It becomes a call of conscience to prevent entropy of our cherished workplaces as most of us may not be born King Nero who fiddled as Rome burned. This column comes at the face of an arbitrary order to supersede three senior professors and make way for a down in the ladder person as head of one of the largest departments of a premiere ‘Delhi University’. Those working in universities have found impudence to established practices a new norm as the Ministry of Education watches with eyes wide shut. In an environment where the ruling party spokespersons in universities clamor for once in lifetime positions, leapfrogging comes close to define organisational ethics. I cannot help sharing an experience from JNU when at the peak of contemptuously turbulent politics, a scholarly Chairperson was asked to continue on his position as a Chairperson of a Centre beyond his statutory tenure. He shared his immediate response which erupted as a question to the authority, ‘Is any one of us so weak as to need norm defiance to handle adversities?’ What followed was a healthy transition in that que. A decadent disorder has been ignited by undeserving out-of-turn position holders in some of the luminously inspirational marque Schools/Centres of most universities but the two lighthouse iconic universities of the country in Delhi stand plundered and vandalized. I find a toolkit containing five key steps which have been universally followed to ultimately destroy a university.
Many decision-makers have never been or interacted with universities so to understand it needs some deep thinking. University is one of the greatest innovations of civilization that has over many centuries proved to be the strongest shield against institutional sclerosis. It’s a manifestation of a culture in which norms, traditions, communication, and humor become a brand of expression immortalized in a crucible of democracy and competition. The history of ascending authoritarian powers across eras and generations has demonstrated how universities are the biggest roadblocks against a parochial ideology swooping divisiveness, normative insolence, and the impossibility of dialogue. Autocrats abhor a university in which unrelenting elasticity, incessant tolerance to bizarre ideas, a mutuality of learning within a physical space growing beyond universal dogmas, and astronomical discoveries on life by the young display an overdemanding rebellion at every step. It’s a primordial wrestling ring for the rise and fall of ideas and by virtue of that more ideas collapse than those which are carried forward. Most guardians are found complaining that she was fine till she joined this university but post-university when these kids shine out as administrators, artists, entrepreneurs, or decision-makers in politics, their depth of thinking attracts many followers. It is this process of subjective and undiscerning independence inside universities that threatens political shellfish with short shelf lives. The last few years have seen a steep downslide of most central universities and an intellectual loot of state universities nonetheless monumental economic starvation caused by the appointment of substandard vice-chancellors and their quick fix professors.
Some years ago on my way to a farewell meeting of an outgoing vice-chancellor, I was introduced to the new incumbent. It was not hard to read through him in a glance, what was likely to befall in five years which would follow. This regimented, straight-jacketed, cold-faced with the inability to look into your eyes during a conversation was not a university species. Soon the story started unfolding as it became mandatory for senior women Chairpersons, Deans and Professors were to be accompanied by his woman office assistant even for confidential work-related issues. One Dean came out in dismay on why did she think of coming to this robotic VC who made a vibrant office into an evasive, blank, and non-communicative dead area. Definitely, university was now dealing with a product of a school which was imparting training in vocational sciences such as engineering, technology, and machines right after the 12th class, or in military sciences where regimentation allows no mistakes, personalities are hierarchical, beliefs hardened, and approach punitive. The predicament of these clay-potter schools and universities were poles apart. While one believed that there are poor the other questioned the structures which create poverty, while one believed that nation should be defended at the cost of our lives the other questioned why, how, and who creates wars? These were unsettling to the new breed of vice-chancellors. A university in which the young come to experiment and contest mainstream ideas were being imparted some basic childhood sermons such as ‘early to bed…’, ‘an apple a day….’, ‘be positive…’ and that too as ‘Sermon on the Mount’. The university suddenly froze as protests, rebellions and violence tarnished the environment to throw out what the students presumed was a UFO. New breed VCs had no toolkit to address and resolve this situation. Here onwards begins the end of an idea called a university, a most enlightening product of our civilization.
So what are the five steps of a toolkit to destroy a university?
Step one is to defame gregariousness within a university as an antinational alliance. This is to overcome a pang of guilt and escape public scrutiny on stringent police action to follow against dissenters. Language experts question the slovenliness and naivety in the use of these new labels which branded students as anti-nationals, urban-naxals, Tukde-Tukde gang, and also sickular. In frenzied self-defence the university authorities sought police, anti-terrorist squads and posted army-men security in student hostels who treated and dehumanized them every moment as China and Pakistani gangs in a conspiracy against India. An idea was made real with all help from the Home Ministry and army Generals in their new roles as political analysts on TV. Every university was asked to set up a wall of martyrs with a borrowed parochialism of a Sainik School or Defence Academies raised to serve a purpose in contrast to a university that trains to question the very ‘purpose’.
