The generosity exhibited by Delhi University, the country’s premier central university, in handing out honorary degrees to half a dozen public personalities has raised a controversy not only in the world of academia, but also among common citizens. The question being asked is whether a university should shower honoris causa D Litts on well-known people in such a liberal manner. Does it not deprive an educational institution, in particular one such as the Delhi University that has been nurtured by eminent educationists for the last 84 years, of its elevated status? Is this not similar to the distribution of ‘titles’ during the British regime, which was known to extend its largesse to political personalities whose contribution to society was doubtful?
The debate has generated heat among university teachers and others, who want to know on what grounds Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, for instance, was awarded the doctorate, and that too at a time when the city is in turmoil. The irony is that she was chosen for her innovative governance of a Union Territory that is largely administered by the Centre. Has she not herself often complained that law and order and use of land should be transferred to the Delhi government, in order to make it more effective?
In other words, the head of a lame duck government, which has a B-grade assembly, was honoured for a reason that can easily be contested by most of the city’s population. The honoris causa is not meant to be in recognition of sharing a good rapport with either the previous Vice-Chancellor, Deepak Nayyar, or the present one, Deepak Paintal. It is given for a contribution of an extraordinary nature. If Dikshit’s alumni status as a former student of Miranda House was a consideration, then there are others from this university who are far more eminent in their respective fields, including the one that Dikshit represents — the field of politics. The present central government has at least four to five top functionaries, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who have had a long association with this prestigious university. So why was she, and not them, awarded? And if a political leader was to be awarded, then both Sonia Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee have a far better claim.
The doctorate given to a serving Chief Minister sets a bad precedent. In future, all CMs may expect universities in their respective states to award them similar degrees that would add a ‘Dr’ to their names. If such a thing were to happen, it would be a classic case of states ailing because of lack of governance, despite being headed by doctors who are merely quacks.
Also imagine a scenario where a person with a criminal background becomes the CM and is awarded a similar degree. It would be interesting to know how the real Dons of the university would respond to the presence of another ‘Don’ in their midst (the latter, as played by Amitabh Bachchan in a hit film). Universities that are already trying to battle with the menace of criminalisation will have to also cope with the ‘Don’ versus Don situation.
The emerging scenario shows the intellectual bankruptcy in our universities in general and those heading them in particular. At least this is how a large number of people view this issue. Dikshit has been caught in the midst of the storm because she is being accused by some powerful sections in the university, such as the National Democratic Teachers Front (NDTF) and the Academics for Action and Development (AAD), of having received an ‘undeserved’ award. Both Inder Kapahy of the NDTF and SS Rathi of the AAD believe that she should not have figured in the list. Then there are allegations that the Delhi government had, for the first time, contributed Rs 30-35 crore for development work in the university, even though it is totally funded by the Centre. The insinuation leaves no scope for interpretation.
There are others of the view that during the eight years that Dikshit has been in power, there has been no consolidation of educational infrastructure. Virtually no new schools and colleges have been opened by the government and the results in almost all educational institutions under it are a cause of concern. Water and power issues remain unresolved and roads are in a dismal state in large parts of the city. The handling of the situation arising out of Supreme Court directives on sealing leaves a lot to be desired and so does the government’s preparedness in dealing with outbreaks such as the recent dengue epidemic. All these are indices on which governance is calibrated and it does not speak highly of the CM who, as per available indicators, may be presiding over the impending debacle of her party in the municipal elections, if they are held on time.
So far as Delhi University goes, it should concentrate more on improving its results — many of the results of the open school and correspondence courses are yet to be out — and also on dealing with the re-evaluation issue. There are colleges where virtually no classes are held in some subjects and the restructuring of courses in some disciplines are crying for attention.
Special convocations used to be far and few between earlier and not large-scale or whole sale as the latest one. There could be a case for the awarding of degrees to Amitabh Bachchan, CNR Rao, RK Laxman and some others who were chosen but could not attend, but none for giving it to Dikshit. But again, none of those honoured are in the same league as past recipients like Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen.
The Delhi University is expected to set high standards and should not allow itself to be used by ambitious or insecure Vice-Chancellors or faculty members to stoop down to showering titles. The recent convocation indicated that either the high standards of Delhi University degrees have come down or the level of those administering it needs to be thoroughly look into. Between us.