21 May 2013
David Newman (Dean of Social Sciences, BGU) has been in the public eye lately, mostly because of the sordid affair pertaining to the Department of Politics and Government. As is its first chair, he was responsible for hiring a group of faculty who, according to Thomas Risse, the head of the International Committee for Evaluation, had only a tangential connection to core political science subjects. Moreover, as the Risse report indicated, the apparent reason for their recruitment and promotion was radical leftist activism.
Following his reelection as dean, Newman took to describing himself as a crusader against the "forces that would squash academic freedom." To defend the Department that he created, Newman appealed to the international community of scholars to protest the alleged political witch hunt; in an unprecedented response some forty professional associations and hundreds of individual scholars wrote letters of protest to the government.
Now Newman is lamenting that the government is not investing enough in humanities and social sciences. He quotes figures from high-minded European reports to prove that Israel is below the curve on spending. However, there are a few numbers that he should bear in mind.
First, Israeli social sciences have been trending well below Western averages, as Dr. Yaacov Bergman had repeatedly indicated. Among the reasons for this state of affairs is the fact that Israel is lacking on cutting edge social science fields such as rational choice theory and advanced quantitative methods. The Politics and Government department is a case in point: the Risse Committee pointed out that, while there was an abundance of neo-Marxist, critical faculty, there was virtually no one teaching quantitative methods. The Risse report also noted that, by definition, critical scholarship, is published in marginal journals and self-proclaimed critical presses, which do not make in ISI or other common ranking.
Grants offered by the European Research Council (ERC) are a good indicator of the current trends in social sciences and humanities (SSH). The ERC grants are not just highly competitive but have a clear preference for cutting edge social science such rational choice theory and allied quantitative methods. For instance, Israeli universities garnered 17 grants in the 2007-2012 cycle; 7 in the social sciences and the rest were in law and humanities. Whatever Newman's preferences, it is rational choice scholarship that gets recognized. All of seven involved research in rational choice and quantitative analysis.
Second, more than a decade ago, the Maltz Committee suggested that government spending on universities should be augmented by private donations. Indeed, the Committee urged the universities to develop a large donor base to compensate for shrinking public funding. But here again, the type of radical activist faculty that Newman sponsored had made matters difficult. Haifa University has still to recover its donor base after the fire storm created by Ilan Pappe in the early 2000s. At Tel Aviv University, an important donor quit the Board of Governors in a very public protest over the radical faculty; others left more quietly.
Things were not much better at BGU. Upset by Neve Gordon and other radical professors, a donor who promised to fund the extension and modernization of the library withdrew his offer.
Next time Newman complains about lack of funding for libraries he should look at his own back yard. Unlike Israeli taxpayers that are forced to subside a radical cadre under a spurious claim of "academic freedom" donors give selectively. The small and cramped library at BGU is a testament to this fact.
Borderline Views: Investing in the humanities
By DAVID NEWMAN
One only has to look at the lack of focus on the humanities and social sciences at the many board of governors’ meetings of Israeli universities, which start this week, to see how critical this problem is.
Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba Photo: BGU
The Council for Higher Education announced the awards for the ICORE Research Excellence projects last week.
Out of 67 initial applications, spanning the entire range of sciences, 27 passed the first round and were invited to submit full applications – itself no mean feat – and finally twelve projects were chosen for funding.
The 12 new ICORE Centers of Excellence complement the initial four which were established in the first wave, bringing the total number to 16.
Of the 12 new centers, five will engage in research in the Social Sciences and Humanities and seven in Exact Sciences, Engineering, Life Sciences and Medicine.
The ICORE program is aimed at fundamentally strengthening the long-term positioning of Israel’s academic research and its stature among leading researchers in Israel and abroad. ICORE was endorsed by the government of Israel and adopted by Israel’s Council of Higher Education in March 2010. The first four ICOREs began operating in October 2011 (first wave) in the fields of Cognitive Science, Algorithms, Solar Energy, and the Genetic Basis of Human Disease.
The 16 Centers of Excellence promote innovative and groundbreaking research in a range of fields, promote national and international research collaborations, assist in the recruitment of excellent new researchers and pave the way for nurturing the future generation of outstanding researchers in the country by establishing inter-institutional Joint Graduate Schools.