Step two comes to control the decision-making bodies of the university. This is a difficult task as there is a Parliamentary Act and an ordinance that controls it just as a Constitution controls the government. Every central university has an Academic Council (AC) which is the most compelling participatory space for teachers and students vis university authorities. While the ordinance provides for all Deans, Chairpersons, Student Union, and Teacher Union representation in it, there are more thoughtful added innovations in providing space for the junior-most and senior-professors into it. There are many outsiders with high-profile academics and public service records. Mostly, compliant VCs of smaller state-controlled universities or Directors of engineering institutes and politicians get access through ruling party support into the AC. It’s a noisy but fully democratic place were contentious, illegal and unethical decisions are challenged as well as defended. However, this space got closed as the new VCs installed CC cameras and video recordings of these meetings consequently followed by police FIRs and defamation suits against faculty and other student members. During my tenure in the next higher decisional body the Executive Council (EC) which has just 24 members, I had to protest against a repeated show of a woman professor’s video clipping while the government nominated representatives from Meerut, Azamgarh, and Sonipat (new entrants to such august university bodies) giggled on her body language in jeans and short top. I was immediately an outcast in the EC. The VCs control EC by manipulating representation. Most small schools and special centres are clubbed to send one representative for all, around 4-major schools to send only ex-officio representatives, of the many Rectors only one Rector is a member, affiliated institutions could be from 2-6 in most established central universities and are represented as individual members. The total strength of EC which is a body higher than AC is around 24 and the quorum is a mere 6. This is too easy for any manipulative VC to obtain.
Step three is to prop compliant, insecure, and non-meritorious Deans for sustained support to authorities in the AC and EC. The Ordinance lays down the seniority principle but ethics fill the little space left out for scholarly practices. Ironically, this small and constricted area becomes a high-profile wrestling ring for killing scholarship, free speech, and freedom of expression. During 2016-17 many Assistant Professors were promoted to Associate and full Professors within less than a year and in some exemplary cases within less than a month while a long list of meritorious pending promotions was kept on hold. The ordinance does not mention a time duration between each promotion but lets expect the document’s inability to capture human machination on the belief that scholars do follow basic ethical principles. A pretty inexperienced, underconfident backbencher was given the charge of JNU’s mega torchbearer Social Science School, a one-year tenure at the university became another Dean, and so on. All those who campaigned against these policies faced scathing internal trials and some who retired in the years that followed have still to recover their post-retirement benefits despite High Court orders to support their case.
Step four is to prevent cannon mouth conscience keepers out of Centre’s Chairpersonships. Centres are basic governance units at Central universities. Chairpersons could be agents of the VC in shortlisting and selecting faculty positions. A very senior founder Chairperson of a prime Special Centre was suddenly removed so that the VC could graft a much junior muted beneficiary of the system on this position and this was done on a Teacher’s Day 5th September. This appointment played a key role in appointing three candidates from the listed ideology supporters into the Centre irrespective of their training, specialization, and inclination and also without a PhD at a research centre. However, nervy authorities issued appointment letters to them the same day on an unprecedented online process. If seriously investigated the API scores of new appointments or of promoted category are found manufactured however, a biddable UGC under a compliant Officer made this task easier. Overnight journals started by unemployed students became peer-reviewed UGC-listed API providers. The government further facilitated this task by recycling the same people to decision-making bodies from being a VC to that of a UGC Chairperson. The joke most circulated was that of a ‘career vice chancellor’ coming up as a new cadre under the present government notwithstanding government disproportionate angst at Ministry’s Secretaries who could question these discrepancies.
Step five brings the nastiest show of authoritarianism at a university. The IQAC cells of universities became visiting areas for ideological schoolgoers. A tenth fail ideologue, a compulsive visitor to my office boasted on how important information lies within his reach to shortlist professorial positions around universities. The worst-case scenario was that these grapevine holders penalized those who didn’t give them a damn. The students and teachers unions were slapped with a large number of FIRs and Court cases. No dialogue, no meetings, or grievance redressal. Ideological position holders occupied legal cells of the university and most cases were handed over to them. As more cases arrived, those governing the university as legal counsellors earned gold. Courts have mostly ruled in favour of the students and teachers but it is all without a punitive charge on compliance failure. The contempt of court proceedings have been of little effect. University programmes have completely shrunk, salaries of office staff and pensions of retired employees have been blocked for months, payments never show up for examiners and experts for dissertation and Ph.D. evaluations yet the legal expenditure is exploding through the university walls.Recently in one central university, the VC even refused to dispense with an Rs.3000/- welfare support allocated to employees in need, for cremation of his family member who died of covid.
This toolkit shows how university authorities lower transaction costs by manipulating university ordinance. Yet many killers of such magnificent universities get favourable treatments either as postings into a higher body of National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) or a raise as President of an international university under the Ministry. So try the toolkit!
The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.