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Are public universities under threat?

NEW DELHI, 29/11/2016: Activists of JNUSU protesting at JNU campus "Jawab Do Protest" after 45 days of Najeeb's disappearance, demanding to punish ABVP activists, in New Delhi on Tuesday. 
Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

NEW DELHI, 29/11/2016: Activists of JNUSU protesting at JNU campus "Jawab Do Protest" after 45 days of Najeeb's disappearance, demanding to punish ABVP activists, in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Recently, Romila Thapar and 11 others were asked to submit their CVs so that a committee appointed by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) could evaluate their body of work and decide on their continuation as Professors Emeriti. In a conversation moderated by Anuradha Raman , Delhi University professor Satish Deshpande and noted Indian economist and former JNU Vice Chancellor Y.K. Alagh speak of the pressures Indian universities face today and the process by which professors are honoured with the Emeritus/ Emerita title. Edited excerpts:

Professor Deshpande, every university is facing two kinds of enemies: one from within and one from outside. What do you have to say to that?

Satish Deshpande: I would say that today the very idea of a university seems to be in danger in India. In particular, the public university is an important institution for a country like India. We have a lot of poverty and inequality. We are not in a position to redistribute any resources other than access to higher education. We can’t distribute land and wealth. So, the only resource that provides hope for social mobility for the have-nots is access to higher education. For that reason, public universities are important.

The other function of universities, especially public universities, is, to put it very grandly, to think critically on behalf of society. But we seem to be in the presence of a mindset, particularly amongst those who are wielding power, that universities are meant to amplify feel-good feelings. If this idea of a university is pursued, it will kill the idea of a university. Universities are meant to be distinct from society so that space can be used to experiment with ideas, to be critical knowing that you are in a protected space. What is not possible in mainstream society should be possible in a university. Both of these ideas — the university as a source of access to social mobility and the older liberal idea of the university as an oasis in society where critical thinking is deliberately promoted in the larger interest of the society — are in danger in different ways.

There are two main planks to this. One is in the proliferation of contradictory policies, and this started when Kapil Sibal was HRD Minister. There has been a lot of activity on the part of the government to frame policies without a coherent roadmap. There has been a proliferation of such initiatives. That is one dimension. There is slow strangulation which is happening — policy confusion and a lack of a larger vision. The other plank is the openly anti-intellectual stance. Intellectuals of all varieties are being vilified and the university as an institution is under attack. Universities like JNU, Hyderabad University, Allahabad University, Delhi University and Tata Institute of Social Sciences have been under attack. This is a very difficult time for universities in India.

Professor Alagh, is the very idea of a university in danger?

Y.K. Alagh: Universities are meant to be both autonomous and accountable. They have to perform. In that sense, they are accountable [to the public]. The best universities create skills in the cultural and economic context of society. That is why this notion we have that we can create global universities is not right.


Professor Deshpande, wasn’t distrust between the political dispensation and public universities always the case? What is different now?

SD: While all political parties dislike their political enemies, they have tended to distinguish between their enemies and the institutions to which their enemies belong. I am not saying that individual academics were not targeted in the past. But the previous regimes [including the earlier NDA regime under Atal Bihari Vajpayee] stopped short of damaging institutions. But this regime does not mind destroying institutions, as it nurses a grudge that the Right has been treated shabbily.

How legitimate is that grudge?

SD: It is true that they were sidelined. The question is, how do you respond to it? Ideally, in an academic context, you respond with rigorous research to prove your point and produce your own intellectuals who can argue the same. That is not happening.

Professor Alagh, what do you have to say about political interference in universities in administrative affairs?

YKA: This incident concerning Romila Thapar that you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation... I appointed Professors Emeriti and they are clearly for a lifetime. The whole thing is done after due process. The JNU Vice-Chancellor is a powerful man because there is a separate Act for JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University Act, 1966]. It is a very special university. Why is this whole business being flogged now? I think you should ask the administration. I do find it not in the spirit of the JNU I knew. The late G. Parthasarathy, who was the first Vice-Chancellor, had framed the guidelines for the Vice-Chancellor of the university. We could pick anyone and make him or her a professor. A very famous editor of a national daily was sacked; we appointed him. In all such cases, our guidelines said, you must get the best letters of references from the best people in the world. So, we don’t appoint professors without reference, without following due process. Whenever I travelled abroad, people were curious to know who would succeed such and such professor in the history department of JNU. The university had that reputation. That’s what makes JNU special.

