Killing the university spirit
The country's universities are not enjoying much sympathy from the public right now. It is difficult to decide what is more infuriating, the unnecessary strike of senior lecturers ; or the internal political squabbling.
The country's universities are not enjoying much sympathy from the public right now. It is difficult to decide what is more infuriating, the unnecessary strike of senior lecturers, which is totally removed from reality; the flagrant exploitation of ׂexternal lecturers who constitute the primary auxiliary work force upon which the universities depend but who are not provided with social benefits by those same institutions; or the internal political squabbling.
Nonetheless, the government's plan to turn Israel's universities into corporations, in accordance with the Meltz committee's recommendations, is truly a cause for alarm. Two weeks ago the Council for Higher Education sent the heads of the universities a document for their perusal: ׂThe incorporation of institutions of higher learning within the context of the Council for Higher Education Law: A draft for discussion purposes In a marginal comment, the authors of this paper point out that Israel's universities have never been public corporations as defined by the Government Companies Law and that their unique status has been recognized by the courts. Today, in order to streamline their functions, it is being proposed that the present structure be abandoned, that the law be changed and that the universities become public corporations.
According to terms of the proposal, the president of the university would run the corporation, while the rector would be transformed from an important, influential figure who represents the institution's academic content into the president's deputy, an official with very little influence and titular functions. The university's executive committee would be authorized to decide that the president could also serve as executive director and that the university's supreme body would be the executive committee, whose structure would be dramatically altered.
Faculty members would have at least four representatives on the executive committee, but their representation would not exceed 20 percent of the committee's membership. The remaining members of the executive committee would be politicians or members of the business community. Although the proposal defines those remaining members as ׂpublic figures engaged in cultural or economic activities or in other fields of endeavor experience has shown that, in Israel, leading personalities in the artistic world and prominent economists are never in a hurry to join such bodies.
Instead, membership in such contexts is usually vigorously sought out by those involved in the business side of cultural activities or by members of the business community with a particular interest, for political or aggressive business reasons, to upgrade their involvement in any institution that has large budgets at its disposal and which offers a wealth of appointed positions, especially if that institution is a non-profit organization.
Serious budget constraints have already created a taut balance between the administrative component (the president and the executive committee) and academic component (the rector and the senate) of Israel's universities. Nonetheless, the latter currently enjoys a large measure of autonomy which helps determine the nature of scientific activity in Israel. The recommendations of the Meltz Committee, which have been somewhat softened by the Council for Higher Education and which the government wants to implement, could end up terminating that degree of autonomy. The kind of university executive committee envisioned in the proposal could cause the universities to seriously deviate from their traditional functions.
First, the membership of the university's appointments committee would include administrative officials ׂby virtue of their function׃ ׀ the president and two members of the executive committee. Although six representatives of the senior faculty members would also sit on the committee, it is obvious that the appointments, some of which have already been tainted in recent years by politicization, would be influenced by non-academic considerations.
Another clause in the proposal would turn the senate ׀ an extremely important academic, professional entity in the university ׀ into an optional, rather than a mandatory, body in the university structure. In its place a weakened council would be established.
The elimination of the senate, once the rector's authority has been seriously downsized, would complete the process of converting the nation's universities into glorified grocery stores supplying students with a wide range of learning products for the purpose of getting those students, after they have been equipped with the necessary degrees, out into the job market. is the spirit of the ׂsupervision of faculty clause, which proposes that the ׂpresident [of a university] should be encouraged to authorize a code of ethics and rules to govern the behavior of faculty. The code would include monitoring of absenteeism, diligence and ׂachievements. That would mean the removal from the campus of eccentric professors who might not know how to behave in a classroom setting but who do know how to provide their students with an exciting learning experience and with rare research challenges. It would also mean the removal of professors who are chronically late in marking papers but whose door is always open to their students and whose lectures are invariably fascinating.
The academic spirit, which takes into account the fact that researchers and lecturers do not follow the behavior norms of office clerks, would be replaced on campus by a sacrosanct streamlining in the utilization of human resources. Instead of the painstaking patience so characteristic of the academic world, the universities would be dominated by the impatience that is characteristic of the business world, which operates in accordance with the rules of a free market economy.
On the surface, it would appear that the proposal is nothing but a body of restructuring measures. However, in point of fact, the proposal would jeopardize the very image of the university as one of the agencies that molds a society. The policing of the university ׀ whose very existence is the guarantee that Israel needs in order to be a modern, democratic society that nurtures creative, independent thinking ׀ could ultimately paralyze and silence the thinkers. Academic freedom and the right to research independence are not merely empty slogans: It is obvious that research independence is vital to the development of science, but it is not so obvious that research cannot be measured with the usual tools employed by restructuring experts.
Researchers can spend a decade on something that strikes most people as absolute nonsense, but which, in the end, could enable them to crack open the mystery behind the etiology of a terminal illness or to develop a major mathematical theory or to decipher a hitherto-incomprehensible manuscript.
In short, the professors would be doing themselves and Israeli society a favor by abandoning for the moment their struggle for improved working conditions and by engaging in an energetic battle against plans to privatize the universities and to kill their spirit.