Lowering of higher education

Last month, Israel's Council for Higher Education (CHE) endorsed the findings of an independent study that it had commissioned to evaluate the quality of departments of political science at eight of Israel's institutions of higher education. Overall, the study had much to say that was approving and complimentary. But what really hit the headlines was a devastating set of judgments concerning the Department of Political Science at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheva. Let me first summarise these for you:

● The recruitment of academic staff and their advancement in the Department of Political Science are sometimes influenced by political rather than purely academic considerations.

● Lecturers are perceived to be expressing personal political opinions alongside professional scholarly judgments.

● There is a consensus among students that the courses offered by the department are politically biased.

● The department was "weak in its core discipline of political science in terms of the number of faculty, curriculum and research.'

BDS is at odds with the concept of academic freedom

To remedy these defects, the committee made a number of recommendations, focused largely on the hiring of more faculty and the reform of the department's programmes of study. If these changes are not implemented, a majority of committee members concluded that, as a last resort, Ben-Gurion University should consider closing the department.

These are harsh words, and their publication has caused a furore beyond as well as within the Israeli academic community. During a recent Knesset debate there were calls for financial sanctions to be imposed upon Ben-Gurion University if it did not deal expeditiously with the issues raised. Nor has the situation been helped by an astounding statement from a dissenting member of the CHE's committee, Professor Galia Golan, who said the call for a balance of views in the classroom "runs counter to the principle of academic freedom." It doesn't. An academic has a duty to present all sides of a debate to his students, and acts unprofessionally if he abuses the power of the instructor by presenting one opinion to the exclusion or virtual exclusion of all others.

The background to the committee's call for balance both in the classrooms of BGU's Department of Political Science and in the hiring of its faculty is to be found in the activities of some members of its present faculty - pre-eminently Dr Neve Gordon, unashamedly promotes BDS - the boycott of Israel, its delegitimation and the imposition of sanctions upon it.

On March 28, on the initiative of Ben-Gurion's president, Dr Rivka Carmi, I was privileged to deliver a public lecture at the university entitled "Intellectual Freedom and Academic Obligation".I drew a distinction between academic freedom and academic licence (the view that an academic should be free to say more or less anything on more or less any subject). And I indicated that engaging in any act likely to give comfort to the enemy in time of war must fall within a commonsense definition of treason. I also pointed out that the BDS movement is itself at odds with the very concept of academic freedom, since it seeks to make the espousal of a particular set of political biases the price for entry into academic dialogue.

What I did not reveal was that earlier in the day I had privately met a group of BGU students, and had heard from them of the political agenda that they believed had been injected into the teaching offered by the Department of Political Science. Unfortunately I had no way of investigating their allegations. But the CHE's committee of inquiry has investigated the allegations and found them proven. Sadly, there are shrill voices at BGU denigrating and denouncing the committee's findings. I recommend Dr Carmi and her team to study the findings of Lord Woolf's recent inquiry into the goings-on at the London School of Economics which has accepted its findings without reservation.

    Last updated: 11:38am, December 22 2011