Borderline Views: Rethinking the role of universities in Israel

We require a totally fresh look at the ways in which universities are managed and how they define their priorities.

Education Minister Shai Piron. (photo credit: Courtesy Education Ministry )
Education Minister Shai Piron.
(photo credit: Courtesy Education Ministry )
Tel Aviv University was recently under fire from the academic staff for closing the Department for French Studies. Despite the small numbers of students who have registered for the department, the faculty argue that the decision should have been based on academic considerations, rather than economic ones.
Universities, not just in Israel, are caught between the hammer and the anvil. In an era of decreasing public funding and the transfer of university management from the academic staff to the hands of the administrators and accountants, there is increasing threat to small departments who are not perceived as being sufficiently viable, profitable or relevant.
Scholars and lecturers who do not contribute financially to the university by obtaining large research grants are seen as a liability. The ability to raise research funds, from which the university not only benefits in terms of academic prestige but also in the 20-30 percent overhead it takes for its own administrative costs, has become as important a consideration in the promotion process as the quality of the research itself.
However, there is also a tendency for many of my colleagues, the academic faculty members themselves, to brush aside the fiscal realities of universities and the way that public funding has changed during the past 20 years. No university is able to encompass every single field of enquiry, and difficult decisions have to be made concerning those areas which are to be strengthened, at the expense of other areas which will cease to be supported.
Just because a field of enquiry has been present at a university for 30 or 40 years does not give it a divine right to continue to exist if there are no students or if the resources can be redirected to new areas of research and scientific challenge.
And just as the faculty need to be more mindful of the constraints imposed by the real world outside the ivory tower, so too university managements, who have become increasingly managerial and technocratic in recent years, must be mindful of the fact that they are not running business concerns. They have to recognize the fact that there will always be important areas of study, especially within the humanities, such as history, philosophy, literature and the like, which will never fall within the “profitability” category, but without which a university is simply not a university.
It is not easy to find the right balance. As dean of one of Israel’s largest faculties (the joint Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty at Ben-Gurion University encompasses 21 departments, 250 full-time academic staff, hundreds of part-time teachers and 5,000 students – a mini-university in its own right) it is often frustrating to see the lack of mutual understanding between university managements and academic staff, with their differing and often contrasting priorities.
If, as a dean, one attempts to introduce greater efficiency and redirect resources from areas of study in which there is (unfortunately) little interest to new areas on the frontier of global research, one is accused by the academic staff of being no more than a puppet of the university management, and of “lacking academic integrity.”
If, on the other hand, you stand up for those areas of study without which a university lacks its intellectual foundations, such as philosophy, history, Jewish studies or literature, you are accused by the university managers of perpetuating the unsustainable and being irresponsible for the way in which the scarce resources are inefficiently managed.
Israel’s universities have been restructured in such a way that power has effectively been transferred from a system in which decision making was shared between a president and rector, the former being responsible for managerial and fiscal issues, the latter for academic matters, to a system in which the president is all-powerful and the rector has become subordinate. This has resulted from the implementation of the Grossman and the Maltz reports, which were adopted by the government and imposed upon the universities, despite the opposition of the academic faculty.
Academic faculty have all but been sidelined in the decision making process at Israel’s universities in recent years, leaving the key decisions to the technocrats and the purse holders. One is often left with the feeling that, in the eyes of many of the university management, the academic staff are little more than a nuisance, and if they don’t bring in enough money through their research funds, then they don’t really have a place within this corporate structure.
But let’s be honest about it. Had the academic faculty taken responsibility and addressed the many weaknesses and inefficiencies which had developed during the previous 20-30 years, then perhaps this situation would never have happened. There was too much dead wood in the system, with too many academics not pulling their weight as teachers or researchers. The asymmetry between the “doers” and the “lazy,” all receiving the same wage and protected by a universal system of tenure, was too great, and no one was doing anything about it.
All too often, the academic faculty fail to understand that universities have to change in line with the new economic realities, that they must compete with universities and scholars throughout the world in an increasingly global environment, and that it is no longer possible simply to shut oneself up in the library, to limit one’s presence on campus to no more than two or three days each week, emerging to meet students for a few hours a week, without any system of accountability in terms of research impact and output.
The universities are, in turn, dependent on meeting the demands of the VATAT (the Planning and Budget Committee of the Council of Higher Education) model which determines the ways in which universities are funded from the public purse. But this model, introduced and rigidly implemented by Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, has introduced competition and efficiency for the sake of competition rather than for the sake of academic and scientific excellence. The use of the term “excellence” has become transformed into a slogan which is increasingly understood in terms of profit and efficiency.
The VATAT model also has an inbuilt contradiction in that it demands that the universities become the elite research institutions of the Israeli higher education system, while at the same time continuing to determine the university budgets according to the numbers of undergraduate students. With the rapid growth in the number of regional colleges (there are now over 60 institutes in Israel recognized for undergraduate degree courses), the competition for students has grown, at a time when overall student numbers have been falling.
And it hasn’t stopped there. Education Minister Shai Piron has indicated that he supports the idea of government becoming even more directly involved in the administration and accountability of the universities, and that the central funding authorities should have more public figures and politicians and less senior academic faculty involved in the decision making process.
What may have been too imbalanced on one side of the academic-management continuum a few years ago, has now moved far too strongly to the other side.
We require a totally fresh look at the ways in which universities are managed and how they define their priorities. Instead of seeing it as a zero-sum game, accountability and efficiency issues have to be balanced against those which look at the broader role of universities and intellectuals in society as a whole. An institute of higher education without a strong humanities and liberal arts component is not a university, whatever else it may excel at. And while the humanities and liberal arts cannot be measured in terms of economic profitability, they must become more efficient (however that is determined) than they are at present, if they are to make a strong argument for their continued funding by government and international donors.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.