By Matthew Kalman
A simmering debate over the fate of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has roiled Israeli academe and prompted cries by scholars both here and in the United States that academic freedom is under assault by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The long-running dispute over the department may come to a head soon when a resolution to close it will be discussed by Israel's Council for Higher Education, a government body that accredits and oversees colleges in Israel. On October 23, the council will consider a controversial recommendation from its Subcommittee for Quality Assurance to halt student registration at the department, effectively shutting it down, unless it undertakes more changes. The proposal has ignited accusations that the move is motivated more by politics than pedagogy.
"This struggle is not only about Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but rather it is a struggle of the entire Israeli academic community," Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion, wrote in a letter to the heads of Israeli universities. "The approval of this decision by the Council for Higher Education will constitute a devastating blow to academic independence in Israel."
Dr. Carmi is pressing for a swift rejection of the "extreme" proposal to help dissolve a cloud of uncertainty that has hovered over the department for nearly a year.
Ben-Gurion's troubles in the matter began in November 2010 with the council's appointment of an international committee to evaluate political-science and international-relations departments at eight colleges in Israel, as part of the organization's periodic review procedures. The committee, chaired by Thomas Risse, a professor at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin, reported in its assessment that the departments generally "are doing very well."
"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," the committee stated.But the committee expressed grave misgivings about the standards of teaching at Ben-Gurion, saying it was "concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism." The committee found the department "weak in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum, and research," criticized the university's library resources and its research record, and recommended "major changes toward strengthening its disciplinary and methodological core through both hiring more faculty and altering its study programs."
Department faculty members have been criticized for their left-wing views. In 2009, right-wing groups called for the dismissal of Neve Gordon, a professor of political science at Ben-Gurion, when he announced his support for a boycott of Israeli institutions over Israel's policy toward Palestinians.
Despite its reservations, the university began making the proposed changes to strengthen the department, in consultation with the council and two members of the international committee—Mr. Risse and Ellen M. Immergut, a professor of social sciences at Humboldt-University in Berlin. It updated the department curriculum, expanded the variety of courses, and hired three new faculty members. In July, Mr. Risse and Ms. Immergut applauded the new appointments, expressing hope that the faculty would assist "the department's commitment to building a pluralistic curriculum" while still urging it to "increase its diversity in terms of methods and theoretical orientations in future recruitments."
Meanwhile, the membership of the Council for Higher Education had been replaced, introducing new candidates appointed by the education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, who had publicly criticizedthe department at Ben-Gurion after a political-activist group issued a report accusing the department of having a "post-Zionist" bias.
Shortcomings Still Seen
The council's subcommittee welcomed the changes at Ben-Gurion but noted that none of the new faculty endorsed a "positivist approach" and determined that the department teaching was still dominated by too much critical theory. It recommended appointing a monitoring committee that would report back by December. Meanwhile, the subcommittee said, registration for the 2013-14 academic year should be suspended.
Dr. Carmi, of Ben-Gurion, described the recommendation as "totally at odds with the evaluation written by the two international members who had been appointed to oversee the process."
Indeed, Mr. Risse and Ms. Immergut strongly objected to the subcommittee's recommendations, noting they had "not been consulted" about the appointment of a new monitoring committee or the proposal to suspend student registration. They pointedly requested to be consulted about future developments and wondered aloud whether their future services would be required at all. "Does the Sub-Committee's recommendation imply that our task is finished or shall we continue?" they asked.
Mr. Risse and Ms. Immergut also reminded the subcommittee that other universities whose departments needed improving were not being pursued with the same vigor. In a similar report on the political-science department at Bar-Ilan University, they had voiced "substantial" criticism and "many concerns" but that university had failed to respond to "our comments to their strategic plan from May 2012."
From its inception, the council's process has been suspected of political bias. Robert Y. Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, resigned as chairman of the international committee after Ian Lustick, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was removed for unexplained reasons.
Galia Golan-Gild, a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, another committee member, issued a minority report demurring from several of the committee's conclusions and challenging the demand for a "balance" of views in the classroom as "directly counter to the principle of academic freedom."
"I felt that some of the committee members, with specific political opinions, were trying to find fault with the place," Ms. Golan said. "I felt that things were not being conducted fairly."
Moshe Maor, a political-science professor at Hebrew University who was recently appointed to the Subcommittee for Quality Assurance, said the decision to reinforce the closure sanction was made "because the original threat by the international committee didn't help."
"We don't want to close the department; we want to improve it," Mr. Maor told The Chronicle."We have a completely professional academic problem, which is embedded in a political context because the department in question is at the center of the political debate in Israel because of the political opinions of its members. But I am forbidden to deal with the political context. I have to follow only professional considerations."
But David Newman, dean of social sciences at Ben-Gurion who was the first chair of the department in 1998, said the council procedure was flawed. "What has happened has discredited the Council for Higher Education in the eyes of a large percentage of Israel's scientific community."
