What Academia Owes the Public

Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson looks out at Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus from a window very near the one where he sat eight years ago. Then he was rector, and now he is president. The offices are only one story apart, but Ben-Sasson has undergone a substantive metamorphosis. Over those eight years, he entered and left politics, and changed his perspective.

The main message that the professor of Jewish history and philosophy brought from the Knesset benches, as a representative of the Kadima party, is that institutions of higher learning must improve their public relations and status in Israeli society if they want to survive. The main responsibility lies with the universities themselves.

"I brought something from the world of politics to this office," he says. "I learned the importance of bringing our message to the general public. I think that as rector I did not fully realize how vital this is. I was not prepared to give interviews to any media outlet, other than the book supplement of Haaretz. I even strongly criticized faculty members who turned to the media. I thought they were making their research more superficial, distorting it. I thought everyone should know how important our studies were, but that it wasn't our job to convince them."

Will this open the way for populism, bring the ratings culture into academia?

"We enjoy the public's taxes and we have to give them our knowledge in return. Many of us avoid public forums because we believe our medium must be scientific journals. But that is not true. We have to phrase our message in a way that makes it accessible to as large a public as possible.

"There are scientists among us who have been coming to their labs every day for 40 years, but even their students don't know what they are doing. And worse, even their family members sometimes don't know what they do. This cannot continue. The taxpayer wants to know where his money goes. Every scientist must be able to explain why Israeli society will lose out if he stops studying his field of expertise. He has to be able to explain why he does what he does."

Ben-Menahem became aware of the danger of the ivory tower when he saw the broad support for the Voice of Music radio station, which was facing closure.

"I sat on the [Knesset's] Finance Committee when they discussed shutting down the Voice of Music. I was astonished to see that dozens of people called me and hundreds sent me letters of protest. On the other hand, when there was a crisis in higher education and the universities warned they were on the verge of collapse, hardly anyone approached me. People were not moved by it, because they considered it merely a question of money. That shows we must change. We must not show how nice we are, but rather make it clear what we do."

Ben-Menahem has launched an "awakening campaign" with various university departments, speaking with lecturers and students about how they can increase their public exposure. The first stop was the agriculture faculty in Rehovot.

"I found people were very open. If I can influence 900 researchers at the Hebrew University and 5,000 at all the universities, I will have thousands of agents of change with tremendous power. And there are also the thousands of research students."

Planning for greater efficiency

For several years, the universities have been complaining that they are being strangled and that the quality of research is collapsing. You yourself warned when you started the job that the academic year could not open under the current conditions. But now it seems you are putting the blame on the lecturers in the ivory towers.

"Of course we are suffering from a severe shortage of resources. We cannot start the academic year with the current budgets. The 1990s were relatively 'fat' years, but since 2001 there have been very significant cuts while the number of students has grown and the scientific equipment became more expensive. The university is not fighting for the fat now, it is struggling over the muscles and the skeleton.

"At the moment, we don't have a budget for next year and the heads of all the universities agree that it is our duty to help the government open the academic year as usual, but that can happen only if the government gives us back some of what was taken. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves whether we will start living our misfortunes, or whether we will take our fate into our own hands. I have found all the ministers are ready to listen, but they all ask what reforms we are prepared to accept."

And what reforms are you planning?

"We must become more efficient and to make cuts. Everyone has to do his share. The Israeli government has to budget its share, and I am utterly convinced that when the time comes, when I go to the faculty and ask them to postpone some of the payments, and to rearrange the lecturers' commitments, I will find a receptive ear. There has to be some readiness on the part of the faculty to absorb some of it. In addition, there have to be administrative reforms, such as pensions. I am currently working on a different wage scheme and I hope that this will go through smoothly, without strikes."

Ben-Sasson sees no reason for soul-searching over the tremendous deficit facing Hebrew University and the State Comptroller's warnings. He says the matter of pensions was worked out in the 2000 agreement signed with the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Learning, but that the government did not keep its part of the deal.

"I have a hole because the planning and budgeting committee is not paying what it is supposed to. I have no cash reserves. I have to sell university assets to cover the deficits. We have an existential problem due to improper administration. We built a recovery program but they did not send us the medication. So we apparently have to create a mechanism that will force the government to give us what it promised in the agreement with the committee."

The Finance Ministry responded yesterday, "Contrary to what was said, the Finance Ministry was not a side to the agreement mentioned and when we saw it, we said we could not accept it. The indemnity agreement was arranged with the committee alone, and therefore the budget was not guaranteed. We regret that Prof. Ben-Sasson chose not to be precise about the details and has made unfound accusations against the treasury."

The committee said, "The 2000 agreement signed between the planning and budgeting committee and Hebrew University was not approved in the long run by the budgets division of the Finance Ministry. The committee therefore informed the university at the time that it was null and void. However, in the most recent five-year plan and this year, a bridge year, the committee gave the Hebrew University funds for pensions. The committee is currently discussing the actuary debts of the institutes of higher learning with the treasury. The discussions are also being attended by the institute [representatives], and the committee hopes they will produce the correct formula to solve the universities' debt problems."

The latest report from the State Comptroller describes the universities as opaque institutions that use the term academic freedom to conceal wage benefits and problematic pension arrangements.

"I do not claim that everything is a matter of academic freedom. The argument of academic freedom is really not relevant when we are talking about money and salaries. The significance of academic freedom is my ability to teach Darwin or critical Bible studies.

"It is true that the public is used to transparency and openness. To my great regret, the institutes did not go public when the public was more ready for this. I want to say that everything is still open. Everyone can find out what I earn, or what any lecturer earns. Perhaps they will actually be ashamed when they see what a scientist's salary is. We have nothing to hide, and I don't want anyone to have an excuse to harm our budgets because of a lack of transparency. "

The battle over critical Bible studies may have been relevant when Galileo Galilei was fighting against the church. But now, even the university boards of directors contain business people who are demanding that the universities be administered in keeping with financial interests, and this is a danger to academic freedom.

"A board of directors includes public representatives. I am not familiar with the composition of the boards of other universities, but it is important that there be a proper mix of public figures. This includes successful business people, manufacturers, public emissaries and retired officers. I am pleased to say that our board of directors is made up of very fine people with values, so I do not see a problem like that occuring at Hebrew University. In my opinion, the university will never be subordinate to commercial interests. The university is born of pondering and doubts, and basic research is our guiding principle, and I do not fear that this will change. But we are permitted, as part of our research, to commercialize our ideas so that we will have the resources to proceed."