Is the idea of a liberal university in crisis? Probably, yes.
The constant attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) - a centre for higher education that promises philosophically nuanced and socially relevant education, and nurtures good academicians, social activists and civil servants - indicate that a situation is grave. As an insider, I feel that it is important to understand the meaning of the politico-pedagogic turmoil we are passing through.
As neoliberal global capitalism produces its "knowledge economy" and asserts the need for a new "knowledgeable" man - "technically skilled" and capable of selling oneself as a "resource" in the market, "utility", "efficiency" and "profitability" become the foundations of the master narrative of the nation's educational philosophy.
No wonder, liberal education with its emphasis on critical social sciences, hermeneutic arts and aesthetics, non-utilitarian philosophical discourses and even foundational theoretical sciences are seen as hindrances to the fulfilment of the demand for "skilled" workforce for corporate capitalism.
This narrow meaning of education has gained tremendous legitimacy in an era in which the ruling forces seek to promote social conservatism with the rationale of technical efficiency. Possibly, JNU - some sort of intellectual embodiment of the socialist legacy of Nehruvian progressive science and secular humanism - does no longer fit into the changing ethos of technocratic reasoning and religious nationalism.
This makes it easier for us to understand the symptoms of the crisis. For instance, the new administration seeks to alter the uniqueness of the university known for its excellent academic culture in both cultural and natural sciences. As it intends to introduce engineering and management, we realise that vice-chancellor, Jagadesh Kumar, far from acting as a visionary educationist, is celebrating a purely technical rationality devoid of a pedagogic sensibility needed to differ from the establishment ideology.
While every corner of the country has seen the neurotic growth of engineering/management colleges, there are very few places left for pure research and profound liberal education. It is sad that the V-C is not in tune with the very spirit and promise of JNU - its critical and dialogic education, its political sensibilities, its language of dissent. Is it the reason why a retired and aggressive Army general becomes a "guest" of the university, moves around the campus, and asserts that "JNU has finally been conquered"? Otherwise, what is the reason for the leader of the institution - a professor of engineering, who once taught at IIT-Delhi - to feel the installation of a model military tank on the campus is the best guarantee for arousing patriotic sentiments among students and teachers? It is sad and absurd, tragic as well as comic.
In fact, as this crisis intensifies further, it manifests itself in a broken communication filled with the all-pervading fear of conspiracy, revenge and victimisation. No wonder, with the disappearance of a collegial relationship between the caged administration and a significant section of the teaching community, and the eventual erosion of the sanctity of the bodies such as the Academic Council, we see the assertion of "discretionary power" by the vice-chancellor in the appointment of the deans of different schools or tragically in the selection of experts for filling the new faculty positions.
In this toxic environment of doubt and apprehension, it is not surprising that new appointments are seen with suspicion; dissent notes are circulated; and the dictates of power are allowed to replace the rigor of an enriched academic conversation, and dismiss the concerns expressed by well-meaning senior professors. With court cases, allegations and counter allegations the university looks like a war zone; and the vice-chancellor's office begins to resemble a Kafkaesque castle.
What has further worsened the situation is the absolutely arbitrary way in which the V-C has removed "disobedient" deans and chairpersons from their respective positions. In a way, this non-dialogic administration has failed to understand why students are unhappy and why such academically renowned and sincere teachers are agitating. The deeper academic issues for the smooth functioning of a liberal university - say, how to strengthen the rich history of a sustained teacher-taught interaction through engaged pedagogy that leads to voluntary participation in the culture of learning, and thereby nullifies the bureaucratic practice of mandatory attendance -are forgotten. Likewise, he fails to realise the significance of the relative autonomy of each centre, the dignity of the teacher, and the role of the rotating chairperson as a representative of the collective voice of the centre. In fact, these days in JNU what prevails is the sadism of the administration, the language of power articulated through its circulars and notifications; and, ironically, everyday functioning of the university, be it submitting a duty leave application or conducting a PhD viva voce, becomes an exceedingly difficult task.
All concerned educationists and citizens, I believe, need to come forward, and take part in this pedagogic and ethical struggle for the restoration of the spirit of the university. Here is a struggle that, because of its very nature, has to be seen beyond the parameters of partisan politics. This is not about "left" vs "right"; this is not merely about JNU; this is for the recovery of the lost space of creative and critical thinking, and emancipatory education without which no society can retain its soul alive.