The limits of academic debate

I spent last week indulging two of my dearest passions.

One is to be in Israel, to dwell in the land. The other is to teach, or rather to sit with, a group of interested individuals and explore with them common interests and common problems.

At the level of a university, "teaching," in the sense of directed instruction, does not exist. What does exist is guided self-learning. That is the core activity of any reputable university institution. And last week it was my privilege to chair seminar-type dialogues at two such seats of learning, Ben Gurion University, Beersheva and Ariel University Centre, Samaria.

The subject matter of both seminars was, broadly speaking, the same - a subject matter that is at the heart of a passionate national debate in Israel but also in the UK: namely, the limits (if any) with which the state can or should encircle the right of the academic community to do, say, write or broadcast whatever it pleases on any subject that takes its fancy.

Universities may have met foreign donations with favours for foreign students

Both in the UK and in Israel, the concept of academic freedom - and the right of the state to regulate it - have again become matters of national debate. In the UK, the public has been privy to revelations that a number of universities have not merely been the recipients of financial largesse from foreign regimes of questionable integrity but may have reciprocated by permitting nationals of these foreign regimes to enrol as students on favourable terms and even to obtain qualifications on the basis of academically dishonest endeavours.

Sadly, there is nothing new about such accusations. Foreign regimes of questionable integrity habitually try to clothe themselves in veneers of respectability by donating large sums to ivy-league academies. What the academies need to do is to exercise vigilance.

It is clear that this has not always been the case. Sir Howard Davies was quite right, therefore, to have resigned as director of the LSE once the extent of LSE's Libyan connections became public. LSE was right to have given Lord Woolf the task of inquiring into its Libyan involvements, including the academic authenticity of Saif Gaddafi's PhD thesis, awarded by LSE in 2008.

Evidence now in the public domain suggests that this PhD was plagiarised - those interested in knowing the details can find them at http://saifalislamgaddafithesis.wikia.com/wiki/Plagiarism.

If this was indeed the case, LSE will of course have to bite the bullet and rescind the degree. But it will also need to tell us why the plagiarism was not detected when the thesis was being written and examined.

The state might have a role to play here, but only as a weapon of last resort. True, a university institution that habitually dumbs down its own academic standards ought to run the risk of having its degree-awarding powers rescinded. But the major risk that it runs is to its reputation. By way of example, let me cite the case of Boston University, Massachusetts, the Methodist institution whose academic reputation has never recovered from its refusal to rescind the heavily plagiarised PhD of one of its most famous alumni, the late Martin Luther King.

In Israel, as I write, a fierce national debate has been triggered by the introduction into the Knesset of a bill that seeks to impose heavy financial penalties on Israelis who call for academic, economic or cultural boycotts of Israeli institutions, including universities. The bill additionally provides for sanctions against foreign organisations and nationals who call for such boycotts.

Though initially opposed to the bill, Israel's coalition government seems to have been won round by a series of textual amendments. The bill, therefore, may well become law, a distinct possibility that doubtless explains the increasingly hysterical terms in which it is now being condemned by its opponents.

Almost as soon as I landed in Israel, I was contacted by one such opponent, who demanded that, as a "leading" UK intellectual, I denounce the legislation, which (I was told) "absolutely goes against academic freedom".

I reminded this individual that in the UK, during the Second World War, there was imprisonment without trial and comprehensive censorship of everything, the infringement of which could result in fines, imprisonment and even death by hanging.

"But we're not at war," I was told. I further reminded my contact that, only five days previously, 50 rockets had slammed into Israel from Gaza - to say nothing of the Jerusalem bus bombing. I added, sadly, the one subject you can't teach at university is common sense.

    Last updated: 4:12pm, April 11 2011