Put a group of university presidents together in one room and it won’t take long for the conversation to turn to that pesky thorn that is now firmly entrenched and slowly festering in our sides: national and international university rankings. In the beginning, when these rankings were largely compiled by media outlets such as U.S. News & World Report or Maclean’s to attract consumers to special features focused on the pros and cons of campuses in the U.S. or Canada, the thorn barely touched us with a glancing scratch. Over time, however, the annual scratch became more and more insistent and harder to ignore. Now rankings are nasty and barbed thorns with the capacity to hobble — sometimes disastrously so — otherwise healthy, high-functioning institutions of higher learning. And they’re here to stay.
The problems with national and international rankings are numerous and well known. So well known, in fact, that the world’s most powerful ranking organizations — the World’s Best Universities Rankings conducted by U.S. News & World Report in partnership with Quacquarelli Symonds and the Times Higher Education Rankings — have been working diligently to revise ranking measures and their methods in an attempt to increase the accuracy and objectivity of the rankings.
A laudable exercise, but even with recent changes, the rankings remain flawed and misleading on many fronts. Too many measures continue to rely on the subjective judgment of faculty, employers or students who, in most cases, will have little, if any, knowledge of institutions or individual researchers far outside the realm of their own direct experience. No measure has been found that accurately captures the value and impact of humanities and social science research, and trying to quantify the quality of undergraduate teaching or student experience through a simple faculty-student ratio simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. It must also be remembered that many of the rankings only take into account research that is recorded in English, leaving much of the tremendous work and talent in countries such as China and Russia unrecognized and under-valued.
From my perspective, rankings are also missing the mark by failing to shine a light on some of the most significant benefits that universities bring to local, national and global societies. The focus of most rankings is on academic research outputs — publications, citations and major awards — that stand in as proxies for research quality and reach. While these outputs do a fairly good job of pinpointing the impact of a university’s contributions to knowledge, especially in science, technology, engineering and health sciences, they provide little indication of what kind of impact these advancements have on factors that the global community generally agrees are markers of prosperous and secure societies with a high quality of life.
Let me give you an example of what I mean: governments and policy makers everywhere now consider universities as economic engines as well as educational institutions. Public investments in research are increasingly directed toward research with the potential to translate into products, processes and policies — even whole new industries. This trend in research funding reveals a lot about the ways in which universities matter to governments, policy makers, regions and the public today, but the rankers aren’t paying attention.
Consider Israel. According to data on NASDAQ’s website, Israel has more companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange than any other country in the world except the U.S., and major companies such as Intel, Microsoft, IBM and Google have major research and development centers in Israel. Why? If you look at the data, you see a correlation between this entrepreneurial activity and the investments in and outputs from Israel’s universities.
Israel is among a handful of nations with the highest public expenditure on educational institutions relative to GDP, and it has the highest rate of R&D investment relative to GDP in the world. It also has the highest percentage of engineers in the work force and among the highest ratio of university degrees per capita. Many of the companies listed on NASDAQ were started by graduates of Israel’s universities: Technion, Tel Aviv University, Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to mention a few. Do international university rankings capture these economic impacts from research and postsecondary education in Israel? The answer is no. In spite of their tremendous impact and output, Israel’s universities are ranked somewhere in the 100 to 200 range.
Germany’s universities also tend to be undervalued in international rankings, even though Germany has had the strongest exports-led economic growth during the recession. By contrast, Britain’s productivity, growth and competitiveness lag far behind Germany, and still, British universities generally outrank Germany’s. According to OECD statistics, the proportion of higher education research and development funded by business in Germany is over twice that of Britain, which suggests the strong link between Germany’s globally competitive business sector and universities. Although many factors contribute to a country’s competitiveness, the role of universities, their quality and impact is an important factor.
My point here is not that universities should be ranked according to economic impact, per se. Instead it is to suggest that, if rankings are here to stay, then they should, at least in part, adhere more closely to measures that reflect the priorities for which universities are being held accountable today by their various stakeholders. Otherwise the rankings will continue to miss the mark and reinforce tired reputations and old hierarchies.
Indira Samarasekera is president and vice chancellor of the University of Alberta.
