University World News: Official move to close Israeli politics department threatens academic freedom

By Helena Flusfeder, University World News Global Edition, Issue 242, 07 October 2012

“I thought academic freedom in Israel was very certain,” said Professor Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and chair of the Committee of University Heads. But Israel is treading a fine line on academic freedom following a controversial move by the Council for Higher Education to close the university’s politics and government department.

The council recently recommended that the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion should not be allowed to register students for the 2013-14 academic year, a move that would virtually close the department, some of whose faculty have been accused of being left-wing.

The recommendation by the CHE also goes against the conclusions of an international ad hoc Quality Evaluation for Teaching Committee appointed to advise the CHE, according to a letter, in the possession of University World News, from the international panel.

International committee

The ad hoc committee, comprising Israeli and foreign experts in the field, was appointed in November 2010 to evaluate political science and international relations departments at eight institutions in Israel.

It recommended that a number of changes be made at Ben-Gurion University’s politics and government department “towards strengthening its disciplinary and methodological core through both hiring more faculty and altering its study programmes”.

The committee said it was “concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism”. It found the department “weak in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum and research.

“If these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the department of politics and government.”

But Carmi told University World News that “we complied with all of the recommendations – three more faculty were hired, the curriculum was expanded” and two members of the international committee, professors Thomas Risse from Frei University and Ellen Immergut from Humboldt University, both in Berlin, applauded the new appointments.

However, the CHE’s permanent evaluation sub-committee still maintained that none of the new faculty endorsed a “positivist approach”. That sub-committee recommended appointing a monitoring committee that would report back by December and said registration for the 2013-14 academic year should be suspended.

Members of the international ad hoc committee wrote: “We share the concern of the sub-committee that the BGU department of politics and government has yet to increase the diversity of its faculty in terms of methods and theoretical orientations, as recommended in the original report of our evaluation committee.”

But they said they had not been consulted on some of the recommendations, namely to establish a new sub-committee to monitor changes in the BGU department and “not to allow registration of new students to the department for the 2013-14 academic year”.

Professor David Newman, dean of the social sciences faculty at Ben-Gurion University and the first chair of the department of politics and government, told University World News: “It is so hard to understand the gap between the recommendations of the international committee and the decision by the Council for Higher Education.

“As a person who spends much of his time involved in combatting boycotts in Europe, I can tell you that from responses we are receiving from friendly academics throughout the world, the Council for Higher Education is doing more damage and harm to the name of Israel’s universities than all of our enemies put together.”

In his role as faculty dean, Newman is responsible for overseeing the implementation of recomendations from all of the CHE’s evaluation committees with respect to 20 departments in his faculty.

He says that in his experience with other departments, even those that have received a critical report, he has not previously witnessed the sort of antagonism displayed towards the department of politics and government, which appears to be based on non-professional considerations.

International protests

Additional documents obtained by University World News reveal that internationally renowned scholars and organisations have been protesting the CHE decision.

They include Michael Walzer, professor emeritus of social science in the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who wrote to Education Minister Gideon Saar urging him to “reconsider and revoke” the council’s decision to bar new students from enrolling in the department – “a decision, in effect, to close the department.

“There doesn’t seem to be any plausible academic reason for the decision, which is not consistent with the reports of your own committee of international experts or with the reputation of the department and the publication record of its members.”

Ben-Gurion University, and especially faculty members of this department, have come under fire before – including by right-wing groups who in 2009 called for the dismissal of Neve Gordon, a professor of political science, after he announced and wrote about his support for a boycott of Israeli institutions based on the country’s policy towards the Palestinians.

However, this time, as Walzer wrote, “there doesn’t seem to be any plausible academic reason for the decision”.

Rivka Carmi said: “We demand that the whole issue of closing the department of politics and government be taken off the table. This department has been targeted for years. We are walking a very delicate line.

“We are losing democracy in Israel. Academic freedom is a major value in democracy. [Before] we experienced total freedom – although controlled by the Council for Higher Education and the planning and budgeting committee of the CHE – it [the control] was not as open and direct [as now].”

It is common knowledge that Carmi, as the chair of the Committee of University Heads, strongly opposed the upgrade of Ariel University Center to the status of a fully fledged university, a position that is almost certainly influencing the forces against Ben-Gurion University.

The recommendation has yet to be approved by the full council of the CHE at its next meeting on 23 October. Sources at the CHE were unavailable for comment.

University World News

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