Wanted: intellectual leaders, not CEOs

In their eagerness to push through reforms, Vice Chancellors resort to emergency powers, creating an atmosphere in which dissent is a no-no and education the casualty

Updated - December 01, 2012 02:48 am IST

Published - December 01, 2012 12:47 am IST

121201 - Lead - Repositioning the VC

121201 - Lead - Repositioning the VC

As the dictionaries tell us, and as every educated person knows, ‘education’ involves something more than mere knowledge, training, or skill. The ‘something more’ is hard to describe and harder still to evaluate. This is particularly true in our hyper-technological age, when there is nothing ‘mere’ about invaluable assets like knowledge, training or skill, together summarised as competence. That is why there is great ambivalence today about whether universities and colleges should impart anything more or other than competence. Most higher educational institutions either do not feel they need to, or are actually unable to do so. However, even elite public universities — institutions best placed to pursue the traditional ideals of education — are floundering. Most worrisome is the fact that the logic of their institutional position seems to make Vice Chancellors and other institutional heads part of the problem rather than the solution.

Definition of VC

Who or what is a Vice Chancellor today? If this were a multiple choice examination question, the options would be easy to imagine: 1) the CEO of an academic corporation; 2) an academic or bureaucrat with political connections; 3) a person selected by accident, error or compromise; and 4) an intellectual leader. Any school child familiar with the pieties of our examination system would easily identify (4) as the answer most likely to be ‘correct’ simply because this is how every Vice Chancellor (VC) is always described after he (rarely she) attains this exalted status. But any adult minimally acquainted with our universities would equally easily recognise that, though they may not be ‘correct’, the first three answers are more likely to be true. The sobering fact is that these options are arranged in order of their importance in Indian higher education today. Intellectual leadership is currently the most dispensable qualification for becoming a VC.

Unfortunately, this assessment is not born out of cynicism but out of the structural features shaping higher education in the era of “reforms”. The astonishingly rapid expansion of this sector has changed it beyond recognition. Many more universities have been set up in the past 10 years than in the preceding 140 years since the first modern universities were established in India. Much of this growth has been in the private sector, which today accounts for the majority of enrolled students and about two-thirds of the institutions. For obvious reasons, the technical-professional fields have expanded the most, and well over 75 per cent of such institutions are private. That is why the corporate manager is the most common type of VC or institution head today. This type also has its public sector variant, the academic entrepreneur who invests in a VC-ship, now an option in some States where fully marketised VC posts are available to the highest bidder without regard to caste, party, creed or credentials. Whether private or public, commercially minded institutions will not be interested in education as such. Most State level institutions, though not commercial in this sense, are so hamstrung by political, financial and caste constraints that they and their VCs do not have any space to nurture education.

Central Universities

By contrast, VCs of Central Universities enjoy a high degree of autonomy. A peer-led selection process avoids direct political interference. The Acts of Parliament under which Central Universities (CUs) are established ensure basic protection from external threats. Though constrained by larger social or political realities, they cannot be forced to act as proxies of the government or the University Grants Commission. The other side of this coin is that the VCs of CUs are, in practice, accountable to no one. In principle, they answer to their employer, the President of India, who is expected to maintain a dignified distance. VCs are also meant to work under the oversight of the Executive Council and the Academic Council, but the realities of power usually ensure that these councils are themselves subservient to the VC.

Autonomy for VCs should be good news, but it often is not, mainly because autonomy starts and stops with the VC — it does not automatically devolve to the rest of the university. Unlike the optional accountability of the VC, the rest of the system is very much under the VC’s control, despite the basic security of tenure available to permanent employees. The most important factor is the nature of the VC’s role in India. Unlike VCs in the United States or heads of research institutions in India, VCs of CUs do not have to worry about raising basic resources. The minimal lateral mobility possible within a centralised and elitist system ensures that faculty recruitment is not a primary concern. So the well-intentioned VC eager to make a mark tends to focus on academic ‘reforms’, a sphere in which she or he typically encounters resistance or dissent from the faculty. Despite the variety of motives that might lie behind it, such friction and debate are productive and necessary in an academic setting, but it gets vitiated because of the style in which ‘reform’ is often attempted.

‘Big bang’ innovations

In a climate where ‘reform’ is already a magic mantra and the public sphere is thoroughly media-saturated, there is a premium on swift and dramatic ‘big bang’ innovations. Small, slow, incremental changes lubricated by regular and detailed discussions are rarely media friendly, and few VCs have the patience or the inclination to invest in them. In keeping with the prevailing culture, VCs — like most ambitious people — are allergic to anonymity. The long-term erosion of a shared work ethic obscures the fact that painstaking, behind-the-scenes drudge-work is the life blood of institutions, and that it is every bit as important as the more visible or memorable events. Moreover, such work is anonymous only from an external point of view — it is collective work done with colleagues, to whom it is perfectly visible. Such work certainly takes time, specially when it involves a laborious consultative process, but it is the only legitimate and sustainable method of bringing about change in an academic community. In their anxiety to achieve big things within their terms, impatient VCs often resort to coercion via emergency powers. This initiates a self-perpetuating spiral of administrative edicts provoking resistance which invites more edicts. The final stage is when universities are imagined as nations at war and a “if you dissent you are the enemy” mentality takes shape.

To break out of this increasingly common impasse, it is necessary to return to the intangible ‘more’ that separates education from competence. The essence of this excess is that it cannot be produced directly because it is a by-product that emerges within a certain environment. Creating and nurturing such an environment is the main mission of universities, but an imperious intolerance of debate is its very antithesis. Efforts to discipline a delinquent minority — the standard justification for draconian measures — alienate the diligent majority and insult the other crucial minority of dedicated teachers. If VCs genuinely wish to make a lasting contribution to the universities entrusted to their care, they will have to acquire the fortitude and humility to educate themselves in the slow and painstaking methods of intellectual leadership.

(Apoorvanand teaches Hindi and Satish Deshpande Sociology at the University of Delhi. The views expressed here are personal.)

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