At last week’s annual conference of the main faculty union in Britain, leaders of the University and College Union (UCU) voted to support a resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academics and universities. On a practical level the resolution will not do much to actually impose an effective boycott. Individual faculty members will make up their own minds about what to do, and plenty will continue their ties with Israel, although for a minority seeking to kick Israelis off of panels or journal boards, this resolution will provide the cover they seek. Regardless of the impact, by voting to adopt the resolution, the union has given a substantial political victory to a small group of extreme activists dedicated to the marginalization of Israel, if not for its outright demise. All scholars -- and especially American academics who consider themselves part of a worldwide community of people committed to free expression of ideas – need to take note of exactly what is going on. This is not about protesting some policy of Israel’s government, which occurs intensely in Israel’s vibrant university setting and free press, but something much more invidious.
With a vote of only 158 to 99, the UCU which boasts a membership of approximately 120,000 members may have actually made history by setting the stage for some of the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era. With a fraction of less then 1 percent of its membership participating in the vote, the UCU has set an example for other unions and professional associations to follow suit. It must be understood that the architects of the UCU boycott campaign are not merely concerned with promoting a two- state solution with both Israel and a Palestine state living in peace side by side, thus ending the occupation of the territories seized by Israel in 1967. Rather, its intent is to support a radical marginal movement to begin the process of dismantling Israel.
Subsequently, it is critical that the British academic community understand what is being said in their name, and that the American academic community be aware of what is going on at universities that have close ties to our institutions. This is especially true since scholarship is intended to be based on an honest search for truth which examines all sides of a given issue and context. The fact that the UCU voted to reject this basic premise and boycott Israeli scholars and academic institutions goes against the very nature of real scholarship. The UCU decision is based on a one-sided view of the Middle East conflict. It undermines academic freedom and sets different standards for people based on their origin rather than on their scholarship or ideas. All Israeli professors are being punished by British scholars, regardless of their views. Not only does the boycott single out Israelis, it also raises concern about the implications this resolution will have on Jewish students and faculty at universities throughout Britain. How will the campus atmosphere be affected, an issue identified by the All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Anti-Semitism commissioned by the Blair Government in 2006, as an area of concern.
Why are the architects of the UCU boycott movement focused so determinedly only on Israel? Why was there no UCU resolution on the manner in which the British military is conducting itself in Basra, Iraq? Why was there never a resolution on Srebrenica where more Muslims were massacred in a given week then has been killed during the 40 years of the Arab-Israel conflict? How about Chechnya, where Russia carpet bombed civilian areas and massacred tens of thousands if not more? How about Darfur, where there is agreement that there is an on going genocide at this very moment, in which hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and the killing reportedly appears to be accelerating. In the Democratic Republic of Congo the estimates are that three to four million have been killed. Why single out Israel? Why has Israel become the incarnation of evil, of colonialism and even apartheid? Why are there not calls for the boycotting of the Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon or Saudi Arabia where the levels of the repression of woman boggles the mind. How about issues of human rights violations by China and Syria? What about questions of citizenship of migrants to Europe? Do these issues not warrant any UCU consideration? I dare not even question why the deliberate and regular shelling of Sapir College in Sderot, well inside the green line, from Gaza which Israel withdrew and no longer occupies has not been condemned by the UCU? My point is not to suggest that British professors or others broaden boycotts to colleges all over the world. Rather, one has to consider if standards are applied in any sort of consistent way – and when they are not, as is evident in this case, one can not avoid questioning what the real motives are.
Many in the anti-Israel campaign compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, where boycotts helped to bring about change. However, it is important to remember that apartheid was a legal system designed to exclude the vast majority of its inhabitants from basic rights, citizenship, membership and participation in institutions of its society based on racial categories. The purpose of the anti-apartheid movement was to enfranchise its citizens based on a Freedom Charter which guaranteed equal rights to all of its citizens regardless of race, gender, political affiliation, not to destroy or dismantle South Africa. Israel is a democracy under the rule of law, all of its citizens vote and enjoy enfranchisement, while the Knesset has representation for all sectors of society, including all of its minorities. I do not remember any individual member, let alone organization, of the mainstream anti-apartheid movement calling for genocide or advocating the recruitment to massacre as many civilians as possible, an accepted and advocated principle of the leading member of the Palestinian Authority Government Hamas, and other organizations within the Palestinian political spectrum, in which the UCU resolution becomes an enabler of sorts. None of this is to say that the Palestinians do not have real grievances, however, there ought to be a more nuanced view of the conflict.
