Every once in a while I take a walk from the Mumbai School Sports Association opposite Metro Cinema to the Institute of Science at Kala Ghoda. The stretch from Girgaum Chowpatty is perhaps more invigorating, with the sea breeze providing either tailwind or resistance. But Dhobi Talao to Cooperage Bandstand is no less soothing, and bears greater testimony to the city’s older and more charming legacy.
Bombay Gymkhana, opposite Fashion Street, a quaint colonial structure, dates back more than a century. The Parsi well at the junction of Cross and Oval Maidans is both a strong landmark and a symbol of a once-vibrant community that contributed so massively to the city’s ethos. Then come the wonderful Indo-Gothic structures of the high court, the University and the Institute of Science; repositories of the rule of law and learning, which were, for long, the hallmarks of Mumbai culture.
You may have noticed that I have shifted into the past tense when I mentioned rule of law and education: Within this, the most lamentable has been the steady decline over decades and the hugely troubled present of Mumbai University.
While the actual campus is at Kalina and colleges affiliated to it are scattered all over, the University is best symbolised by the magnificent structure adjoining the High Court which came into existence in 1857 through the efforts of Dr John Wilson. Today, it seems to stand forlorn and in mute testimony to the problems it faces.
The last time I went to the magnificent University was a few years ago, to attend Nana Chudasama’s book launch at the spectacularly restored Concovation Hall with the who’s who of Mumbai in attendance. But, while conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah and conservationists like her could do so much for the building itself, there is nothing they can do for the university’s falling reputation and academic standards.
The past week, in particular, has been one of great embarrassment: wrong or leaked papers and miscommunication about venues during the exam season seem to be symptomatic of the way the university (mal)functions nowadays.
Ever since I went to college in the mid-1970s, there have been stories of exam papers being ‘leaked’. I would aver that most were rumours, but every now and then, some college professor or university clerk would be busted for running a racket to substantiate the belief that something was remiss.
My stand is that corruption in academics — as is match-fixing in sport —is almost impossible to weed out completely. But the number of such offenders is miniscule. More unedifying is the case of students being led on a wild goose-chase to find the right centre for appearing for the exams. This is a new low for the university administration, in my book even worse than leaked papers.
Imagine reaching your assigned centre at Bandra only to find out that the actual one is at Vikhroli! It can leave you either suicidal or murderous, and the university must consider it fortunate that nobody has gone to court. In some other parts of the world this would cost millions in damages.
It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that young Aditya Thackeray has swung into action, sleeves rolled up, gunning for vice-chancellor Rajan Welukar’s head whom he had earlier got to bend to his will and ban Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, from the syllabus.
The young Thackeray’s bellicose stand against Mistry’s book was obviously an opening gambit to enter politics. Distasteful as the xenophobic approach of the Sena is, in the current situation, Aditya Thackeray’s objections will strike a chord with the student community.
But vice-chancellor Welukar’s problems run deeper than the newest Shiv Sena scion trying to make his political mark. The university has not, it seems, had a registrar or pro vice-chancellor for almost two years, which partly explains all these administrative problems with exams. Several colleges have not had principals for years and over 1,000 posts of professors and lecturers are vacant, according to senate members.
Some senate members have apparently taken exception to the fact that Welukar does not even get to work on time! The vice-chancellor also finds, once more, that allegations about his lack of adequate academic qualifications have begun. Undoubtedly, external and internecine politics — and academic institutions as well as the defence forces, as we now know only too well, are not exempt from this — have a big role to play in this, but even so.
To me, the real symptoms of malaise and decadence emerge elsewhere. For instance, the numbers of papers published by the university have fallen sharply — a sure sign of declining academic standards. Not unexpectedly, in the best-known international scale of universities, Mumbai is now ranked 578, down from 493 the previous year.
The lack of “high quality research and internationalisation” is touted as the main reason for the low ratings for Indian universities. It is hardly of solace that most of them — barring the IITs — are below the 500 mark. Mumbai University once boasted the best facilities, mentors and students for research; and internationalisation should be in the DNA of people from the metropolis. But these attributes are hardly likely to be developed if the seat of learning is itself in a shambles.
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds