The initiative of Israel’s university heads to distance politics from academia is fully in order, given the shrinking of academic freedom here in recent years. The proposals are a response to moves made by the previous education minister, Gideon Sa’ar, which proved that current laws and understandings that had evolved over decades are not enough to prevent political meddling.
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The proposal by the Council of University Heads, representing the country’s seven research universities, was presented to a new government committee charged with examining the supervision of the higher education system. The initiative, whose main points were reported yesterday in Haaretz, seeks a basic law guaranteeing academic freedom and other legislation that would replace the education minister as chairman of the Council for Higher Education, and enshrine the status of the CHE and its Planning and Budgeting Committee as entities free of political influence. The university presidents also suggest doing away with the Council of Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, which operates parallel to the CHE, and which was behind the upgrading of Ariel University Center to full university status - over the objections of higher education officials operating within Israel proper.
The document drawn up by the university heads says, “Intense involvement by ministers in the matters of the Council on Higher Education could result in political considerations and even place the minister in a conflict of interest.” That’s a delicately worded reference to Sa’ar’s crude politicization of the academic and budgetary aspects of the higher education system. This ideological intervention included not just the upgrading of Ariel college, but the threat to close down the Politics and Government Department at Ben-Gurion University, the support of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu’s baseless accusations against academia, and recognition of the right-leaning Shalem Center as a degree-granting academic institution. The common denominator of all these decisions, and others, by Sa’ar was that they were manifestations of the battle that the political right has been waging for years against the country’s academic community.
The university heads’ proposals are aimed at anchoring academic autonomy in law and protecting it from being undermined. Indeed, to assure fair and professional oversight for Israel’s academic institutions, such supervision should be transferred to a professional, apolitical entity. When Shay Piron assumed his post as education minister he spoke of upholding the principle of academic independence. Now it’s time for him to prove he means it.