It is particularly incredible that some are attempting to de-legitimize Israel, the only democracy in the region, while a significant radical social movement, Hamas, gains strength that is anti-Enlightenment, genocidal in its anti-Semitism, not to mention anti-democratic, sexist and homophobic, and in fact governs Israel’s neighboring Palestinian Authority. Can one imagine an academic group in any other circumstance lending support to those who would send basic human rights backwards in the support of reactionary forces? Those who call for the marginalization of the State of Israel or for its demise are also enablers for those reactionary forces that not only threaten liberal democratic forces in the Middle East, women and minority rights, but all that the UCU perceive itself to support and stand for.
It is becoming evident that those engaged in the attempt to marginalized and criminalize Israel do so in a manner that defies their own logic and values. For the first time in Europe’s post-World War Two era, the rhetoric of what was once on the fridges of the political spectrum has now entered into the mainstream of political and academic discourse. It is incumbent upon all members of the UCU and the academic community generally, to stand up to the resurgence of this oldest of hatred. The passing of the UCU resolution could mark the beginning of a new era of virulent anti-Semitism. We ought to be mindful that under the Nazi regime, also elected, that the universities were the first institutions in society to discriminate against Jewish people. If we learned anything from this tragic history we know that double standards and the deligitimitzation of an entire group must be confronted -- even at the level of resolutions and boycotts -- and is contrary to notions of education.
Charles Small is director of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Previously, he has taught at universities in both Britain and Israel.
Submitted by Cary Nelson on September 15, 2009 - 3:00am
It’s not easy to find a country in the Middle East whose universities honor academic freedom as we know it in most Western countries. Syria is a police state, comparable in some ways to North Korea or Myanmar. Iran has substantially become one. Egypt’s security police maintain a chilling presence on campus. The one country that maintains academic freedom is Israel, though of course not in the occupied territories. The comparative climate for intellectual debate in the region is too often ignored or slighted in discussions promoted by the various boycott movements. Simple intellectual honesty and political accuracy requires that every discussion of Israeli academic conduct be framed with a reminder of the regional context. Otherwise, inadequately informed audiences can become victims of demagoguery and an exceptionalist fantasy of Israeli monstrosity be promoted.
But the dynamic of debate in the Israeli academy has suddenly changed, and part of the debate is now being conducted in American venues. As Inside Higher Ed reported last month, a Ben-Gurion University political science professor, Neve Gordon published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, in Counterpunch and in the Guardian that endorsed a gradually expanding international boycott of Israel. In her response, also published in the LA Times, Ben-Gurion University’s president, Rivka Carmi ventured not only to castigate Gordon but also to redefine academic freedom in ways contrary to traditions of the American Association of University Professors.
With these very troubling ideas circulating in the United States, a clear need for the AAUP to address the story has arisen. That need is underlined by the fact that several American scholars writing about the Middle East have either lost their jobs or had their tenure cases challenged because of their scholarly or extramural publications. Statements by Carmi and other Israeli administrators thus have the potential to help undermine academic freedom not only in Israel but elsewhere. These are in every sense worldwide debates.
As the Inside Higher Ed story points out, Gordon has been critical of Israeli conduct for some time. His protest columns regularly appear in The Nation here in the United States and in the Guardian in Britain, and he is the author of a 2008 book called Israel’s Occupation, published by the University of California Press. All this work, including the LA Times column, falls within his areas of academic specialization. It ranges from scholarly publication to extramural speech. It is all without question covered by academic freedom. Carmi’s assertion that the LA Times column “oversteps the boundaries of academic freedom — because it has nothing to do with it” is wholly unsupportable.
Gordon’s column, it is worth noting, adopts a somewhat different persona than a number of his other pieces about Israeli policy. It is not, for example, a straightforward protest against Israeli military actions, but rather a confessional staging of his anguished journey toward boycott advocacy: “as I watch my two boys playing in the yard, I am convinced that it is the only way that Israel can be saved from itself.” He has, he is suggesting, had a breakthrough amounting to a recovery of his humanity, something thereby that his opponents implicitly lack. Throughout his 2009 responses to the Gaza invasion he has been moving in that direction, suggesting earlier that he opposed Israel’s military action despite Hamas rockets falling near the home he shares with his children, and arguing that the invasion is distorting the humanity of Israeli children.
I am willing to believe that this tactic is both genuine and a calculated rhetorical strategy, but in either case it has probably contributed to the intensity of the response, since it frames the LA Times piece not as political polemic but as a personal narrative about, as he puts it, “the question that keeps me up at night.” It thus has special power to move ordinary readers, and many of those readers here and abroad have responded passionately. Publishing the column in the United States, rather than Israel, was, to be sure, a deliberate provocation. It moved the argumentative terrain to that of Israel’s major military and political ally, and to the home of many of Israel’s and his own university’s most important donors. The affront was not simply in what he said but where he said it, though it is hardly the first time Israeli scholars of both the Right and the Left have brought these debates to American shores. The response both here and in Israel has been intense. As we saw in the Ward Churchill case, academic freedom does not always fare well in a public firestorm.
