Annie L. Lin

An Assault on Israeli Academic Freedom—and Liberal Values

In Israel on August 26, 2010 at 9:45 pm

[From the Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2010]

Neve Gordon, Ben-Gurion University

On May 31, I joined some 50 students and faculty members who gathered outside Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to demonstrate against the Israeli military assault on the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid toward Gaza. In response, the next day a few hundred students marched toward the social-sciences building, Israeli flags in hand. Amid the nationalist songs and pro-government chants, there were also shouts demanding my resignation from the university faculty.

One student even proceeded to create a Facebook group whose sole goal is to have me sacked. So far over 2,100 people (many of them nonstudents) have joined. In addition to death wishes and declarations that I should be exiled, the site includes a call on students to spy on me during class. “We believe,” ends a message written to the group, “that if we conduct serious and profound work, we can, with the help of each and every one of you, gather enough material to influence … Neve Gordon’s status at the university, and maybe even bring about his dismissal.”

Such personal attacks are part of a much broader assault on Israeli higher education and its professors. Two recent incidents exemplify the protofascist logic that is being deployed to undermine the pillars of academic freedom in Israel, while also revealing that the assault on Israeli academe is being backed by neoconservative forces in the United States.

The first incident involves a report published by the Institute for Zionist Strategies, in Israel, which analyzed course syllabi in Israeli sociology departments and accused professors of a “post-Zionist” bias. The institute defines post-Zionism as “the pretense to undermine the foundations of the Zionist ethos and an affinity with the radical leftist stream.” In addition to the usual Israeli leftist suspects, intellectuals like Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm also figure in as post-Zionists in the report. …READ MORE

On the crisis of the German university

In Germany on August 3, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Wiebke Keim, Freiburg University, and Eris J. Keim

German Original

In Federal Germany, universities in several regions have recently been in protest against the higher education policy of the Federal Republic and the Federal Lands. Protests targeted miserable conditions for university studies, university fees, chronic lack and further reductions in higher education funding as well as the so-called “Bologna-Process”. In contrast to former protest movements, these recent protests had the support of students and professors alike. They express and reflect the deep seated crises of the educational system in general and of universities in particular. A recent “education summit” in which Federal Republic and Federal Lands were supposed to agree on future financing of education had failed. The summit abandoned the aim of raising research and education expenditure – at around 8% of GNP in 2008 – to 10% in 2015.

Thus, for the second time in the last half of a century, Germany is experiencing a crisis of the university. Besides a few parallels, such as the call for more participation and decision-making power for students, there are important differences. The first “educational disaster”, as stated by Georg Picht and Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1960s, led to overall reforms of universities oriented to the ideal of the unity and freedom of research and teaching and followed the political slogan of “Education for all”. It was accompanied by broader societal and critical historical perspectives developed by the 1960s cohort of students. By contrast, the so-called Bologna-Process has nearly inverted the impulse of this last big reform. If attempts at organizing a European Higher Education Area according to the Anglo-Saxon model, with a focus on economically relevant, vocational education that has been ongoing since 1999 has not caused the current university crisis, it has certainly reinforced it. The heavy financial and economic crisis that Germany has been recently experiencing has further accentuated the university crisis. In the following, we can merely focus on a few aspects of this highly complex problematic. …READ MORE

Returning to the Past: Central Planning Plays Havoc with Finnish Universities

In Finland on July 27, 2010 at 8:14 am

Pekka Sulkunen, University of Helsinki

The new Estonian Museum of Art hosts a very beautiful painting by Elmar Kits of 1956, showing young women and strong men harvesting grain in a yellow autumn field in Soviet Estonia. They look happy and proud. In the foreground, two women seem to be talking, one with a notebook and a pencil in her hand. There is a weighing scale at the side.

When I saw the picture could not help thinking about the university reform Finland is going through at the moment. State universities that earlier were an integral part of the state bureaucracy, controlled financially by the Ministry of Education and in the last instance by the parliament, have become financially “autonomous” units, still mostly financed by the Ministry of Education but no longer within its budget. Instead, the universities now have their own budgets, with contributions from the state to cover immediate costs due to teaching and some research. Additional funds are sought at the Finnish national research council (misleadingly called the Academy of Finland), the national fund for science and technology, several ministries and private sources. The model is much the same as in American state universities.

The objective of the reform was to improve the universities’ capacity to compete for research funding, their responsiveness to societal needs and their strategic specialisation. The administrative structures were streamlined so that the idea of representativeness through democratic elections was replaced by increased power of the university presidents (called Rectors in Finland) and an appointed Board with significant personalities from outside of the academic world: (ex)politicians, businessmen and other authorities. Faculties are led by deans, and amalgamated units that combine what used to be disciplinary autonomous departments are led by directors. Deans and directors have consulting bodies to support them but they are personally responsible for the management of the system.  The old disciplinary departments are to go for good. …READ MORE

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