EXCLUSIVE: Excerpts of leaked report on BGU’s Politics Dept

Last week, Yediot Ahronot broke a story about a draft report by an evaluation committee of Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE), recommending closing the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University if changes are not made, including to the perceived political leaning of the department.

I have obtained a copy of the draft report. Below is a selection of what I view as the key excerpts and some comments about them. All emphases are mine. I am proud to repeat my disclosure as a member of this department, where I teach as an adjunct lecturer.

In a separate post, I’ve provided context about the political environment in which this evaluation was undertaken.

From the report:

The committee is concerned that the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such strong emphasis on political activism.

It is an appropriate mission to encourage students to become active citizens and engage in politics.  It is also a normal activity for faculty carrying out research and teaching in politics and government to be engaged in the politics of the society that constitutes their environment. And certainly, political science instructors are entitled to have their own opinion and to express them in class.

But the strong emphasis on “community activism” emphasized by the Department raises at least two questions.  First, are students receiving a sufficiently rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics and government to equip them with a necessary grounding in the important ideas and understandings common to the subject and the discipline?  At the moment, the committee sees major weaknesses with regard to the Department’s core discipline of Political Science which need to be addressed immediately. Second, is there a balance of views in the curriculum and the classroom?

Has that last question ever been asked in Israeli history, or in the history of universities in democratic countries anywhere? Perhaps it should be asked at Columbia, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Oberlin and Antioch colleges in the US.

Such grounding must be based on disciplinary anchoring in the field of political science. At the moment, the Department is too weak in its core discipline of political science in terms of number of faculty, curriculum, and research. The committee believes that this situation needs to be changed immediately and that the Department should institute major changes toward strengthening its disciplinary and methodological core through both hiring more faculty and altering its study programs (see below). Ben Gurion University and the MALAG should support these efforts, for example, by allocating university resources to this end and by monitoring the situation closely. If these changes are nevertheless not implemented, the majority of the committee believes that, as a last resort, Ben Gurion University should consider closing the Department of Politics and Government.

The professional critiques are certainly sincere. But the other reports available on CHE’s website turned up equally, sometimes more critical findings. I was unable to locate another recommendation to close down a department altogether.

Here’s an example from the 2007 report about the Department of Jewish History at Haifa University:

The undergraduate program is being neglected. The program has not been revised in the five last years [sic]…This is a very old-fashioned program, not structured…The choice offered the students is very poor…The teaching of medieval history is almost non-existent. There are no courses in language proficiency. The students complained about the absence of courses in writing skills, especially historical writing, historical methodology, and acquaintance with different approaches to history. Some also voiced dissatisfaction with the didactic capabilities of some teachers. The neglect of the undergraduate program is striking. It seems that there has been no effort to revitalize the teaching program through cooperation in teaching with colleagues…”

…while the committee does not doubt the good intentions of the initiators of the program, and their cultural and social mission, it is distressed by the fact that in the process, the department has reduced and is conscious of having reduced academic standards.”

Students at Haifa were equally concerned:

[Students] complained about lack of choice, the lack of methodological courses, and about overcrowding and lack of choice in the MA courses.”

CHE must answer to the public and Ben Gurion University about why this committee has chosen such an uncharacteristic, draconian measure that is totally unlike its recommendations for any other department in similar circumstances.

Regarding the question of political bias, the Committee’s findings are based on meetings with students and faculty, 45 minutes with students from each degree program. There is no description of how students were selected, nor how many attended the meetings. Note that this is not a report about actual political bias that has been directly assessed or observed – and is based on self-reported perceptions.

Another issue which came up during discussions and conversations with the students and the faculty had to do with the problem of balance in the curriculum and in the classroom…Some BA students kept referring to this perception of lack of balance.  Any department which emphasizes political engagement as a major objective of its mission has to pay special attention to this question, and criticism from various ends of the public spectrum are almost inevitable…It is also important to note that the majority of students emphasized that the people in charge were willing to listen to them when they identified problems and brought them to the attention of the faculty in the department.

The finding should permanently end the desperate accusations that the left stifles critique, or supports freedom of speech only for itself. Those arguments were always embarrassingly flimsy, so I don’t feel a strong need to address them, but now there’s even a committee to prove it.

