The decision by the Council for Higher Education not to permit new students to enroll in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Department of Politics and Government, and thus to bring about its closure, is unprecedented in its severity. The behavior of the council, which is headed by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, raises concerns that the body entrusted with developing and preserving the country's higher education system is being influenced by decidedly non-academic pressures and considerations that threaten academic freedom.
About a year ago, a committee of international experts evaluated the university's Politics and Government Department. The report that it issued, which was commissioned by the Council for Higher Education, was very critical of the department and made a series of recommendations. During the months since, the university has worked to implement its recommendations; three new faculty members have been added and curricula have been changed.
But this apparently did not satisfy the council, which seems determined to close the department, known for the critical nature of its courses. In the past the department was also the target of a vicious attack by the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, which included a threat to drive away donors.
As Talila Nesher reported in yesterday's Haaretz, a council subcommittee that had been monitoring BGU's implementation of the international assessors' recommendations has decided to go with its initial, most stringent proposal, which essentially means closing the department. Following dissent among members of the subcommittee, two other draft decisions were written, which actually praised the progress achieved in implementing the international committee's recommendations, and didn't discuss the closure of the department. However those drafts were ignored by the full subcommittee, even though they were more in tune with the updated assessment by the international experts that the council itself had appointed to monitor the changes.
A situation in which an academic department and a renowned university is forced to battle against a body meant to represent it, and meant to fend off political pressures, should disturb anyone who is concerned with higher education and academic freedom.
The closure of BGU's Department of Politics and Government, without allowing more time to fix any remaining deficiencies, gives one the impression that the decision was based not on issues of academic quality but on political considerations.
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