Can Indian universities rise above 'rule of privilege'?

Janaki Nair
Janaki NairJan 24, 2016 | 18:37

Can Indian universities rise above 'rule of privilege'?

Is the crisis that has befallen Hyderabad Central University (HCU) a sign of a more general malaise that has afflicted the Indian university system for a long while now? At least some commentators have pointed to the pervasive and baneful political interference that has become the rule rather than an exception in state and central universities.

In many parts of India, vice chancellors are chosen as part of a well-oiled "spoils system" ruled by dominant castes, newly politicised castes, or those loyal to particular political parties. It is the luck of the draw if one such candidate happens to be either a good administrator or a worthy academic. Only has rarely seen such a person to be a good teacher as well.

In these times, to talk of the virtues of "merit" and its "disappearance" as the cause of many institutional difficulties is a collective and convenient act of misrecognition. It is a profound misrecognition of how power had previously been wielded to ensure the entry of relatives, sympathisers, loyal sycophants, into some of the top institutional spaces of India, of which West Bengal under the Left rule for 34 years was an "enviable" example, and to which a city like Delhi, where different kinds of power have intersected, is no exception.

So let us lay to rest the tiresome argument that the rise of other backward classes (from whose reservation quotas a large number of general category appointments have also been made!) or scheduled castes and tribes account not only for the contentious sites that universities have become but also for their presumed "decline".

If our student body has become radically heterogenous, and has challenged our pedagogic and administrative abilities, the faculties have not reflected this diversity, nor have we adapted adequately to the changes in our classrooms. Sharmila Rege of Pune University was a brave but exceptional person, in this regard, who adapted pedgagogies to the needs of students. We cannot name too many others who have shown such commitment to these changes.

In such a situation, the person at the helm can and does make a difference, especially if she leads by example. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I teach, has long given itself the arguable distinction of being "exceptional" in its pedagogic achievements, its research profile, its culture of political tolerance and its relatively liberal social life.

Learning, and unlearning (equally important in the Indian social setting!) happens in the classrooms, in tea stalls, dining halls, night meetings, in seminars, and on posters. Students, illegal residents, and others, including those from hitherto underprivileged groups, have debated, argued on issues well beyond, and within, the national interest. No one has felt confined by the politics of origin to discuss only his or her particular social problems, though that too is given space, not least in the choice of dissertation questions and problems.

Let me hasten to say at the outset that the JNU has been no exception to the "rule of privilege", especially in its many early unquestioned faculty appointments, when blue-eyed boys and girls were given the leg up to a position in this space. If the "arrival of waywardness" as at least one recent history of the JNU has it, is the end of all good things before the Mandal years, there were plenty of non-academic considerations that had weighed in well before then. But by and large the vigilance of the student body, among other things, has made for a relatively responsible faculty body. Much more needs to be done to make this body fully accountable.

Then why make a case for such "exceptionality" at a time like this? Because just at the time of the defiant, though tragic, death of Rohith Vemula in an HCU hostel room, there was an event in the JNU which underlined the importance of good leadership in our troubled institutional spaces. It was a meeting organised to felicitate the end of the five-year term of Professor Sudhir Sopory as vice chancellor.

There was an extraordinary warmth and unanimity to the way in which every section of the university - students, faculty, staff - felt well-served under his regime. Here was a vice chancellor who believed in maintaining the reputation of the JNU as a centre of excellence, a space that encouraged political activity and debate, and responded to crises appropriately and in a timely way.

Even disasters produced opportunities in his regime. Following the incident of July 31, 2013, when a female student was brutally attacked by a frustrated fellow student, who went on to kill himself, it became an opportunity to establish new norms for gender senstivisation and training.

When there were charges of harassment by faculty of students, a swift justice was ensured. It is precisely the pursuit of these processes to the logical end that has earned the JNU the mistaken reputation, through unreflective media reportage, of being the place where the maximum amount of sexual harassment happens!

Above all, students, staff and faculty alike admired the spirit of approachability consciously nurtured by vice chancellor Prof Sopory. Those of us who serve on selection committees know only too well that the "vice" in a vice chancellor makes its appearance quite overtly at these important times, and "unapproachability" is seen as one of the necessary perquisites of the job. The JNU V-C has scrupulously overseen the process of making appointments in a free and unquestionable manner.

In his customary self-effacing way, Prof Sopory acknowledged that he was amply aided by the faculty, staff and students of the university. He may be right, in regarding himself as a "maintenance" vice chancellor (my words, not his). But we know too well, and from too close an example in this capital city itself, the dangers of "visionary" vice chancellors, who wanted to leave their "mark" but have left only a monumental ruin, or an indelible stain.

In his farewell speech, low key and low voiced, Prof Sopory defended the JNU's reputation as a very political space ("we need to produce political leaders for India"): indeed, he had made it his mission to revive the student union despite even some student opposition. He made two impassioned and undoubtedly sincere pleas for raising the standards of teaching and research, to which there should be no limits, and to remain sensitive to the extraordinary conditions of deprivation faced by many members of the student body. These foundational disadvantages, he emphasised, cannot always be undone in a higher education institution such as the JNU, but it called for a kind of compassion towards the student body. To those of us who insist on "blindness" to such foundational hierarchies, his was a sobering but necessary correction.

Now more than ever we must recognise both the academic and non-academic challenges to the lives of Indian universities, and heed those forms of leadership that have nurtured these spaces. It is a shame that such leadership has been so exceptional, if only because it has striven to protect and preserve academic autonomy and to maintain the relevance of institutions of higher learning by taking both faculty abilities and student needs into account.

It is a shame too that we need to draw attention to these rare examples of administrators who have built up trust and goodwill, in what is increasingly being seen as an ungovernable space. Such qualities are indeed rarer and rarer, and relatively unappreciated. But it is not too late to celebrate, as the JNU did on that day, the possibilities enabled by true academic leadership.

(The headline of the article was changed post publication.)

Last updated: January 24, 2016 | 20:27
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