Fate of Controversial Political-Science Department in Israel May Be Decided Soon

David Saranga, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ben-Gurion U. of the Negev has tried to remedy shortcomings identified in its political-science department, but it is under increasing pressure to shut the department down.
September 30, 2012

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."

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."

"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.

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 criticized the 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."