Global Dialogues

Academic Freedom Attacked in Israel

The members of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University have agreed among themselves not to individually publish opinion pieces on the threat of closing of their department. For this reason, I have taken down the first version of this post. Instead I reproduce here the explanation of the situation of the department and the state of academic freedom in Israel given on the site Israel Academy Under Attack. For more information on the attack, go to the site, which includes suggestions for ways concerned readers can effectively respond to this assault on academic freedom.  -Jeff

On September 4th 2012 the sub-committee for quality control of the Israeli Council of Higher Education recommended that the department of Politics and Government at BGU be prevented from registering new students for the 2013-14 academic year. This recommendation — which, if implemented, will lead to the closure of the department — will be voted on by the CHE in its next general meeting, due to take place on October 23rd. Below we provide an overview of the events that led to the sub-committee’s decision.

The saga began when the Israeli Council of Higher Education established an international evaluation committee to scrutinize political science departments in Israel.

From the very beginning, the process was mired by irregularities. First, Prof. Ian Lustick, a prominent American political scientist from U of Penn and an internationally recognized expert on Israeli society and politics, was removed from the evaluation committee for unknown reasons. In response, the original committee chair, Prof. Robert Shapiro of Columbia University, resigned and the political science department at Hebrew University stopped cooperating with the committee. The committee was subsequently recomposed with Prof. Thomas Risse from Frei University in Berlin taking the helm (Risse was aware that the other people resigned and still took it on), and included such people as Israeli Prof. Avraham Diskin who had previously written articles in support of the radical right wing group Im Tirzu.

This committee, whose members are praised as positivist and empiricist political scientists produced a report that was not only biased but erred on key facts, errors that facilitated its unprecedented conclusion – the department of Politics and Government, which was established purposefully in order to foster and advance interdisciplinary, critical and qualitative research (the kind of research which is currently under represented in all other political science departments in Israel) was instructed to introduce mainstream positivist political science into its research and curricula. Failing to do so, the Council of Higher Education should consider shutting it down.

This evaluation, which was biased both politically and disciplinarily, was also based on basic factual errors. For example: The committee counted only 50% of the refereed articles published by department members. And while criticizing the department at BGU, they praised the department of political science at Tel-Aviv University which published the same amount of articles but have twice as many faculty members. Furthermore, in the original report the evaluation committee erroneously stated that faculty members have not published books in leading academic publishing houses, but the nine full-time faculty have, in fact, published six books in the three years prior to the report, of which three appeared in the top 10 academic publishing houses (California, Cornell, Columbia), two more with Routledge, and a sixth with the top press in France.

The excellent quality of scholarship members of the department have produced, and the fact that they are frequent and welcome guest at the best academic institutes (the Radcliff Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, the school of public health at Chicago, or Cambridge University) has found little echo in the report. The committee was also not impressed with the average grant per faculty member, which is over $100,000, a relatively high sum in the discipline, and perhaps the highest among political science departments in Israel. Finally, it ignored the fact that this fall graduates from the department are beginning their PhDs at universities like Columbia and Northwestern.

On the basis of such errors the committee under-evaluated the department in terms of individual merit, and could easily direct its criticism to the “excessive social activism” of its members – which means nothing but their leftist political leaning – and to the interdisciplinary ethos and of the department (where half of the faculty come from fields like political geography, public health, and history).

For obvious bureaucratic and political reasons, the administration of Ben Gurion University felt it had to comply with the report and directed the department to hire three faculty members in areas mentioned in the report: comparative politics, quantitative methods and political theory and to introduce some changes to the curriculum. Two international evaluators – Thomas Risse and Ellen M. Immergut, appointed by the Council to oversee the implementation of the report, wrote in a letter sent to the Council that they “congratulate the department on successfully recruiting three new faculty members in the areas of comparative politics, quantitative methods, and political theory, and for its plans for a fourth recruitment next year.” They called upon the University to allow these young scholars “the time, resources, and mentoring to publish in top ranked international refereed journals and university presses,” in a way that would help the department “fulfill its deficits in mainstream political science,” adding that “the department should increase its diversity in terms of methods and theoretical orientations in future recruitments”. No criticism or sanctions were mentioned in this letter.

And yet, on September 4th 2012 a sub-committee within the Council of Higher Education followed this letter with a proposal to shut down the department because it failed to comply with the report of the international committee. The gap between the report filed by Risse and Immergut and the decision reached by the sub-committee of the Council of Higher Education underscores that this whole “evaluation process” has turned into a witch hunt, or was such a hunt in disguise from the beginning. For reasons which are difficult – or too easy? – to understand, the authors of the abovementioned letter, professors Risse and Immegut, have failed so far to clarify their opinion about the way their service to the Council of Higher Education has been abused so as to silence excellent academics some of whom happen to be identified as active members of the left in Israel.