Balance of error? Critics warn of free thought's fall

Report on Ben-Gurion department 'runs counter' to academic independence. Matthew Reisz writes

December 22, 2011

Credit: Getty
Heated debate: committee concerned by department's 'political activism'

A report by an international evaluation committee suggesting that an Israeli university should consider closing its department of politics and government has sparked fierce debate, with claims that it constitutes a direct attack on academic freedom.

The department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev was founded in 1998 and has deliberately embraced a multidisciplinary approach, putting an explicit emphasis on its commitment to "good citizenship and community activism".

However, it has repeatedly come under fire for its alleged leftist bias by academic monitoring groups and non-governmental organisations, which have become increasingly vocal in Israel in recent years.

The report for the Council for Higher Education in Israel (CHE) is one of an ongoing series requiring departments to fill in a lengthy evaluation form, followed by a visit from the international committee.

The process has focused on teaching and research and has often been welcomed by faculty as an opportunity to benefit from constructive criticism.

In this case, the report argues that "the department is too weak in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum and research".

It continues: "The committee believes that this situation needs to be changed immediately and that the department should institute major changes toward strengthening its disciplinary and methodological core through both hiring more faculty and altering its study programs.

"Ben-Gurion University and the [CHE] should support these efforts, for example, by allocating university resources to this end and by monitoring the situation closely."

But the report warns: "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."

Such a recommendation is unprecedented and, some suggest, beyond the committee's remit.

Even more contentious, however, is the "concern that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism".

The report calls for lecturers to "see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views so that students can take a critical perspective" and for the department to "make an effort that the program is perceived as balanced by the community concerned".

A member of the department, who asked to remain anonymous, conceded that the report made some valuable points in relation to methodology, staffing levels and core courses.

Yet the source argued that the consideration of "balance", which had not featured in earlier reports, was a politically motivated attempt to put pressure on a "progressive" department by those hostile to its values.

Even within the report itself, a "minority opinion" was expressed by Galia Golan, professor of government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Referring to its call for "a balance of views in the curriculum and in the classroom", she writes: "I am not certain how [or by whom] a 'balance' might be determined, but I believe that such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom."

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