JPost Editorial: University ethics

A university is meant to be an intellectual community in pursuit of truth

The Hebrew University (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Hebrew University
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The knee-jerk attack on Prof. Asa Kasher’s proposed Academic Code of Ethics reveals ignorance and misunderstanding about the role of universities. What sets universities apart from the rest of society in democracies is not just freedom of expression, but also a high level of commitment to pursue truth fairly and without prejudice.
Instead of attempting to delegitimize Kasher’s code of ethics by claiming that he was politically motivated and is a lackey of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the code should generate healthy debate about essential questions.
Is academic freedom a right that cannot be taken away – or is it a privilege that must be earned? Do only professors have academic freedom – or do students, administrators, presidents and even trustees have the right to question professors’ reasoning? Does academic freedom allow professors to bring their political views into the classroom with all the influence they have over a relatively captive audience – or does academic freedom also mean a freedom from the haranguing of professors with a political agenda? While professors should enjoy broad academic freedom, they also are bound to uphold special obligations as academics.
Academic freedom is granted to university professors with the understanding that they will exercise their freedom with responsibility and in accordance with the special skills and frame of mind requisite to the task. The right to pursue truth in scholarship and to enjoy authority on intellectual matters presupposes not just a certain level of professional competence but also a reverence for the truth and an honest attempt to avoid bias.
Walter Russell Mead has written on his blog for The American Interest that professors are like members of medieval and early modern guilds. Like members of guilds, professors receive special privileges and freedoms. But like guilds the assumption should be that they use their special freedoms to further the public good. A quid pro quo balance of rights and obligations should exist.
Academic freedom does not and should not include freedom from judgment or criticism, even harsh criticism.
When professors seek to use the university to advance their personal ideological agenda, administrators and trustees have the right to respond vigorously. Academic freedom, for example, does not need to include the right to call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
As Kasher notes in the introduction to his code, which, he rightly suspects, many of his critics never bothered to read, he did not produce a document ex nihilo. Rather he based it on the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure produced by the American Association of University Professors and endorsed by hundreds of universities across the US. This is a document that has since been updated and debated and commented on and interpreted and reinterpreted.
Nevertheless, we need to ensure that this code of ethics does not undermine academics’ ability to stoke debate and provoke thought among their students. That is the purpose of academia and Kasher and Bennett need to be careful not to stifle those important conversations.
Ideally, Kasher’s code should serve exactly that - a source of debate within Israel’s academic culture. Let us hope that our intellectual environment is not so radically polarized that we are unable any longer to agree on basic principles.
A university is meant to be an intellectual community in pursuit of truth. The common concern for the good is part of what brings its members together as a community.
But they also share a commitment to common values and reverence for foundational texts and cultural traditions.
In Israel this presents a special challenge because unlike the US or Britain or other European countries, Israel is engaged in an unprecedented endeavor – the rebirth of the Jewish nation and the development of a uniquely Israeli culture.
Israel undoubtedly borrows from the best of Western culture. But it also has a rich tradition of its own, including a long rabbinic tradition of open debate premised on scholarly mastery. In the Diaspora, Jews learned from the cultures of their host countries and incorporated much from these cultures after first adopting it to Jews’ special needs. In Israel this process continues at an accelerated pace and universities are one of the catalysts of this cultural assimilation.
The future of Israel depends on maintaining the prestige and dynamic character of the university. To do this we must ensure not only that professors enjoy academic freedom but that they also adhere to the highest level of commitment to the pursuit of truth for the greater good.