For more than two years, the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi has been regularly witnessing unrest. On March 16, JNU Teachers’ Association decided to launch a Satyagraha and hunger strike, which they have started from March 19 against the vice-chancellor’s decision to remove several deans and department chairpersons for their refusal to implement his arbitrary decision of compulsory attendance for students.
Almost all faculty members and students of the university have been opposing this controversial and inept idea of the JNU vice-chancellor to make attendance mandatory for all students, including research scholars. The student union of JNU is firmly standing together with their professors and the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the administration on the one hand and professors and students on the other, threatens the protest to get further confrontational and creative.
In the last week of December 2017, ignoring all procedural rules and norms, the JNU VC has forced this decision of compulsory attendance on the university. The imposition of mandatory attendance system in a modern and progressive university like JNU, which is primarily engaged in research in social sciences and humanities defies academic logic.
Although the attendance rule has brought teachers and students together to launch this protest now, the discontentment has been brewing for the past two years over the authoritarian mismanagement of the university by the vice-chancellor. In October 2017, JNU Teachers’ Association even instituted a high-profile public inquiry against the vice-chancellor, which had found him repeatedly violating statutory provisions of the university and the obligations of his office.
However, it seems the vice-chancellor is less interested in listening to his colleagues and working for the well-being of the university and its students. Rather, he is blindly pushing the regime’s agenda to do whatever he can to kill the JNU’s unique spirit of academic excellence coupled with independent political activism. His ideologically biased authoritarian decision-making is bringing crisis after crisis to this prestigious academic institution.
Discussions in Academic Council meetings are being throttled and decisions are being super-imposed. The number of intake of new research students has been unsustainably reduced. Mess fees for the resident students have been doubled. Regularly, rules for admission and employment are being tampered with to destroy the reservation policy of the university. The criteria for selecting new faculty members have been seriously compromised to recruit right-wing sympathisers. A professor is accused of sexually harsassing female students on several occasions, but is being provided protection as he belongs to the coterie.
Over and above, the university has been on the boil for the past two years due to the vice-chancellor’s open promotion of nationalist-Hindutva politics in a predominantly left-leaning campus.
Just over two years ago, M Jagadesh Kumar, a professor of electrical engineering from IIT-Delhi was almost handpicked by the present regime to be the vice-chancellor of JNU. Jagadesh Kumar had no experience of high-level academic administration before he became the vice-chancellor of a such a high-profile university. The only administration job he had done as a professor in IIT was that he was their "timetable in-charge". But, the decision to appoint him as the vice-chancellor of JNU was not based on his academic administrative merits, but his ideological affiliation to the ruling right-wing group.
Jagadesh Kumar has a long association with a RSS-backed organisation, Vinjana Bharati. His "right-wing nationalist" mindset and lack of prior academic administrative experiences have made his selection to lead a university like JNU a disaster.
The vice-chancellor has clearly failed as a leader. The university has been in turmoil since he took office. Robert L Katz, in his classic work, "Skills of an Effective Administrator", published in the Harvard Business Review in 1955 for the first time had listed three skills needed for an effective leader: technical, human and conceptual. Technical skills are about knowledge and understanding of a specific task, human skills are the ability to work with others and to build cooperation, and conceptual skills are the ability to envisage the organisation as a whole.
Jagadesh Kumar clearly lacks all these three basic administrative skills to run a large reputable academic institution like JNU successfully. He has no understanding or experience of academic administration as he continues to act like an Army general, fails to take students and teachers along and be able to coordinate among colleagues well. More importantly, he carries a very unsuitable vision for a social science focused inter-disciplinary research university like JNU due to his technological institution (IIT) background.
To pursue his agenda, JNU vice-chancellor Jagadesh Kumar is regularly infringing upon the ideals of Lehrfreiheit (freedom for the teacher) and Lernfreiheit (freedom for the student), which are critical features of a modern university.
Academic freedom is the foundational idea of the success of a university. A faculty must have the freedom to teach freely and a researcher to carry out research work in an objective and independent manner within the walls of the university. Freedom to teach and do research is the most valued privilege of a university, which is being consistently undermined by the vice-chancellor who seems to be lacking the basic skills of an academic administrator.
The successful academic institutions are those that function smoothly as a unit and not being seen as being dictated from the top. When the head of the institution become highly visible and invites controversies, it is sure that things have failed to work out in the academic workplace. This has been unfortunately the case with JNU, and Jagadesh Kumar has got a penchant for capturing news headlines for all the wrong reasons.
His continuing confrontation with teachers and students might be serving the regime’s political agenda, but has brought immense harm to arguably the most-important academic institution in India.