An academic lynching

Whoever leaked the Committee for Higher Education report to the press clearly had a political agenda.

311_gideon sa'ar (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_gideon sa'ar
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
I have never had the occasion to meet Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, but he entered my life in two very different ways during this past week.
The first instance was when he attended the meeting of the Council for Higher Education for its much publicized debate about the professional reports relating to the country’s departments of political science, following the recommendations of the international committee.
As faculty dean, and one of the two founders of the Politics and Government Department at Ben-Gurion University, I obviously had an interest in the outcome of the meeting. One of my responsibilities is to read the professional reports of all of the international committees – about five disciplines are chosen each year for review – and, together with my colleagues and university rector, to implement the recommendations and conclusions of these reports.
The second occasion was when Sa’ar visited the community of Meitar, north of Beersheba, to attend the opening of the new building of the national religious school, Hemdat, in which all four of my children were students at one point. I was almost a founder of this school, moving to this community just one year after the school had been founded, at a time when it operated out of an uninhabited house and before it had received formal recognition from the Ministry of Education.
A journalist present at the school dedication ceremony asked the minister why he was so intent on making political accusations against an academic department which was, according to the press, overloaded with left-wing opinions, but never made any similar statements about the right-wing nationalism which is often apparent in the national religious school system.
That would include the institutions that spawned Yigal Amir, such as the national religious school system or even Bar Ilan University, which has been accused by some academics of preventing the appointment or promotion of lecturers with left-wing views.
It was perhaps an inappropriate question at the dedication ceremony of a new school building, but the minister’s blatant political intervention of late in academia made it highly relevant.
Sa’ar, who by default is also the head of the Council for Higher Education, rarely attends the meetings of that body, but he made a point of doing so last Wednesday when the committee reports on the departments of political science were being discussed. Then, he steered the discussion in the direction that he chose and then, as soon as the report on Ben-Gurion University was completed, got up and left.
It was clear to all those present that his presence at the meeting had been for the sole purpose of attacking political views with which he did not agree via the manipulation of so-called academic and professional guidelines.
Even more surprising in this particular incident is that almost no one, including the minister, had actually read the report. Instead, they relied on sensationalist headlines in the press which were based on leaked, partial copies of the report. Anyone actually taking the time to read the 20-page report will immediately see that there is no connection whatsoever between the political affiliations of some of the faculty members to the future functioning of the department.
The major criticism of the committee was that a department with so few full-time faculty (nine) should be fulfilling so many functions, including the teaching of the Europe Studies program (the Jean Monnet Chair in European Studies), the administration of the African Studies program, the teaching of the BA program to the air force pilots and the International MA program on the Politics of Conflict.
At the same time, with an annual recruitment of 150 undergraduate students along with growing numbers of research and postgraduate students, the committee recommended that the department receive at least three or four new fully tenured positions to cope with the workload; otherwise the functioning of the department would have to be reconsidered and it would probably have to close some programs due to lack of manpower.
Out of the 20 pages, about three sentences are devoted to accusations of political bias. After interviewing faculty and students and also perusing the course curricula, the committee concluded that there is an open and free exchange of ideas at the university, that alternative views between faculty and students are fully tolerated and that there is absolutely no evidence that the political views of individual faculty members are forced upon students or that their views influence the academic debate.
WHOEVER LEAKED the report to the press clearly had a political agenda. It is unheard of for such reports to be leaked or publicized before the CHE has an opportunity to discuss them. And the way in which it was leaked, partially and with false information and highlights, clearly was intended to create a hostile public atmosphere prior to the meeting of the CHE. The report will be the subject of a specially convened meeting of the Knesset Education Committee tomorrow – and it is clear that this has very little to do with education, but a great deal to do with politics.
The idea that universities appoint faculty according to their political opinions is the most ridiculous of all the accusations. Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the appointment and promotion process (be it at Ben Gurion or Bar Ilan) will know that this is a tortuous process, demanding a thorough review of the candidate’s academic and professional competence, his research achievements, his publication record and letters and recommendations which are received from academic peers throughout the world.
The selection committees are composed of diverse faculty members, from different disciplines and with a variety of political views, none of which are ever brought to bear in the highly professional discussions and decisions.
Of course, right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu, Academic Monitor and IsraCampus have had a field day. They argue that the reports published in the media have vindicated their arguments about political bias within the country’s universities and particularly the Sociology and Political Science Departments.
Their ongoing, well-funded war of attrition against freedom of debate and academic freedom is slowly destroying Israel’s democracy and leading academic friends around the world to think twice before developing research links with Israeli universities and academics. Academics who have refused up until now to be part of the boycott campaign are now turning against Israel because of the country’s growing international image as a place where people, and now entire departments, with the “wrong” political views are being silenced and threatened by the activities of these extremist right-wing groups.
One only has to see the letter sent to BGU by the president of the prestigious Middle East Studies Association this week to see the harm that is being caused to Israel’s universities as a result of such policies and political pressures.
The Minister of Education has walked into the trap which the right-wing groups laid for him. Unless, that is, he himself is an active supporter of these dangerous trends. His activities this past week would suggest that this may indeed be the case.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.