As Sudhir Krishnaswamy takes up the role of vice-chancellor of the prestigious Bengaluru-based National Law School of India University (NLSIU), he has already broken the mould in many ways. He is just 44, doesn’t wear a stuffy suit to work, and his taking over as vice-chancellor last month was preceded by massive protests over the delay in his appointment. Formerly professor at Azim Premji University, the Rhodes scholar is now heading an institution that is his alma mater. In a freewheeling conversation, Krishnaswamy spoke about his priorities for the university and about the road ahead for legal education in India. Excerpts:
Students boycotted classes and exams over the bureaucratic hurdles in your appointment. Do you think such protests are healthy?
The NLSIU campus has had a vibrant culture of student activism over decades. Significantly, student activism is not driven by party politics and has been largely constructive. These forms of student activism can contribute to a healthy community if it revitalises communication and engagement. Ideally, we should proactively engage and communicate with our students and this would make protest unnecessary.
There has been some concern over the lack of diversity in NLSIU. What are your views?
The institution, over the last decade, has witnessed a demographic transition and we have more students now from tier-II and tier-III cities than before. It is probably more diverse now in class and background terms. It is wrong to say there is an absence of diversity, but we can do better and we should. But if we have to reflect on the diversity of the country, maybe we need to grow and be a larger university.
Earlier this year, an NLSIU student committed suicide, putting the spotlight on the lack of adequate mental health facilities, especially for those from vulnerable sections. This is an issue in several universities. How do you propose to address this?
It is not only an academic issue. It is an issue that has its roots in the well-being of students on campus. Well-being is not just about counselling and medical referral facilities, which is important but is at the extreme end of the problem. We need to respond to issues of well-being before it reaches the medical intervention stage. We need to improve the social and culture life of students on campus. We need to ensure that we have good sports and cultural facilities. A residential campus can sometimes get very insular and I want to break that. I want to bring the city in and take the students out, put an emphasis on the well-being part rather than the mental health aspect. They are not exclusive of each other but we do both.
What are your views on 10% reservation for economically weaker sections? Is NLSIU set to implement it?
The governing bodies of the university have tasked a committee to review the implementation of various reservation policies in NLSIU over the years. We hope to make good progress by early next year. Once we have clarity on the implementation process we need to find the massive resources essential to support these policies as our current financial resources cannot support such programmes.
What role can NLSIU play in making the justice system more accessible to the common man?
Universities conventionally run law clinics that provide legal services to those who cannot otherwise access these services. NLSIU is a pioneer in the legal clinic movement in India. However, no legal clinic programme can provide services on a scale that can address the unmet legal needs of such a large country. So NLSIU can have a large impact on access to legal services only if we ideate and incubate large-scale private and public sector reforms in legal access. We hope to institutionalise such an initiative in the name of our founder-director N.R. Madhava Menon, and solicit widespread public support to make this a reality by early 2020.
How do we ensure that bright students take up human rights litigation and academia rather than corporate jobs that seem to be more popular?
A quick survey of NLSIU alumni career choices shows that it has produced more exceptional legal academics in the last three decades than any other Indian law university. Our alumni are now appointed as senior advocates and judges at various high courts in higher numbers than from just about any other university. Finally, NLSIU alumni have established and staffed some of the most important human rights organisations across India. It is not for a university to dictate career choices to its students. We must educate students well and cultivate the disposition to act in public interest. We may even nudge and encourage students to explore particular careers. Our role ends with that. Then the professions, civil society and academia should develop viable pathways and careers to attract these students.
Higher educational institutions are increasingly expected to generate their own funds. Is this responsible for the financial crisis that NLSIU is facing?
Legal education has survived on very low levels of public funding. These institutions have primarily relied on student fees. While private institutions have been able to charge exceptionally high fees, public institutions like NLSIU have had to tread a middle ground. Institutions like NLSIU have been caught in a double bind as regular expenditures have risen with the implementation of Seventh Pay Commission scales while student fees have not been inflation indexed. So in the short term we need to raise fees and tighten our belts to get through, but in the long term NLSIU will need to diversify its sources of funding to not rely so heavily on fees. NLSIU has a deficit of ₹4.89 crore on an operating revenue of ₹25 crore. The fee hike will resolve 50% of the deficit, but I’m looking at some expenditure that can be drastically reduced.
Does law curriculum pay adequate attention to Indian constitutional history?
Conventionally, most law curricula have ignored a historical or contextual approach to understanding legal rules. So we often study constitutional legal rules and cases without a sharp understanding of historical provenance and motivations. Can we understand Article 17 on the abolition of untouchability without an understanding of the social and political history of the practice? So in my view, Indian constitutional and political history must be compulsory reading in all undergraduate programmes, not just law programmes.
At a personal level, will your new role not restrict or even eclipse your research and activist interests?
The vice-chancellor’s role demands both academic and intellectual leadership as well as administrative and institutional development. So I will continue to be an active teacher and researcher and engage with the world of ideas. When I express a view on policy and public affairs, that view is personal. The university does not express a single point of view on any question. By definition, the university is polyvocal and a platform for diverse voices.