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Up for sale? Academic autonomy and the Azrieli Institute

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Concordia University's recent announcement that it will be forming the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies -- courtesy of a $5 million donation from the Azrieli Foundation -- raises some interesting questions.
Specifically, it raises questions pertaining to the idea of the university being bought by those with personal wealth and an interest in backing their favourite cause.

Supporters of this Institute argue that it will be politically neutral and judge projects, speakers and visiting professorships exclusively on academic merit.

In an article published on June 30 in the Canadian Jewish News, Norma Joseph, co-director of the Institute, critically addresses academic boycotts of Israel: "Academics are scholars, people who search for knowledge untainted by political or religious (or any sort of) preference," she wrote. "Their tasks are to seek information removed from common prejudice and slanted stereotypes." But politics -- whether on the left or the right -- are always present, and always seep into academia, wherever high-minded ideals are being professed. Denying this is either naïveté, or deliberate manipulation in order to allow a political position on Israel to be introduced into the university under the guise of free inquiry.

Institutes for the study of Israel and related Israel studies are not unique to Concordia, and they have historically been established through the support of private foundations having a strong identification with the Jewish community and Israel.

The university accepts the outside money and, in presenting its programs, attempts to normalize and legitimize the Israeli state -- describing it as culturally and socially diverse, modern, progressive and facing various challenges.

The proposal for Concordia's program is couched in academic language that avoids any discussion of Israel's very contested role in the region and its relation to the displacement and colonization of the Palestinian people.

Would it be fair to teach a course or program on Canada that avoids a discussion of white settler colonization and its consequences for First Nations peoples? Of course not -- so why are we letting a similar situation happen here?

Israel Studies programs have been developed in the context of mounting criticism of Israel internationally. Many forms of mobilization against it are on the rise -- such as the presence of Israel Apartheid Week on campuses and the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Europe and North America.

Clearly, for the organized Jewish community that supports Israel, there is a battle to be waged for the hearts and minds on university campuses at home and abroad, and it is in this context that programs and Institutes for Israel Studies have been put in place.

But the process of developing the Institute reflects a wider problem about the emerging culture of the university, which couples the liberal ethos of academic freedom of free inquiry with the neoliberal ideology of entrepreneurialism.

It suggests that academics are free to do their own thing and pursue their academic questions -- especially if they can raise their own funds.

The alleged autonomy of the Institute from its funder is also a huge concern, especially since academic freedom is at the core of this debate. The Azrieli Foundation and David Azrieli himself are known to be strongly pro-Israel.

But when the Institute was presented, the Faculty Council was assured that it would be academically independent from its funders. This is a superficial understanding of autonomy and ill befits a university.

For Concordia to be awarded a grant of this magnitude, it is more than likely that implicit guarantees upfront about the direction and pro-Israel positions of the Institute's founders and leaders exist. In this case, academic "autonomy" is a kind of "non-issue," since, if the leadership of the Institute shares an ideology with the Foundation to begin with, then the matter of autonomy becomes a moot point.

An underlying goal of the Institute, similar to the U.S. programs described above, is to "de-politicize Israel," erasing the role it plays in its region and the occupation of Palestinian territory with all of the consequences. 
A telling example of this is the following extract from an article published on June 21 in The Gazette: "One of the institute's founders says that the institute ‘is not about the politics. [...] It's about the study of a geographic area -- its culture, its history, its economics, its diversity, even its food.'"

"[Norma Joseph] added that she believes the institute will bring together Jewish and Muslim students, possibly preventing conflicts like the 2002 riots that caused the cancellation of a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Understanding eliminates conflict," she said.

Dialogue and understanding are fine when there is equal power and justice. But unless there is an end to the occupation and a just solution for the Palestinian people, "understanding" is not possible. Until that happens, conflict will not go away.

If there is to be academic openness, the politics cannot be pushed to the side, rather, it is the core question and seems to be precluded from being addressed at the Institute, given the clear academic restriction on inquiry from the beginning.

A particular challenge for critics is that, so long as the liberal entrepreneurial system is in play, academics can claim "academic freedom" to justify whatever they want to do as long as it uses the rhetoric of objective inquiry and openness to diverse opinion.

There are very few restrictions on university research besides the standard ethical reviews for animal or human subjects. In the context of struggles against cuts to public education, this is a key example of the way in which the future direction of education is being sold off to the highest bidder.

This practice should be resisted, along with broader movements against the privatization and corporatization of the public sector. The university is clearly for sale and its academics are bought in service of causes that are part of the dominant political ideology. Dissent, unfortunately, is not usually financed.

Eric Shragge is an Associate Professor and Principal of the School of Community and Public Affairs at Concordia. This article was reprinted with permission from The Link, Concordia's independent newspaper.

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