A subcommittee of the Council for Higher Education will convene on Tuesday morning to discuss the future of Ben-Gurion University's political science department. The debate will take place in the shadow of the subcommittee's explicit threat to prohibit students from enrolling in the department next year and thereby to close it, in effect. It would have been better had the threat, which violates the right to academic freedom and, by extension, freedom of expression, never been made, but now the council has a duty to block the measure.
BGU's Department of Politics and Government has been under constant attack for two and a half years, first by the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization and later also by figures in the Council for Higher Education. The common link between these two groups is Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who is the chairman of the council and has voiced support for Im Tirtzu. Sa'ar and his surrogates do not like the critical spirit that emanates from the university department. Their goal is not only to bring the errant teachers in Be'er Sheva to heel but also to send a threatening message to Israeli academia as a whole, in an act of political cleansing.
About a year ago a panel of international experts issued an evaluation of the department. The report identified problems that the university has already begun to correct, mainly by adding faculty members and changing the curriculum. But these steps did not satisfy the council's quality assessment committee, which recommended barring the enrollment of new students in the department for the next academic year. This recommendation was adopted without the inclusion of the international experts, who actually praised the changes the university had made. Such behavior arouses suspicions that the council marked its target long ago, and that the allegations regarding academic quality are nothing but camouflage for political considerations.
Since the recommendation to bar enrollment was made public individual academics as well as professional associations in Israel and abroad have sounded a constant stream of support for the department and criticism of the council. Israel's standing in the world academic community is in danger.
It is particularly difficult to accept a situation in which the council, which was established in order to protect the independence of Israeli higher education system, is turning against an academic institution. Council members would do well to remember their mission and to remove the threat hanging over the university department.
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