Tell us about how Professors Emeriti were honoured during your tenure as Vice-Chancellor of JNU. What was the goal?

YKA: The objective of honouring academics for life was actually an objective in the charter of JNU. For some reason the process had been discontinued and it was in my tenure that we chose to revive it. The process, often long-drawn-out, involved consulting people within the university and in universities abroad on the eminence of the people chosen for the honour. Once approved, I took it to the academic council and the executive council. These honours, I repeat, are for life. I don’t understand why the university has chosen to belittle them.

You had mentioned that the JNU Vice-Chancellor is a very powerful man. A committee appointed two years ago by the HRD Ministry had observed that an important reason for poor outcomes was increasing political interference. There was a suggestion that the office of the Vice-Chancellor should be depoliticised.

YKA: It is obvious that there is a process by which a Vice-Chancellor is appointed. You cannot tamper with the process. I was in Spain when I was informed that a search committee had chosen me as the Vice-Chancellor of JNU. Obviously, if you bring in reasons other than a person’s abilities, that would be extremely unfortunate for the university. Politicisation means you put in politicians in the search committee rather than experts. That would be unfortunate. But mind you, given the nature of our society, there are some distinguished academics who are in some sense closer to a viewpoint. I wouldn’t be upset if an Arun Shourie or an Arun Jaitley was part of a search process of the director of a national institute. But you have to get people who have the capability, the educational qualifications and experience. It should be depoliticised in the narrow sense of the term. But whether you can do so in the larger liberal sense of the term, I am not so sure. Vice-Chancellors, after all, are also thinking people. They should be people of high capability and distinction.

Professor Deshpande, how important is it to insulate the appointment of the Vice-Chancellor from the political structure of the day?

SD: It is also important to nurture democratic structures of decision-making and opinion-making within the university. Sometimes, you have a situation where the Vice-Chancellor becomes an unquestioned centre of power and democratic structure within the university. That can be counterproductive. As Professor Alagh said, autonomy and accountability have to be multi-level things. There has to be a structure of accountability within the university among different stakeholders: teachers, students, the administration, and so on. Similarly, for autonomy. Different kinds of autonomy at different levels have to be protected. So, yes, a certain amount of insulation is desirable, but it has to be within the framework of transparency and accountability. But the overall framework within which all this operates is trust. That trust has been eroded. I think the ruling class today no longer trusts institutions that don’t overtly and constantly support them. I think all kinds of institutions have to be insulated from centres of power in different ways.

YKA: Let me just elaborate on the point made by Professor Deshpande with an example. JNU has an academic council which is at the heart of the game. That tends to be an institution where there is a lot of contestations. Academic council meetings would go on for hours until a decision was arrived at. A university is a place for ideas which have to be contested. The Vice-Chancellor has to implement the decision. If the Vice-Chancellor doesn’t understand this, he will destroy the university.

Do you agree that no political party has had any vision of higher education? Has that brought down the idea of what a university should be?

SD: You are partly right in saying that parties don’t have the kind of vision we have of universities. On the other hand, if you look at their attitude towards universities as exemplifying their ideals, today there is a terrifying vision at work. What really concerns me is that we in the social sciences are particularly affected by the recent developments with this government in particular. The very idea of social sciences is imperiled now. The very function of a university — nurturing debate in the interest of improving things by constructive criticism is endangered. Social sciences are being particularly targeted. Today we are being told that the university has to be an echo board for the government. Regardless of the ideology of the government, we are headed towards disaster if that is what a government demands of universities.

Both Delhi University and JNU have seen a lot of activism. What should a researcher’s primary responsibility be in a public-funded university?

YKA: Universities have to be tolerant of activism. If a student does not ask for change, who will? Progress comes when people say, ‘this is wrong, we want change’. This whole idea that universities are supposed to impart only skills is rubbish. It’s about understanding how and what skills matter. A university builds students for the future. What is the idea of progress all about? Are we supposed to be talking only about what the government wants to be done? Is that progress?

SD: It is impossible to impart skills without a point of view. As long as skills are going to be deployed in society, it is not possible to divorce skills from political views in a broad sense. The university is a union of young people and ideas, and when you bring the two together, there is an effervescence which is bound to be good for society. That’s why even as the university has to be accountable to society, it has to be at once removed from society.

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