By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Last week the Israeli Minister of Education introduced an academic ethics code that introduced certain limitations on expressing political views in the classroom. At first glance the code does not seem expressly harmful, it sets allows for the expression of political views and the discussion of controversial issues as part of the course syllabus. But certain aspects of the code are troubling to Israeli academics and students and led to much protest. The code is intended to “protect” students from the political views of professors, and sets up ethics councils where students can complain about the conduct of their professors. This sets up an atmosphere of suspicion and encourages professors to self-censor their treatment of controversial and political issues that are at the heart of many academic fields.
The introduction of this code comes with other measures that seek to limit civil society and track the funding of NGOs. Attempting to bring civil society and academia under the control of the government is part of a broader worldwide phenomenon that is connected to populism. Academia has been a central part of the liberal democratic world order for decades. Since the 1930s academics fled Europe for the US, creating what we now know as American academia and setting up the intellectual basis for post-war liberalism.
The new global populism aims to upend this order, both politically and ideologically. Practically speaking, populist leaders take measure to bring academia under their ideological control by limiting the academic freedom of previous generations and hiring new a generation of state-sponsored ideologues. In many countries academia is funded by the government, and so tactics that would be difficult in the US are much more successful in other societies.
One prominent example is the legislative attempt by Hungarian authorities to close the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. The bill targeted foreign universities without a primary campus in their home country, but practically affected only CEU. While most Hungarian academia is already under the control of the government, CEU is independently funded and was designed as a beacon of liberalism in the region. As such, it was construed as an enemy of Viktor Orbán’s populist government and now may have to leave Hungary.
A far more extreme case is that of Turkey, where academics have been detained, suspended, and purged in one of the most brutal instances of curbing academic freedom and eliminating the role of academic freedom in society.
All of this is happening in an environment of increased nationalism and closing borders in the Western world. Traditionally, academia has been an extremely cosmopolitan sector. In many places, employment is not based on nationality but on expertise alone. As a result American academia served as a sanctuary for academics from around the world during difficult periods, in particular before and during World War II. The concern is that more stringent visa policies limit the choices available to academics and so would force them to comply with their home countries new academic guidelines. This joins a variety of policies that are breaking down the liberal world order, both materially and intellectually. While professors are often characterized as detached from the real world in ivory towers, academics have a fundamental role in shaping the ideational foundation of society.