The public response called for a principled defense of academic freedom by President Carmi. Instead, she made herself part of the public outcry against Gordon. Worse still, Carmi has sought to narrow academic freedom and undermine the protections it offers, calling Gordon’s column an effort “to advocate a personal opinion, which is really demagoguery cloaked in academic theory.” The notion that a political scientist cannot combine academic arguments with conclusions, theory with advocacy, strikes at the heart of the principle that academics have the right to advise the public and seek an impact on public policy. As Matthew Finkin and Robert Post argue effectively in their 2009 book For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom, faculty speech in scholarly venues and in the classroom cannot be protected (and cannot fully serve society) if faculty members are not also free to deploy their expertise in the public sphere without fear of government or university reprisal.
Gordon calls for a boycott of the state of Israel, thereby advocating something much more comprehensive than the focused boycott of academic institutions that the AAUP opposes. Some Israeli commentary claims Gordon’s remarks amount to treason, a dangerous and overheated accusation that responsible opinion must reject. Gordon is in fact performing his job as a political scientist and following reasoned moral and professional standards in doing so. Even if he were not a political scientist, he would have the right to say these things, but as a political scientist who writes about Israeli policy he has a disciplinary justification to offer advice and opinion in the public sphere. But academic freedom should protect still more extreme statements than those Gordon has made; it should hold harmless a faculty member who argues that his or her country has no moral or political legitimacy and thus no right to exist.
Extramural statements by faculty are especially vulnerable in times of national crisis. The United States can hardly be said to have protected them during World War I or in the McCarthy period. Many in the Middle East, including many Israelis, consider themselves to be in a permanent state of war. In many area countries Gordon would already be imprisoned or worse. In Israel his right to public speech is being eloquently defended by many both within and without the academy — but not, deplorably, by his own university administration. On several Israeli campuses petitions supporting Gordon have circulated, and a number of scholars have come to his defense. Once again, such robust debate hardly typifies all area countries.
Since Gordon is tenured and cannot be fired, Carmi instead bellowed that he “has forfeited his ability to work effectively within the university setting.” A few days before publishing her LA Times piece, Carmi had already urged Gordon to resign, a view endorsed by Ben-Gurion University’ rector and faculty member Jimmy Weinblatt.
On August 28th, Ilana Curiel reported in Israel News that Carmi and Weinblatt were also exploring options for removing Gordon as department head. There, it should be clear, Ben-Gurion administrators are on more secure ground. In the United States a faculty member serving as an administrator -- including a department chair -- is essentially an at-will employee. He or she can be removed from an administrative post and returned to the faculty if they displease their supervisor. In a public case like this one, of course, Carmi will be contemplating public fallout from a decision to force Gordon out of his chairmanship, so a good deal more than simple line administrative authority is at stake.
Indeed it has been clear from the outset, as Carmi openly acknowledged in an August 27th letter to Ben-Gurion faculty, that donor anger is a major factor in her attacks on Gordon. Inside Higher Ed reported that Amos Drory, Ben-Gurion’s vice president for external affairs, wrote to complaining donors to say “the university is currently exploring the legal options to take disciplinary action.” It is not the first time fund-raising priorities, not principle, have shaped administrative understandings of academic freedom, but that does not blunt the lesson that this represents one of the most severe threats to academic freedom.
Carmi’s own academic freedom, one may note, would have allowed her to reject Gordon’s views while asserting his right to hold them. That is, in effect, what Gordon recommended: “She has to cater to the people that provide the money, so a strong letter of condemnation of my views would have been fine with me. But there’s a difference between saying you disagree wit me, and threatening me.” Instead she mounted an international assault and sought to gut academic freedom in the process. While Gordon has job security, his vulnerability to myriad other forms of internal reprisal is obvious. There are many kinds of research support and institutional recognition that require administrative endorsement. More serious still is the message Carmi has sent to untenured and contingent faculty: exercise your academic freedom at your peril. The chilling effects at Ben-Gurion University have hardened into a deep freeze. There is reason for principled faculty to question the president’s ability to serve in her position.
Cary Nelson is national president of the American Association of University Professors.