Borderline views: Academic and corporate power at our universities

If Israel’s universities are to maintain their position among the top 10 scientific communities in the world, the system requires a radical restructuring.

Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: BGU)
Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370
(photo credit: BGU)
The academic year in tertiary education gets underway next week in Israel. The universities and the colleges will get back to teaching, tens of thousands of new students will enter the portals of institutes of higher education for the first time, and the campuses will come to life again.
Israel’s scientific reputation is world-class. But all is not well in the kingdom of higher education in Israel. Despite the obvious success stories, there is a growing feeling of despair among many in the country’s academic community at the way that universities are managed and controlled.
Universities have become corporate concerns, to be managed and funded according to efficiency, relevance and profits, and are increasingly judged by those who hold the purse strings according to criteria which may be appropriate for the world of industry and private business, but not for public educational institutes.
The government funds universities according to a set of economic criteria, known as the VATAT model, that are highly detailed and intricate and were devised by accountants and economists. While its avowed purpose is to make the universities more efficient (not a bad thing in principle), and increase the scientific competitiveness of Israeli institutes within a global scientific community, it has failed to deliver the goods.
Competition between institutes has become competition for the sake of competition, rather than competition for the sake of excellence – a word which is bandied around in any public debate concerning higher education to such an extent that it has become a meaningless slogan.
Competition for the sake of competition has filtered down to the universities themselves, so that the same level of infighting over the allocation of scarce resources now takes pride of place within each of the institutes as academic staff play a subservient role to the university administrators, accountants and technical staff who are increasingly making the key decisions concerning future development and policy.
The key academic staff – including deans – have become little more than the agents of implementation for decisions which are taken by those who are meant to serve the interests of academic achievement and scientific advancement.
Within the universities, competition between the hard sciences and the humanities has intensified, as each has to justify its existence rather than cohabit within a pluralistic scientific environment. The tensions between the various scientific communities is a global, not just an Israeli problem, but this has intensified within Israel’s universities as a result of the cutthroat competition for a decreasing amount of public resources and the way in which the VATAT model has promoted competition based on managerial criteria.
They tell us that the universities should focus on research, allowing the new regional colleges to take on the bulk of the undergraduate teaching, but continue to fund us according to the number of students.
Thus the pressure on the departments is to increase their intake and increase the number of students per teacher, rather than allowing the best scholars to really focus on their research.
They tell us that we should take on the best research students, but fund us according to the number of PhD students rather than their quality. There are far too many PhD students in Israel’s universities today, each of whom receives stipends which are far too small to really enable them to devote their energies to full-time research.
They tell us we should publish in the best international scientific journals, but ignore the fact that Humanities scholars write books, rather than journal papers, and that this is what gives them international recognition. If you aren’t part of a politically constructed scientific index or international ranking system, your monetary value is worthless, regardless of whether you are a leading philosopher or world historian.
The university rectors and presidents should be lobbying to change the system, but they tend to look after their own institutional interests rather than act as a national lobby. The VATAT model encourages a divide-and-rule system among the country’s universities, and has thus far prevented the heads of the country’s universities acting as a collective unit. More often than not those who rise to the top of the academic administrative system are not necessarily the best researchers or world scholars, but those who have opted for a career as academic administrators.
The change in the administrative and power structures which has taken place at Israel’s universities during the past decade has considerably reduced the power of the academic and research staff – including that of the rector who is meant to be the highest academic authority – in favor of the administrative and technical staff who take their lead from the university president and the university CEO.
The latter is invariably a good manager, understands accounting and economics, but rarely has a true understanding of what a university is and how its objectives should be met.
Every year, there will be at least one or two of Israel’s universities that elect, or re-elect, a new president or rector. At Ben-Gurion University, both of these key positions will become vacant during the coming year, but it is almost a foregone conclusion that the two incumbents will continue in their positions for yet another term of office – the rector for a second term, the president for a third term. Continuity, they tell us, is good for stability – but when you have a system which doesn’t function properly and is never subject to real, external, independent scrutiny, continuity becomes just another name for the perpetuation of the existing system.
Under the new system of university administration, it is rare for the academics to have any real say in the selection of a new president – they are appointed to the “search” committees as a form of decoration, rather than as people whose voices have any major significance.
Incumbents only have to ensure that the non-academics on the executive committee and the board of governors are satisfied with their administration and their PR image – it doesn’t really matter what the academic community thinks.
But a healthy dose of self-criticism is also in order. The change in the university power system came about in no small part as a governmental response to the fact that the academic community did not get itself under control and institute the necessary changes when it was necessary to do so.
While the majority of academic staff invest their energies in teaching and research way above and beyond the limits of a normal working week, there are always some that abuse their position.
There are those who undertake a minimum of teaching duties and do not engage in any significant research, and there are those who refuse to understand that, at the end of the day, publicly funded institutions are accountable to those who provide the funding.
The system requires significant structural change. Decision making should be returned to the scientists themselves and taken out of the hands of the administrators.
Two term limits should be imposed on all senior positions, including presidents and rectors – universities must not be allowed to become the private playtoys of individuals who have reached positions of power but fail to steer their institutions on a real path of development and expansion.
But equally, the scientific community must behave responsibly and not abuse its position. Those who fail to do so should make way for the many young and talented scholars who are lining up to find jobs – in a situation where the demand far outstrips the supply for permanent academic positions.
And the idea of tenure for that small proportion of academics who sit back and do nothing for 30 years may need to be reconsidered.
If Israel’s universities are to maintain their position among the top 10 scientific communities in the world, the system requires a radical restructuring. Universities cannot continue to operate in the free-for-all atmosphere and with the almost limitless resources of 30 and 40 years ago, but neither can they adopt managerial solutions which transform them from institutes of research and higher education into unsuccessful models of corporate management.The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.