It is that time of year when all of the country’s universities hold their annual board of governors meetings.
Supporters and donors of the various institutes arrive from abroad to participate in a weeks-long frenzy of activities including the opening of new buildings, the addition of names to long lists of university founders and patrons, the occasional lecture, the honorary doctorate ceremonies in which university donors (past or potential) and other public figures are awarded a degree honoris causa, and gala dinner and entertainment events to fill in the evenings.
The board of governors has no real say in determining university policy on matters related to science and research. They do attend a meeting at which the year’s activities are presented, following which they all raise their hands in unanimous support of the glowing report that they have heard. The generosity of those who attend is unbounded, and it is the minimum that the universities can do to allow them to feel involved, once a year, in the decision making process.
But for those of us who have been attending events like these for well over 20 years, the changes are noticeable.
They have become repetitive, are attended by a fraction of the people who used to attend such events, the participants have aged and it is increasingly difficult to find a new generation of younger donors to take their place.
The university faculty themselves no longer attend the events. Out of 900 full-time faculty at the university, less than 20 were present at either the opening event or the half-empty honorary doctorate awards ceremony. Were it not for the large administrative and secretarial staff of the university, there would be even more empty seats in the auditorium.
And were it not for the annual recycling of Amos Oz, a fluent and entertaining speaker in both Hebrew and English, and an emeritus professor of the university’s literature department, there would be hardly anything left to draw a crowd. What BGU will do when Oz is no longer able to perform his annual gig, nobody knows.
Each university attempts to highlight those areas of scientific endeavor which, it believes, are unique and in which they have a comparative advantage. BGU rightly focuses on its community outreach, which is unparalleled at other Israeli universities, along with the unique desert studies research which takes place at the Sdeh Boker campus.
More recently, the university has become a partner in the development of Beersheba as a world center in cyber research, and this has become a major focus for fundraising and publicity.
It is unfortunate that the humanities and social sciences, which compete well with the bigger universities, being the only faculty at BGU to have achieved the prestigious Israel Prize, the Council of Higher Educations’ ICORE research cluster, or the European ERC award for senior faculty, is totally removed from the university’s fundraising agenda, especially in the United States. It is always nice to roll out a well-known author, a Holocaust researcher or Jewish historian to give a lecture to an interested and engaged audience, but the fundraising professionals will ensure that anyone who is turned on to the university by attending such an event will immediately be taken off to the science labs, the medical school and the desert research, should they seen to be reaching for the check book.
Some of the community outreach at the university is truly impressive.
Take for instance the ceremony which was held last week in the desert town of Arad to mark the establishment of the Amos Oz Fund by a generous donor from the US, Tony Young. The Hebrew literature department held its annual two-day research conference in the town and, in cooperation with the municipality, awarded prizes to researchers from the university, along with local school pupils, for their joint efforts in promoting an appreciation of literature.
It was a shining example of how seriously the university takes its mission statement of having an impact beyond the gated academic community. There is probably no other university in Israel whose contribution, through student involvement in the Perach program and through active engagement with the immediate neighborhood through its departments of social work, education and geography (planning) have as great an impact on the local community as does Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Or yesterday’s equally impressive but low-key ceremony to mark the end of a voluntary educational program for over 100 of the asylum seekers held at the Holot detention center until their fate is decided. For the past three months, every Sunday, they have attended a series of eight courses at the university, given gratis by faculty ranging from the social sciences to medicine (first aid) to enrich their lives and to give them a better future – be it in Israel or elsewhere.
This week also sees a joint conference with members of the African community in Dimona focusing on problems relating to their status and citizenship, while next week the Field Training Unit of the department of social work will hold a conference with local community workers and activists on issues relating to drug abuse in the community and their attempts to influence policy makers based on their joint work and research.
The good however, is sometimes counterbalanced by some of the bad, and even ugly.
In contrast to the impressive ceremony in Arad or the courses for asylum seekers, the university displayed poor taste in accepting a contribution of $100,000 from a member of the board of governors who has spent much of the past decade attacking and criticizing the university and its president because it does not adhere to his own extreme right-wing political views. In the past, this donor has threatened a senior member of faculty, and has besmirched the name of the university president in countless mass emails. He has generally been perceived by the university as a nuisance (at the best) and as a persona non grata (at the worst).
Just three years ago, the university leadership held a meeting to decide whether he should be the first person in university history to be removed from the board of governors, and although there was support for such a move, it was decided that he would be allowed to remain a member for the time being.
This did not deter him from continuing to attack the university and its faculty and even suggest to some potential donors that they withhold their support from the university – effectively a boycott of an Israeli academic institution. Not a citizen of Israel and not a member of faculty, he encouraged the distribution of political leaflets on campus and paid for extremist right-wing speakers to appear on behalf of the Im Tirtzu movement. This would be an acceptable part of academic freedom and open debate, were it not for the fact that he supports the silencing of university activities which hold alternative views to his.
And now, at a time of fiscal crisis, his offer to donate $100,000 (a relatively small amount in terms of the overall university budget) to help alleviate some immediate fiscal problems is clearly an attempt to whitewash the past and to make himself “kosher” again. The university, without as much as a question mark, immediately accepted the money.
There is a great deal of good being done by the university but there is also a lot of bad and ugly which is allowed to take place, as the universities struggle to survive in an era of public budget cuts and a decrease in overall donations.
There is a limit to the extent to which any public institution can prostitute itself and, in accepting this donation, my own university has overstepped the border.
The university should save face by returning the donation and making it clear that such support is not desirable.The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.