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Social Protest, War, and the Organizational Culture of the Israeli Science and Engineering Academia

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This blog was written prior to October 7th, the day on which Israel’s war on Hamas broke out, the day on which reality in Israel changed significantly. On that day, not only did the war start, but it also brought the ongoing social protest against the Israeli government’s judicial reform plans, which had been taking place in Israel since January 2023, to a grinding halt.

We suggest that the engagement of the Israeli academia in general, and especially of the science and engineering institutions, in the social protest was just a preliminary phase, a kind of bootcamp, in preparation for its intense and emotional engagement exhibited in the past several weeks during which a war has been taking place in Israel. Among these expressions of social and political engagement, we are witnessing the response of the Israeli academia to the reactions of North American universities to the different voices heard on many American campuses regarding Israel’s war against terror organizations (see, for example, the Letter of Deep Concern from University Heads in Israel to Colleagues Around the World) as well as the Israeli academia’s activities on the national level, including the delivering of messages about political issues and the organizing of various volunteer activities.

Looking at our institution, the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, which is the focus of this blog, we see the same phenomenon of expressing social and political voices. This is especially interesting since prior to the social protest, the Technion’s organizational culture explicitly excluded public political discussions and involvement, arguing that such topics are irrelevant for the creation of innovative science and engineering. As Figure 1 reflects, the institution’s organizational culture changed in a way that social and political issues now constitute a vital part of the discourse taking place on campus and on the Technion’s social media. See also the news item on the Technion website entitled Senior figures from the Israeli and international academia call upon the UN Secretary-General to demand the immediate release of the kidnapped Israeli children.

Figure 1: Technion’s post on LinkedIn – October 29, 2023  

The aim of this blog is to elicit attention to the change in the organizational culture of the Israeli academia during the social protest that took place in Israel up to the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, and halted suddenly due to the war. This social protest was the biggest social movement in Israel since its establishment in 1948, and many players that did not participate in political discourse prior to the protest started expressing social and political voices when the social protest started.

Using the case of our institution, the Technion (ranked among the world’s top 100 universities by Shanghai Ranking), we illustrate how the battle for democracy has changed the institution’s organizational culture. Our case reflects a broader phenomenon that is currently seen in Israeli universities, whereby university leaders, who typically avoid making their political opinions public, are actively participating in the public social discourse.

Marginson (2012) argued that the fundamental purpose of universities should revolve around serving the greater public good, as opposed to existing solely for the purpose of knowledge creation through research and education. This notion that universities have social roles is also reflected in the visions and missions of science and engineering research universities worldwide, which emphasize their commitment to serve both local and global societies, as well as all humanity (see, for example, MIT’s mission, CalTech’s mission, TUM’s mission statement, NTU’s vision, and the Technion’s vision).

Following Marginson’s idea of the social role of universities, Cech (2014) criticized some science and engineering universities whose culture she defined as a “culture of disengagement.” According to Cech, this kind of culture has three ideological pillars: 1) the depoliticization of the engineering work, which means that “non-technical” concerns, such as public welfare, are irrelevant to the ongoing engineering work; 2) the technical/social dualism, which separates social aspects from technological aspects, and 3) the meritocratic ideology, which frames existing social structures as fair and just.

In most science and engineering research universities, however, the idea that they serve society hinges on the belief that science and engineering are indispensable for the achievement of societal goals, such as the 17 sustainable development goals defined by the United Nations (Truslove et al., 2021).

While we are not claiming that Israeli science and engineering research institutions inherently exhibit a culture of disengagement, their predominant social emphasis has traditionally revolved around knowledge creation through research and student education. Rarely have these institutions publicly articulated their stance on socio-political matters, including issues pertaining to democracy and political decisions at the national level. This norm represents a fundamental underlying assumption of Schein’s model of organizational culture (Schein, 2010), which, being hidden from plain view, is typically taken for granted and actually shapes behavior within the organization.

Until recently, the basic underlying assumption within Israeli science and engineering higher education institutions has been that leaders and faculty members of such institutions should not discuss political issues publicly. On the other hand, at comprehensive universities, which also offer degrees in social sciences, humanities, and the arts, debates on social and political issues have always been both acceptable and common.

But then, suddenly, when the social protest broke out, something changed: with no central organizing entity, WhatsApp groups of academic staff of science and engineering higher education institutions began appearing spontaneously. This deviation from the accepted norm was especially noticeable in our institution, which as an institute of technology focuses solely on science and engineering disciplines, and in which, as a result, the avoidance of expressing political opinion was an accepted, natural, and respected norm that was maintained strictly. Furthermore, apart from the organizational dimension, at a personal level, the merging of work, protest, and home life has become an established norm for faculty members.

In other words, until very recently it was claimed that political matters have no significance for science and engineering research and education and should not influence them; no connection between political discourse and science and engineering discourse was even considered. The current social protest, however, changed this norm. In this spirit, on August 11, 2023, Professor Uri Sivan, president of the Technion, was quoted as saying that “[h]istorically, academic scientists in Israel have been reluctant to air their political views in a highly polarized society … It is indeed unusual for us to step in and speak up” (Chabin, 2023).

The social engagement that emerged in Israeli academia thanks to the social protest also tightens the relationship between society and academia, in general, and in our case, between society and a science and engineering research university. In other words, the protest for democracy has changed the underlying assumptions of the Israeli academia’s organizational culture in a way that reflects its connection to society. We propose, and have already witnessed, that for the Technion, as a science and engineering research institution, this engagement in social issues may permeate, integrate into, and enrich other topics addressed by our students, faculty members, and staff.

The internal changing of the organizational culture of science and engineering institutions in Israel may go beyond Israeli academia to the arena of Israeli national policy. Until now, the Israeli science and engineering academy was perceived as an ivory tower, detached from its surroundings. In addition, most of those involved in science and engineering had concentrated on their research and were not engaged in social and political issues as part of their academic role. It seems, however, that an opportunity is now opening up to change the political structure in Israel, in terms of the mix of the population involved in politics. Perhaps as a result of the political unrest, new players will enter the public sector and politics and we will see scientists and engineers serving as members of the Knesset (the Israeli house of representatives) and leading legislation based on science and engineering principles and ways of thinking.

We emphasize that it is reasonable to assume that, like the general population, the political positions of scientists and engineers range the entire political spectrum. Hence, the engaging of engineers and scientists in political activity can add significant value for all parties. In other words, their expertise, regardless of their political affiliation and of the political composition of a particular Knesset, will surely benefit both the public and the state, highlighting the triad of democracy, academia, and society.

Cech, E. A. (2014). Culture of Disengagement in Engineering Education? Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(1), 42.

Chabin, M. (August 2023). Israeli scientists speak out against ‘destructive’ education policies, Science Policy 381(6659), p. 723.

Marginson, S. (2012). The “public” contribution of universities in an increasingly global world. Universities and the public sphere: Knowledge creation and state building in the era of globalization, 10, 9780203847848.

Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership.

Truslove, J., Crichton, E., Chance, S., and Cresswell-Maynard, K. (2021, January). Momentum towards incorporating global responsibility in engineering education and accreditation in the U.K. In REES AAEE 2021 conference: Engineering Education Research Capability Development: Engineering Education Research Capability Development (pp. 598-606). Perth, WA: Engineers Australia.

Orit Hazzan is a professor at the Technion’s Department of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on computer science, software engineering, and data science education. For additional details, see Ronit Lis-Hacohen is a Ph.D. student at the Technion’s Faculty of Education in Science and Technology. Her research focuses on social responsibility in science and engineering higher education. She also manages the IDSI, the Israeli Initiative of Data Science.

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