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Council for Higher Education's decision to close Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government stems from desire to punish faculty who dared offer their students a critical viewpoint
Haaretz Editorial | Oct.02, 2012 | 4:40 AM
The details coming to light about the Council for Higher Education's decision to close Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government raise concerns that the matter has been politically motivated and aggressively carried out. The quality of academics seems not to have been at the heart of the decision to prevent new students from enrolling in the department. Rather, there is a desire to punish faculty who dared offer their students a critical viewpoint.
The questions surrounding the unprecedentedly harsh punishment by the council's "subcommittee for quality assurance" are multiplying. It turns out the international experts appointed by the council to oversee the correcting of the department's problems played no part in the decision to close the department.
These experts are not of a caliber that would let their remarks be taken lightly. The fact that the council ignored their updated opinion, which welcomed the changes in the department and recommended that it not be closed, is particularly grating and shows that the outcome had already been decided.
Moreover, while the Council for Higher Education is cracking the whip when it comes to the department at Ben-Gurion, it is lenient toward Bar-Ilan University's Political Science Department, where experts from abroad also found significant problems.
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has bent the educational system to his political leanings - from kindergarten, where children learn the national anthem by rote, to visits by older children to Hebron. Sa'ar, who also serves as chairman of the Council for Higher Education, has decided to weed out of the academic world influences not to his taste. That's the line connecting the decision to turn the academic center in Ariel into a university and close Ben-Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government.
The closing of the department can still be prevented at the next meeting of the entire council, which will be required to approve the subcommittee's decision. In that meeting it will become clear whether the council has become a tool to punish critical lecturers and strike fear into the academic world, or whether it will remember its original purpose - to develop higher education and to refrain from intervention.
Haaretz Monday, October 1, 2012
International panel denounces decision to close Ben-Gurion politics department
Committee members, who urged changes at BGU, wonder why Israel's Council for Higher Education decided to take extreme measures and close the department, while it ignored similar criticism of Bar-Ilan University.
By Talila Nesher
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Be’er Sheva campus. Photo by Eli Hershkowitz
The international committee that recommended a series of changes be made at Ben Gurion University's Department of Politics and Government has denounced a decision by Israel's Council of Higher Education to shut down the department.
The department has been accused in the past of having an "anti-Zionist" bias.
The international committee, headed by Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin, called on Ben-Gurion University to hire more faculty members and make other changes. More controversially, it also said it was "concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such a strong emphasis on political activism."
Neve Gordon, a professor at the department, has come under fire for speaking out in support for boycotting Israel.
However, rather than implementing those recommendations, an Israeli Council for Higher Education subcommittee decided to close the department altogether, forbidding it register students as of the 2013-14 academic year.
Two alternative draft proposals, praising the department's progress and not mentioning the possibility of closing it, were set aside. In a letter addressed to the CHE, the members of the international committee wrote that they were not party to the decision to close down the department and questioned the motive behind the move.
The international panel presented a letter, which Haaretz has obtained, accusing the CHE of taking only punitive measures against the Ben-Gurion University department, while ignoring recommendations regarding the political science department at Bar-Ilan University. Moreover, the panel noted that the measures taken against the BGU department were far more extreme than those recommended.
Over the past week, more than 300 faculty members of academic institutions all over Israel signed a petition protesting the CHE subcommittee's decision.
We sense that academic freedom in Israel's higher education system is in severe danger,” says the petition, initiated by Prof. Gilad Haran of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. “Closure of this department constitutes the first instance, but certainly not the last, unless the current trend is halted.”
Other signatories include Prof. Galia Golan, a member of a previous CHE committee that pointed out problems in the department but refused to sign the report because it was influenced by political considerations. Over the years, some of the department's staffers have been labeled radical leftists and accused of calling for an international cultural, academic and political boycott of Israel. Im Tritzu, a group that says it promotes Zionist values, called on the university to “put an end to the [department's] anti-Zionist tilt.”
In wake of the department's closure, Ben-Gurion University has opened a legal proceeding against the CHE. In an unusual move, an attorney for the university sent the CHE a letter in which he charged, "The actions of the sub-committee… were intensifying the disappointing, hard feeling that the subcommittee's position regarding the university's Department of Politics and Government was oppositional, and stems from secret agendas, which are not academically relevant, and which the CHE was not at liberty to consider… especially in light of clause 15 of the Council of Higher Education Law, which defines academic freedom."
The letter goes on to demand the CHE hand over all documentation and data pertaining to the department, accompanied by an explanation regarding the "false accusations made against the university."
An official at the CHE expressed surprise over the university's to "pursue legal action on the backs of taxpayers, instead of acting to correct academically what an international panel of experts required of it."
In contrast to what was written by the international panel, the CHE responded that "pertaining to the issue in Bar-Ilan University, the institution submitted an action plan in accordance with the committee's recommendations and needs to make further changes." Regarding the letter, the CHE said "The sub-committee's work was being done with coordination with the panel of international experts."
Bar-Ilan University responded that "The international committee that checked the departments in all the universities found advantages as well as deficiencies. Actions are being taken to correct them and these actions are being reported to the CHE."