The 12 research fields include such diverse topics as: Study of Modern Jewish Culture; Education and the New Information Society; Empirical Legal Studies; Mass Trauma Research; Abrahamic Religions; The Quantum Universe: Particles and Astroparticle; Light and Matter; Astrophysics: from the Big Bang to the Stars; Chromatin and RNA Gene Regulation; Structural Biology of the Cell – Biophysics and medical technology; Plant Adaptation to Changing Environment; Physical Approaches to Dynamic Processes in Living Systems.
The first wave of the ICORE projects did not include the humanities or the social sciences. They were only included following an outcry by many scholars in these fields who saw this as reflecting the continued neglect of the humanities and social sciences as part of the development of higher education and research during the past decade.
An article by Corydon Ireland in last week’s Harvard Gazette addressed this problem. It noted that while in 1979, federal grants for science were worth five times those for the humanities, the equivalent figure was 33 in 1998, and no less than 200 in 2011.
At a symposium held on the topic at Harvard, one of the world’s leading exponents of the humanities, Professor Homi Bhabha, noted the irony of the fact that while “the crisis of the humanities is real, they have a greater-than-ever relevance – for habits of critical thinking, interpretation, and analysis that are in turn gateways to ethical choice,” and that they are necessary for training citizens who need to understand our complex world before plunging into action.”
One only has to look at the lack of focus on the humanities and social sciences at the many board of governors’ meetings of Israeli universities, which start this week, to see how critical this problem is. Plenty about nanotechnology, neuroscience and water research (all of which is important) but hardly anything about philosophy, ethics, literature and history. At my own university three of the four successful ICORE proposals were all in the field of the humanities, despite the fact that they have to continually struggle to justify their existence.
This is reflected in the lack of resources for the most basic of infrastructures such as a decent library, student stipends for doctoral and research students, or the need to allocate time and space for the discussion of ideas which, to many, may seem esoteric or “ivory tower.”
For every new Einstein that we wish to produce, we also need a Magnes and a Buber. For every new Nobel Prize that Israeli scientists receive, to the great credit of Israeli universities, we need to have philosophers and political scientists who will be remembered for their contribution to the world of ideas and innovative thought, who continually challenge and re-examine accepted norms and behavior.
In the Harvard discussion, Lawrence S. Bacow, president emeritus of Tufts University, argued that the world’s burning questions require a humanistic perspective. Both the deficit debate and climate change raise ethical questions about what we owe future generations, while current wars are largely conflicts over the direction modernity should take.
“We lose as institutions,” said Bacow, “when we fail to engage our colleagues in the humanities.”
Or as another distinguished professor, Stefan Collini, a literature professor at Cambridge University and author of What are Universities For? (2012), noted: the traditional role of universities in general, and the humanities in particular – creating knowledge for the sake of knowledge – is increasingly under fire in a utilitarian world.
While the CHE has partially attempted to address this problem, often in cooperation with the funding generosity of Yad Hanadiv, many new scientific projects are ignoring the humanities altogether.
Take for example the BIRAX project, initiated through the collaboration of Israeli and UK universities and their respective governments and ably managed by the British Council. Initiated as a partial response to the pro-boycott debate among some UK academics, BIRAX has been taken in the exclusive direction of the life sciences, while the second generation of projects, which were meant to focus on collaboration within the humanities, is now being pushed towards water sciences.
No one doubts the immense importance of such projects, the results of which have far-reaching global significance and which bring Israeli scientific research to the attention of the international community. But without a serious and significant re-investment in the humanities, what for many are (mistakenly) derided as being no more than the “soft sciences,” the country’s universities will lose their heart and their essence, the whole raison d’etre around which universities were created in the first place.
It would be nice to think that many of our friends and supporters from around the world who will be attending the board of governors meetings at Israel’s universities during the coming weeks will rise to the challenge. Philosophy, Ethics, History, Theology, Literature, Political Science and Sociology should be on their agenda as much as the hard sciences, even if it is not instantly recognizable in terms of a new laboratory or building.
In a world in which universities are increasingly bereft of public resources, where the cost of education and the cost of research is rising, where the results of scientific endeavor are measured in terms of managerial efficiency, economic profitability and utilitarianism, it is incumbent upon universities in general, and Israeli universities in particular, to re-invest in the humanities and the social sciences. Without such investment, the centers of higher education and research will lose their very heart, and their contribution to mankind will be limited.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.