Panel recommends closing BGU politics dept. for “political bias”

Topping off a lengthy, politically-motivated assault on the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University, a new study now reportedly recommends closing the department altogether. According to Yediot Ahronot, an international committee established by Israel’s Council for Higher Education has pointed out a series of professional, academic weaknesses of the department, examining the number of publications, the prestige of the publishers of those publications, the range of courses and programs and the number of lecturers.

But the headline of Yediot’s story is the report’s finding that the political bias of the department warrants special concern. According to Yediot:

The committee…expressed its concern that the department’s political inclinations may be resulting in …an imbalance between the opinions of the faculty members and the curriculum.

The political science professors must note that the opinions they are expressing are personal…so that the students will be exposed to alternative viewpoints,” the reported stated.

The committee said it was also concerned that the “strong emphasis on political activism may undermine the research of politics as a scientific field.” The report noted that there is a consensus among the students that the courses offered to them are politically biased.

After reading the first two paragraphs twice I’m still not sure what they mean. Does that mean the lecturers place more emphasis on their opinions than on the academic material? No – the second paragraph makes it sound like the problem is that students cannot tell the difference between opinions and academic concepts. Or that if the lecturer provides a warning label on his or her opinions, students will then automatically go out and seek other opinions – but otherwise they may not have bothered.

And how did the committee reach this conclusion, unless all the international members suddenly learned Hebrew and sat in on a representative sample of lectures? Galia Golan, a longtime political activist and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Hebrew University, currently teaching at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, was also a member of the international committee. She repudiated this finding, saying (in the Hebrew version):

It’s not clear to me how you can examine the balance, but I consider this sort of demand to be directly opposed to the principle of academic freedom, which is the foundation of university education.

So there’s a consensus among students about political bias? I assume that to reach this conclusion, the committee must have conducted a survey. But consensus in surveys is extremely rare. And did the sample include the Arab students, who constitute 9% of all university students in the country – and most likely even more at Ben Gurion University?

I wonder if we’ll ever know. The article in Yediot is a study in shoddy journalism, leaving gaping holes where vital, basic pieces of information should be, such as: were any other universities or any other departments examined or just this specific department? Were any accusations of right-wing bias investigated? Who sits on the international committee aside from the one person mentioned in the article, and what are their backgrounds? With such sub-standard journalism, the screaming headline “Close the lefty department” does little but sensationalize the subject.

Here are few things that are certain: The report follows a concerted and protracted attack on the department due to the political leanings of some members of its faculty. Civil society group Im Tirzu, the self-appointed guardians and interpreters of acceptable Israeli-ness has conducted an ugly and thuggish campaign against the department, due to the political opinions of certain faculty members. The Institute for Zionist Strategies has followed suit. Education Minister and Likud MK Gidon Saar holds Im Tirzu in high regard and has in the past taken direct action stemming from its recommendations, such as threatening Ben Gurion’s faculty members for their political opinions too. And Saar is the head of the Council for Higher Education, who commissioned the study.

The onus is on the authors of the report to prove that this is anything but a transparent politically motivated witch hunt. I wonder if the report will even be made available to the public in full.

Finally, consider the two main critiques reported in the article, about professional standards and political bias. It is rather confounding to me how the problem of insufficient programs, lecturers and courses will be solved by shutting down the department. One might logically think that it would be more appropriate to expand the programs, courses and number of lecturers. I have personally done my part to rectify this situation, and continue teaching this year at Ben Gurion University as an adjunct lecturer.

Perhaps critics will say I prove the point – my opinions and political activism are easy enough to see on the Internet – personally I think hiding them would be far more dangerous. But I dare my readers or students to critique my syllabus (the course is called “Public Opinion and Conflict”) or accuse my lectures of political bias, or of being a plug for political activism. Guess what I’ll do if they say so? I’ll listen and consider their point.

I do tell my students on the first day that the course is geared towards conflict resolution, not conflict perpetuation. I tell them that if they do not agree with this overall goal, they are most welcome to remain in my class, but will probably find themselves uncomfortable with the basic approach. Not a lecture goes by when I don’t remind them to critique every reading we review, every theoretical approach, every newspaper article, scientific finding, and academic instructor. I believe that they understand this means that I too am not infallible, and that I am more than happy to hear constructive criticism. That’s what the intellectual and academic process is all about. So I thought.