel. It is normal to award such doctorates to three types of people. First, there are scientists of international reputation who have made a major contribution to the world, but these are people who have the real doctorates and don't really need additional honorary degrees.
Then there are leading politicians and public figures, not least prime ministers, who, it is hoped, will be favourably inclined toward that institution as a result of his/her receiving the award. Of course, here we give such awards to people who are in power, rather than wait - as most countries do - for the politicians to retire. We are more interested in what they will do for us than in recognizing their past achievements. And the idea that a university would refuse to give an honorary award to a major figure of public prominence, as Oxford University refused to give a doctorate to Margaret Thatcher, is unheard of. Some years back, the senate of Ben-Gurion University refused to give an honorary doctorate to Ariel Sharon when he was leader of the opposition Likud, but as soon as he became prime minister, he was on the first bus down south to receive the award, no questions raised.
And there are the third group of recipients, the people who would otherwise never receive any form of academic degree, the donors. They are awarded honorary degrees either because they have already given large sums of money to the university, or - and perhaps more significantly - because they will potentially give donations in the future. No problem in this country about cash for honors; it is the way things are done. The names of the honorees appear on the buildings and edifices of the university and they are able, in return, to display proud pictures of receiving their certificates in the pomp and splendor of the outdated academic garb.
IN THIS TIGHT competition for dwindling resources, every university has its own unique message to sell. My own university had the vision to change its name from the University of Beersheba to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, soon after the passing of Israel's founder and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in 1974. Not only does Ben-Gurion remain one of the few, perhaps the only, name associated with Israel which remains above the political schisms and divisions, but the fact that he lived in the remote desert kibbutz of Sde Boker and symbolized, as does the university, the desire to develop the country's southern periphery was a connection too valuable to be missed. It is a link which has worked wonders with the international donor community and which has been of major importance in the development of the Sde Boker campus with its focus on desert studies and one of the world's leading water institutes in arid regions.
And if Ben-Gurion was not enough, the university, under the brash, charismatic but highly successful leadership of long-term university president, now minorities minister, Avishay Braverman, adopted the country's leading novelist Amos Oz as a member of faculty and public orator, following his move to the nearby town of Arad some 30 years ago. Board of governors week in Beersheba is never the same without at least one public lecture by Oz, a sure crowd puller. The board participants are always prepared to listen to him, even if his left-wing and humanist views are often in discord with the largely right-of-center views of the majority of the Diaspora supporters of this fine institution. Even following his retirement, he is brought out on a regular basis to entertain the participants, and this year the annual meeting will mark the celebrations for his 70th birthday.
UNFORTUNATELY, ONE of the missing elements at the board of governors meetings is often the university faculty themselves. The large majority of faculty are rarely invited to participate, unless they are required to display their world beating research and to put on their best smiles for the visiting big shots. It is a week when most faculty will find any reason to be as far away from campus as possible in the mistaken belief that the board of governors has very little to do with them, while for their part the university administrations will do their best to maintain a distance between the two communities, in the equally mistaken belief that raising money is an end in itself, rather than the fact that it should be aimed at promoting and encouraging research and teaching on the campus. At best, the faculty sometimes receive a letter a few days before the meetings begin, asking - even begging - them to be present at the events, but this is more in the spirit of "rent a crowd" so that the auditoriums will be full and make an impression on the visiting dignitaries.
But herein lies another problem. The country's universities are not lacking in new buildings boasting the proud names of the donors whose money enabled their establishment. Nor is there a lack of founder plaques, named campuses and unveiling ceremonies. Compared to many universities around the world, the physical infrastructure of this country's institutes of higher education compares well. The real problem facing its universities today is the significant and ongoing cuts in government funding and support - cuts which are not expressed through buildings but through a lack of resources for teaching, research and daily upkeep.
While the universities have tried to transform their institutions into research centers of excellence, with undergraduate teaching palmed off to the secondary tier of regional colleges, the reality is different. Alternative resources to those affected by government cuts comes from student fees, so universities have had no choice but to constantly increase their number of undergraduates, while the size of the faculty has remained stagnant or even decreased. Classes are three times the size they used to be, there is little space for individual tuition and faculty have even less time to devote to research and the advancement of science.
But you can't expect most of the foreign donors to give their money to these causes, because their names will not be prominently displayed on buildings or public signposts. Herein lies the real problem facing our universities and science today - and while it falls upon the government to recognize the immense generosity of our friends from abroad, it cannot expect the foreign donors to fill the gap left open by the government's own neglected responsibilities for advancing the scientific achievements of this country.
The writer is professor of political geography in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics