Israeli education body reverses decision to close Ben Gurion University politics department

By Talila Nesher | Haaretz | 15 février 2013 | Negev university successfully appeals against Higher Education Council’s controversial ruling, putting an end to an affair that caused widespread controversy….

By Talila Nesher | Haaretz | 15 février 2013 |

Negev university successfully appeals against Higher Education Council’s controversial ruling, putting an end to an affair that caused widespread controversy among academics.

The Council for Higher Education has gone back on its decision to shut
down Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Politics and Government,
putting an end to an affair that caused widespread controversy among

Haaretz has learned that the council voted on Tuesday to approve a
different decision by one of its subcommittees, which accepted the
appeal by Ben-Gurion University, thus enabling students to register in
the department.

As reported by Haaretz, the council, led by Education Minister Gideon
Saar, had decided to postpone the final decision on the department’s
fate until after the January 22 election. The decision to postpone was
approved despite the fact that a written draft reversing the council’s
decision was ready for approval for over a month. Sources in the
council believe the reason was fear of right-wing political pressure
that would insist on the department’s closure.

Over the years, some of the department’s staffers have been labeled by
far-right activists as anti-Zionists out to harm Israel. The group Im
Tirzu called on the university to « put an end to the [department’s]
anti-Zionist tilt. »

The affair began two years ago after the council commissioned an
international panel to hold a quality assessment of the various
university Politics and Government departments. The international
committee, headed by Thomas Risse of the Free University of Berlin,
issued a report including recommendations for improvements in several
institutions, including the Ben-Gurion department, which was called on
to hire more faculty members and make other changes.

Ben-Gurion University and the department acted on the recommendations,
adding three new staff members and updating the courses. Members of
the international committee, who were appointed to follow the
implementation of the recommendations, expressed their satisfaction
with these steps in a letter to the council, while pointing out
further necessary changes.

However, rather than implementing those recommendations, a Council for
Higher Education subcommittee decided to close the department
altogether, forbidding it to register students for the 2013-14
academic year.

The international panel presented a letter, obtained by Haaretz at the
time, accusing the council of taking only punitive measures against
the Ben-Gurion University department, while ignoring recommendations
regarding the political science department at Bar-Ilan University.
Moreover, the panel noted that the measures taken against the
Ben-Gurion department were far more extreme than those recommended.

Last September more than 300 faculty members of academic institutions
across Israel signed a petition protesting the council subcommittee’s
. « We sense that academic freedom in Israel’s higher education
system is in severe danger, » said the petition, initiated by Prof.
Gilad Haran of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. « Closure
of this department constitutes the first instance, but certainly not
the last, unless the current trend is halted. »

Other signatories included Prof. Galia Golan, a member of a previous
Council for Higher Education committee that pointed out problems in
the department, but who refused to sign the report because she said it
was influenced by political considerations.

In response to the moves for the department’s closure, Ben-Gurion
University has opened a legal proceeding against the council. In an
unusual step, an attorney for the university sent the council a letter
in which he charged, « The actions of the sub-committee … were
intensifying the disappointing, harsh feeling that the subcommittee’s
position regarding the university’s Department of Politics and
Government was oppositional, and stems from secret agendas that are
not academically relevant, and which the Council for Higher Education
was not at liberty to consider … especially in light of clause 15 of
the Council for Higher Education Law, which defines academic freedom. »

Following the university’s appeal, the council announced that it
informed Ben-Gurion University that it had three weeks to commit
itself to amending the shortcomings that had yet to be corrected,
promising to review the closure decision after the commitment was

Following the submitted commitment a draft was formulated, in effect
reversing the closure decision, on condition the international panel
continued to monitor the department’s shortcomings – but the draft
only was approved by the council plenum on Tuesday.