MINACCIA ALLA LIBERTA’ ACCADEMICA ED ALL’ESPRESSIONE DEL DISSENSO IN ISRAELE – BEN GURION UNIVERSITY
by Redazione
Published in Narghile,
on 09/10/2012
Country: Israel,
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Riportiamo di seguito un appello lanciato dal Department of Politics and Government della Ben Gurion University per sensibilizzare gli ambienti accademici e l’opinione pubblica a livello internazionale riguardo al rischio che il dipartimento venga chiuso a seguito di un provvedimento del Council of Higher Education, l’istituzione dello Stato israeliano che sovrintende all’istruzione superiore. Sebbene venga dipinta come puramente “tecnica”, la decisione del Council of Higher Education, qualora divenisse operativa, rappresenterebbe un ulteriore passo nell’ambito di una più generale aggressione contro l’espressione del dissenso in Israele, soprattutto per quanto riguarda le politiche del governo israeliano nei confronti dei palestinesi e del processo di pace – denuncia il dipartimento dell’Università – oltre che una minaccia alla libertà accademica in Israele.

Dear …

As you may well know I was a founding member of the Department of Politics and Government and the first Director of the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society at Ben Gurion University in Israel. I am writing to seek your support over the current attack on theDepartment of Government and Politics and the threat to close the department by the Council of Higher Education in Israel.  As you may already be aware on 5 September 2012, a sub-committee for quality control of the Israeli Council for Higher Education proposed suspending student registration in the department for academic year 2013-14, a step that if implement will effectively lead in the closure of the department.  On 23 October the Council of Higher Education will be meeting to vote on the recommendations of the sub-committee.  This attempt to close the department has already caught the attention of the international academic community, I hope I can count on your support in expressing your opposition to this assault notjust on the department at Ben Gurion University but the more universal idea of academic freedom.

In recent years the department of Politics and Government has become the target of several ultra right-wing groups such as “Im Tirtzu”, due to the personal political opinions of some of the department’s members.  But the step by the Council of Higher Education should be seen as part of a much broader assault on expression of dissent in Israel over the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians and the peace process, and serves as a red light over the future of academic freedom in Israel’s higher education system.  The closure of the department of Government and Politics at Ben Gurion University would be the first case, but by no means the last – unless this current trend is strongly opposed and stopped.

The Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University was established twelve years ago with an emphasis on developing an inter-disciplinary approach to study of politics and international affairs.  From an initial faculty of five, the department quickly established a strong and growing national and international reputation.  Now numbering ten its faculty have published widely in leading journals and university presses in their respective fields.   In addition to the introduction of a new BA in Politics and Government, the department has added a master’s degree in Hebrew and an international English language MA in the Politics of Conflict and has played the lead role in the introduction of a minor in European Studies.  The department has hosted a number of international workshops conferences, has been a member of two research consortium with the European Commission Framework 6 and 7 Programs, and its members have secured significant research funding.  The department was responsible for the establishment of the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) at Ben Gurion University and its faculty have directed the Centre over the past 10 years.  Its academic programs are highly sought after by students in Israel and its has become one of themost popular political programs in Israel – it has an annual intake of over 150 students per year with only 1 in every 4 applicants accepted

Over a year ago, the Israeli Council of Higher Education appointed an international evaluation committee that was responsible for assessing political science departments in Israel.  As you know, these kinds of evaluations are routine, and the Council of Higher Education carries out these assessments on a regular basis in order to evaluate academic departments in all Israeli universities.  Although the committee raised concerns and suggested measures for each political science department in Israel, it made a point of singing out the department of at Ben Gurion with a particularly harsh set of criticisms.  The committee argued, inter alia,that the department performance was being marred by the “excessive social activism of its members”, that the research output of its members was inadequate, and that students were being poorly prepared and trained.

From the outset, the evaluation process was deeply flawed and, the process appears to have been inappropriately politicized. Prof. Ian Lustick, a prominent American political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania, and an internationally recognized expert on Israeli society and politics, was removed from the evaluation committee for unknown reasons.  The committee’s findings were challenged by the department for being methodologically flawed and full of contradictory statements. For example, When counting the publication of referred journals, the committee ignored over half of the department by including only articles that were published in political science and international relations journals, despite the fact that the department was established as an interdisciplinary department, whose faculty members have published inranking inter-disciplinary journals.  The report, whilst critical of the teaching and quality of the academic programs, but also notes that graduates of the department, who had continued their academic studies in political science, felt that they were well , and as equally prepared as other students.

The evaluation committee recommended in the report submitted to the Council of Higher Education that the Department of Politics and Government implement a series of changes. The most significant recommendations involved increasing the number of faculty members in the department and expanding its curriculum so as to cover more core courses within the discipline.  The report also called for greater “balance” in its programs but failed to note how such “balance” was to be determined and by whom.   As Prof. Galia Golan noted in her minority, dissenting opinion on the recommendations of the report “such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom, a basic principle of university education”.  In an unprecedented step, the committee recommended that should those changes not be implemented then, “as a last resort”, the department should be closed.

Despite the reservations expressed about the evaluation process the university, and in close cooperation with the department, the Council of Higher Education, and the two members of the international evaluation committee Prof. Thomas Risse and Prof. Ellen M. Immergut who had been appointed by the Council ofHigher Education to oversee the next stages of the process, immediately released money for the hiring of three new faculty members and the department amended its curriculum. These changes, which were made in record time, were consistent with the recommendations of the Council of Higher Education’s evaluation committee and elicited a positive written response from Profs. Risse and Immergut.

One might have thought that the issue was now closed but the Council of Higher Education’s sub-committee discussed the same issue once again at the beginning of this month and published its new decision, extreme in it severity, which is totally at odds with the evaluation written by the two international members which it has appointed to oversee the process. This latest proposal implies that the goal – to close the department – was marked in advance, without regard to any academic problems; the means of so doing were determined later-on.  Just as had happened with the first professional report over a year ago, the sub-committee’s decision was also leaked to the press even before the department  and the university’s top administrators had  been apprised of the meeting’s results.  These leaks have fostered an atmosphere of a “witch hunt” in the media, which has intensified the feeling that we are dealing with a situation beyond routine professional assessments of academic departments by the Council of Higher Education.

The approval of this decision by the Council of Higher Education [expected in October] will constitute a devastating blow to academic independence in Israel.  Prof. Rivka Carmi, the President of Ben Gurion University has appealed to the Israeli academic community for its support.  I hope that you will add your personal voice and support to the faculty of the department of Politics and Government.

How may you be of help:

1.      Please inform member of your department so that they are aware of this issue and express their support.

2.      Please sign the online petition Over a 1,000 people have already signed the petition

3.      Please consider writing a personal letter to Israel’s Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar and members of the Council for Higher Education

4.      Please circulate this email to your colleagues and friends

5.      Please inform representatives of any professional associations to which you belong and ask them to write a letter in the name of the association to the Council ofHigher Education.  Many have already done so and their letters can be read on the website

Further background on this issue can found on the website http://isacademyunderattack.wordpress.com/-the findings of  Evaluation committee can be read Report of the Evaluation Committee

Many thanks for your support on this matter

With all best wishes

Joel

Joel Peters

Professor of Government and International Affairs

School of Public and International Affairs

Virginia Tech

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