Forum of publication not known (1981)

Profile of Vice-Chancellors

M.L. Sondhi

When India was proclaimed a Republic on January 26, 1950, an opportunity was missed of making the Union Government directly responsible for higher education. People seem to have thought that those values and institutions which were appropriate to the Montague-Chelmsford Constitutional framework would adequately meet the needs of higher educational planning in the foreseeable future. Today, after 34 years, on balance the evidence suggests that the system of decision-making in higher education, and the structure of power in Indian universities have paralysed progressive elements which are helpless before the conglomerates of vested interests and beliefs. The atmosphere of lively and critical discourse which influenced profoundly, the development of Indian academic life under Vice-Chancellors like Sir Asutosh Mukherjee in pre-Independence India, has been replaced by an academic environment marked by petty animosities, indifference and neglect.

The Government’s position was presented forcefully by the President of India, Mr. Zail Singh, who spoke his mind at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Delhi University: “I’ve been an agitator and am familiar with their tactics. Once they are hell bent on creating trouble, then God alone can help the Vice-Chancellor. The Vice-Chancellor therefore needs the cooperation of the Government.” If this self-critical insight of the President who is the Visitor of Delhi University is accepted, the occasional reference to the selfishness of politicians would actually prevent the concerned public from pursuing the argument into the realm of serious politics. A sense of helplessness and the inability to control events on the campus cannot enhance the image of the vice-chancellor, but the image of a vice-chancellor working in tight partnership or collusion with Government would only raise more serious problems of the repression of intellectual freedom.

There is no easy and obvious answer to the question as to the level of political activism which can be regarded as an optimal part of academic life. Jawaharlal Nehru University has recently conferred an honorary doctorate on Professor Paul Sweezy whose academic experience and problems of political activism made him the symbol of freedom of expression of academic life in the United States during the notorious McCarthy era. Again, Noam Chomsky, who has been welcomed by the establishment on the JNU campus, had spoken of the need to shift from “dissent” to “resistance” after the failure of the peace march on Washington to demand a change in the Vietnam policy of the US Government. The significant question then is: What characteristics account for the different reactions on the part of our policy makers to political activism on campuses abroad and in relation to similar demands at home? The Vice-President, Mr. Hidayatullah, who also took part in the Delhi University celebrations offered his own brand of optimism about student participation in the affairs of the University and placed the burden of proof on the academic establishment by saying: “We do not have a proper concept of how to run a university.” There are some general aspects about the network of academic power in Indian universities which explain why dissent is channelled in negative and socially destructive ways. First, the integrative role of the vice-chancellor has been eroded by ideologically oriented caucuses which seriously diminish outputs of policy-making on behalf of the entire university community. The members of the ruling caucuses of the faculty, under whatever ideological banner, use all sorts of devices to achieve fragmentation of academic power and in the process, push aside such hoary concepts as academic freedom.

Second, secrecy becomes an end in itself and the normal internal communication system in the university is undermined. The climate of opinion which is generated comes in the way of even face to face communication. Normal academic life in many an Indian university has been brought to a standstill by the traumatic memories of hostile encounters between “Leftists” and “Nationalists.” The view that this is inevitable in a politically conscious faculty is certainly fallacious. My personal experience at Oxford University provided a variety of evidence of ideological coexistence. Indeed there is good reason to believe that divergent political and ideological views contributed to tolerance and learning. When I was in residence at Balliol College, Professor Christopher Hill (Communist), Professor Tom Balogh (Socialist) and Professor Paul Streeton (Liberal) all lived in adjoining rooms and each respected the opponent’s point of view. The concept of dissent is really an issue of social imagination which should permeate the whole society and provide opportunity for discussion and debate at all levels.

Third, irrational responses, by those who have the controlling function in the Government, set in motion disconcerting scenarios which reduce the autonomous area of responsibility of the university. The outlook for academic credibility in higher education is disheartening when we think about the controversy surrounding the resignation of the Kurukshetra University Vice-Chancellor. The spotlight has been turned on charges and counter-charges between the Faculty and the Vice-Chancellor. One major uncertainty is, what role the Chancellor and Governor will play in this crisis while fears, speculation and rumours have a field day.

In the Delhi University Diamond Jubilee celebrations mentioned above, the Chief Justice, Mr. Y.V. Chandrachud seemed to propose restrictions on the teachers’ participation in politics since he thought their “quest for power-politics left them with no time for studies.” Teachers have no special pre-disposition towards power politics and nor is this game-psychology unknown to judges and lawyers. A non-partisan vice-chancellor can emerge as the genuine representative of the academic aspirations of the university even in a partisan environment if his decisional role is widely respected and he can defy the blackmail potential of those who specialise in internal bickerings. If the vice-chancellor emphasises the value of academic freedom for individuals and bona fide academic groups he can strengthen the democratic authenticity of the university. By refusing to take part in logrolling he can enlarge the circle of academic interaction and participation by the faculty. The achievement syndrome of the university is strengthened by the vice-chancellor performing a function of conflict resolution irrespective of the competing ideologies on the campus. On the other hand if the network of power imposes inactivity and ineffectiveness on the vice-chancellor, the compromise with academic principles leads to developments which have the gravest implication for the whole of Indian higher education.

The contradictions and inconsistencies that constitute the Government’s dilemma in having to strike a balance between dictation to vice-chancellors and tolerating the enduring ideas of what higher education should be, came to the fore in Bombay. The Senate of Bombay University refused to yield to pressure from the Government and withdrew affiliation to four new engineering colleges. The Vice-Chancellor of Bombay University, Dr. M.S. Gore has played a leading and active part in the defence of academic rights in his career. But faced with pressure from the Government, he used the Vice-Chancellor’s special powers to bypass the normal procedure for affiliation. Education can hardly be conceived as an instrument for social change if the educational policies of the State have to be adapted to the requirements of the managements of colleges, who command political influence and money-power. The apologetic claim that the Maharashtra Government was in a hurry on account of the start of the academic year must be rejected out of hand. It does not serve any purpose to apportion blame for the episode on the Vice-Chancellor or the Government. The anarchic tendencies in the political, social and educational systems all interact with one another. Nevertheless there is a severe price to be paid for ignoring the conditions for competitive excellence in higher education.

The angry response of the Left Front Minister for higher education to the West Bengal Governor’s choice of Dr. Santosh Bhattacharya as Vice-Chancellor after he had polled the highest number of votes in the University Senate helped to feed the discussion on academic freedom and also gave warning about the danger of accepting at face value, self-congratulatory official pronouncements on the advance of higher education in Communist-ruled West Bengal.

Parliament has remained bogged down in endless debates on micro-issues without raising discussions on the failure of management in the central universities. India can meet and overcome the challenge of higher education and justify the public investment in our universities, if the elements of national power are used by the centre to develop an educational value system. Surely there is some fundamental confusion which leads to the Minister for Education or the Prime Minister’s Secretariat succumbing to the notion that universities are for distributing patronage. At the turn of the next century India will find itself lagging behind if educational bureaucracies and caucuses continue to keep our universities under their petty tutelage. The Prime Minister must risk curtailing the activities of political favourites and define with more clarity, the functions of vice-chancellors.
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