Education Minister Urges New Ethics Code to End Row Over Teaching Zionism

Professors say that 'code of ethics' would destroy academia, intervention by outside body endangers academic freedom.

A "code of ethics" on the limits of academic freedom at higher education institutes should be drafted, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar proposed Tuesday.

Speaking at a stormy meeting of the Knesset Education Committee Tuesday on encouraging "Zionist views in academia," Sa'ar said the proposed code would be drafted following a series of discussions by the Council for Higher Education, which he chairs.

The code, he said, should include the following principles: course material should reflect the range of academic views on the particular topic; lecturers should not be discriminated against on the basis of their political views; and academic freedom should not include the lecturers' right to advocate boycotts of Israel, whether academic or otherwise.

Gideon Sa'ar - Salman - Nov 2, 2010
Emil Salman

But several university presidents who attended the meeting said such a code would be a mistake.

"Every university should be free to set its own rules, and any intervention by an outside body endangers academic freedom," the council of university presidents warned in a statement issued later yesterday.

Sa'ar stressed that academic freedom is "extremely important for research and teaching" and that academic appointments should be governed not by a quest for political diversity, but by an individual's "excellence in research and teaching."

Nevertheless, he said, "academic freedom must ensure pluralism" with regard to the expression of differing views. The past year has seen a number of complaints filed by students who say they are afraid to express certain opinions, as well as accusations of ideological homogeneity in certain university departments, he noted. "Academic institutions must look into these claims," Sa'ar said.

Sa'ar said the CHE has already held one discussion on academic freedom, and once it finishes thrashing out the issue, "we will publish a code of basic principles that will serve as guidelines for institutions on the issue of academic freedom." He also promised that university staffers will be given a chance to express their views to the council.

The code, he added, will have two goals: "One is protecting academic freedom, and the other is maintaining the public's faith in the higher education system. These institutions have a responsibility to examine complaints on the issue," Sa'ar said.

But it is far from clear whether the CHE will ever adopt such a code, as the vast majority of the council's 26 members are from the universities themselves - and the universities generally oppose the idea.

"Creating a 'code of ethics' would destroy academia," Prof. Aron Shai, the rector of Tel Aviv University, told the Knesset panel. "The minute you sit down to draft such a code, there will be divisions and cliques."

Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of Hebrew University, argued that each educational institute should draft its own code of ethics. And one senior university official, who asked to remain anonymous, added, "it's inappropriate for the Education Ministry, as a body headed by a politician, to be involved in academic issues."

One CHE member confidently predicted that the code would never be drafted for the simple reason that the council would never be able to agree on its contents. "I don't believe any committee will ever succeed in reaching an agreement on this issue," he said.