The BA students were enthusiastic about the availability and openness of the faculty (and Department administration)…Some said that they were attracted to the Department because of its emphasis on activism…There was agreement that the courses emphasized critical thinking and activism.  The former was apparent in the lively and very articulate discussion that took place among the students when the matter of political bias came up.  There was general agreement that a clear political leaning was apparent in the courses but that students seemed to be able to express different views…

The committee certainly did not always wait for students to raise the question of political bias but as the following quote show, were actively searching for it:

The discussion with the MA students was almost identical to that of the BA students: great enthusiasm about the open, caring and cooperative attitude of the faculty and the atmosphere in the department, along with satisfaction with the emphasis on activism…In response to the Committee’s query… [about] the political orientation of the Department …They said that the political orientation of the faculty and of the courses was clear but that one was free to go to other courses and that students were encouraged to be critical even of the lecturers.…

On the whole…[students and alumni] almost unanimously expressed great enthusiasm for the Department’s mission of combining academic studies and social activism.  Though we have real concerns about this mission…we do note that – judging from student and alumni comments in our meetings – there does seem to be substantial satisfaction with their experience at the Department.

It’s hard to avoid a sense of grudging tone here, that the prize has eluded them.

The committee made nine recommendations, seven of which deal with academic and professional aspects. Similar recommendations were found in every other report I read from other fields over the years. The two recommendations related to political balance are:

that instructors see to it that their own opinions are expressed as personal views so that students can take a critical perspective and that there is a broad exposure to perspectives and alternatives;

that the Department makes an effort that the program is perceived as balanced by the community concerned;

Another recommendation buried in the assessment of the PhD programs basically advises shutting down that program as well:

The committee has an additional concern about the Department’s commitment to training Ph.D. students…Effective Ph.D. programs require extensive time commitments by faculty, conscientious mentoring, strong disciplinary emphasis, and sufficient numbers of both faculty and doctoral students for regular seminars and colloquia. The Department lacks these resources…and the committee strongly advises against a PhD program in the current situation.

In other words, the answer to needing “sufficient numbers of both faculty and doctoral students” is to eliminate all the doctoral students. The assumption that the faculty will not provide time commitments, conscientious mentoring, strong disciplinary emphasis,” is inexplicable conjecture, considering the consistent positive assessment of the faculty’s relationship to students throughout the report.

Compare this to the examination of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Studies at Tel Aviv University in August 2009, where the committee wrote of the Master’s students: “The large number of students creates a state of affairs that is not conducive to intensive scientific supervision. The Committee’s impression was that research supervision for graduate students can be very difficult to obtain,” and yet, there is no recommendation to shut down the Master’s program.

Finally, the finding that emphasis on social activism must come at the expense of disciplinary training is illogical in itself – and thus the recommendations that flow from this lack a comprehensible basis. This point was the focus of Prof. Galia Golan’s dissenting view.

Minority Opinion by Prof. Galia Golan: I agree with most everything in the Report with the exception of the section of the report on the Mission plus the two Recommendations emanating from this.

I do not see how, as stated in the Mission section of the Report, “the study of politics as a scientific discipline may be impeded by such a strong emphasis on political activism.”  I fail to see the connection, which actually is repeated in the statement that the “strong emphasis on community activism raises two questions.”  I agree with the content of the first question listed, namely, “are students receiving a sufficiently rigorous foundation in the discipline of politics and government to equip them with a necessary grounding in the important ideas and understandings common to the subject and the discipline?” but, again, I do not see this as connected with an emphasis on community activism, but, rather, it is connected with the absence of sufficient core Political Science courses.   Further, as this section continues, there is also a reference to “balance [of views]…in the classroom.”  I am not certain who or how a “balance” might be determined, but I believe that such a demand runs directly counter to the principle of academic freedom, a basic principle of university education.

From this, it is clear that I cannot agree with the recommendations that refer to “broad exposure to perspectives and alternatives” and “an effort that the program is perceived as balanced by the community concerned.”

I was unable to find any other report that alienated its own committee members for its problematic approach to the evaluation and flawed methodology. That too seems unprecedented.

Minister of Education, do you stand by this report? Or will you face the Israeli public and admit that the committee you appointed has crossed the line of freedom, and contributed to a political witch-hunt destined to intimidate, stifle and ultimately shut down free thought, through the deceptive guise of a vital academic assessment process – which may now be tainted?