Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust. — T.S. Eliot
The Vice-Chancellor of one of the universities in Kerala is put on notice. To this writer, having spent half his career in various positions in higher education — including nearly a decade as Secretary to the Governor/Chancellor — the removal of a VC is preposterous. If his removal is bad, worse still should be his appointment. The appointing authority, expected to decide it on merit, was obviously swayed by extraneous considerations, if the allegations are true.
There was a time when we had as VCs stalwarts like Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who headed our first University Education Commission, which in its recommendations referred to Eliot’s quote given above. Today, the bottom line has plummeted abysmally. Labour not the obvious, to research why our higher education is not high. The VC should be the undisputed leader of the academic community, whose radiating personality should inspire and kindle in their minds an intellectual flame — a thirst for pursuing the pursuit of excellence.
Legend has it that Dr. A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, the prodigious VC of Madras University, successfully handled a prolonged student strike, which showed no sign of respite, with a simple stroke — a threat to resign. The students just couldn’t afford to lose their iconic VC. And the strike was called off. Closer home, Dr. John Mathai was such another inspiration.
Today’s generation could scarce believe that such men were the lights that led our universities. That was some time ago. In the recent past too, we had outstanding VCs like Dr. K.N. Panikkar, the eminent historian: Gangan Prathap, a Bhatnagar-laureate and scientist of national repute, and A. Jayakrishnan, professor, IIT.
Appointing the right VC is perhaps the most critical decision that defines the quality of higher education. A misconception — that has been meekly allowed to become an unwritten rule — is that the Governor, who acts on the ‘aid and advice’ of his Council of Ministers, save in discretionary matters, has to be guided by the government in his function as the Chancellor of universities too. Perhaps, the only exception in Kerala was a decade from the time Justice Sukhdev Singh Kang took over as Governor.
The Sarkaria Commission recommended that the Governor as Chancellor function independently of the government. The Committee of Governors under the chairmanship of Dr. P.C. Alexander, too, supported this view. Still, the perception that it is as an extension of the constitutional ‘aid and advice’ role persists.
The Chancellor is a statutory functionary of the University, governed by the provisions of the relevant Act, who, unlike the Governor, could even be sued for his decisions in court. Despite the legal position being so, in reality, unless the Governor is extraordinarily sensitive to the law and conscious of the impact of his independent functioning on the quality of higher education, he wouldn’t risk his otherwise cosy relationship with the government in his effort to delineate the role of the Chancellor from his natural ‘aid and advice’ functions. A departure from the beaten track, no doubt, causes untold embarrassment to the political executive, who too gets a beating for not getting academic decisions diluted to suit political compulsions, as per the wrong practices considered right precedents.
A quarter century ago, the Kerala government constituted a committee with the Principal Secretary, Higher Education, as chairman and Ernakulam Collector, and the Director of Collegiate Education (this writer) as members, to plan infrastructure for setting up a university at Kalady, named after Sri Sankaracharya. One afternoon, amid a crowd of visitors, came one Professor, with his biodata, to suggest in so many words that this committee recommend his name for appointment as VC. In spite of this writer’s unqualified respect for teachers, he was impelled to ask, “Do you know how a Vice-Chancellor is appointed?”, refraining from a brash comment, “certainly not from the veranda of the Directorate!”
(The author is a former IAS officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)