Absentee landlord

In India, State intervention in universities is more than what appears on the surface. This hampers academic excellence, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.
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Updated on Jul 04, 2011 01:48 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByNayanjot Lahiri

Front-line administrators in higher education, CK Gunsalus believes, are almost always selected for qualities other than an ability to run complex organisations. Gunsalus should know. She has authored a widely respected book, aptly titled The College Administrator’s Survival Guide (2006).

In that book, Gunsalus helps guide novice administrators through the everyday dilemmas of management in, as she puts it, “not entirely manageable environments” made up of highly and variously talented people. Reading this book three years ago, when Professor Deepak Pental, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Delhi, drew me out of pure academics to work with him as an administrator, many of the challenges described there, I experienced in my new role — about administrivia like running meetings and dealing with drop-in visitors, organising funding, investigating sexual harassment cases, and more. At the same time, there were other ‘on the scene’ lessons that I learnt — of the kind that no administrator’s survival guide can help you handle.

For one, as I now know, the endeavour of building high quality departments does not automatically flow out of hiring high quality faculty. In the University of Delhi, there are lots of smart people doing exciting research who, however, fail to invest in the improvement of teaching programmes.

An example of this is my parent department which has a pool of talented teachers who have not succeeded in revising the history department’s Masters programme for 25 years or more. The process of revision started some three years ago, and hopefully, should soon be over. Such problems also plague ‘happening’ science programmes. Electronic Science was taught in colleges of the university without any change for 20 years until 2010 when it was finally updated.

Neither is the revision of courses a matter of priority for the Delhi University Teachers Association. While the association has successfully generated pressure for a host of changes, from better service conditions to ensuring a decent deal for ad-hoc teachers, I fail to recall a single recent instance when it has raised questions and agitated about outdated courses or absentee teachers. Consequently, unlike the scenario in world class universities that we constantly invoke, at the University of Delhi, it is the administration which frequently pushes and even coerces departments to make their programmes more relevant. This can only be reversed if in academia we decide to be more conscious about fulfilling our professional responsibilities.

For another, I also wonder whether the governance structures of federally funded universities in the United States, whose administrators Gunsalus writes about, are dependent upon their government in the way that Indian universities are forced to be. Take the case of the expansion in higher education from 2008 onwards, when the quota system came to include ‘Other Backward Classes’. This led to a 54% jump in student numbers in the university — from 2008 till 2010.

The biggest staff recruitment drive in the history of the university has since been launched in order to hire hundreds of new teachers. Non-teaching staff is also sorely needed but till December 2010, the University Grants Commission had not informed our university about, for instance, the number of laboratory and library staff that could be recruited for coping with the expanded student numbers.

Even with regard to recruiting teachers, this is easier said than done. This is because in the university, the recruitment system requires a government nominee (called the ‘Visitor’s Nominee’) to sit on all selection committees. And the government has only one ‘Visitor’s Nominee’ for each faculty of the university. If this remains the case, at least 10 years will elapse before all the required appointments can be made. At a time when the human resource development ministry is proposing an architecture of governance for new innovation universities where there will be autonomy in appointments, fee structure, and research funding, surely, the same autonomy for the existing 42 centrally funded universities should be introduced. It is only when the State stops treating the university like the Cornwallis-created absentee zamindars treated the peasants of Bengal can there be a way out of the tunnel. This is necessary so as to ensure that quality does not become the biggest casualty in this time of accelerating expansion.

That government intervention in universities is infinitely more than what appears on the surface. For example, I sat through special convocations that were ‘specially’ organised to confer degrees on visiting dignitaries because the government had ‘arranged’ that the university does so. In 2008, an honorary degree was bestowed by the university on Gordon Brown, then Britain’s prime minister, because of such proactive prompting. Similarly, on November 4, 2010, Delhi agreed to confer a DLitt on Malawi’s president Bingu wa Mutharika who is an alumnus of the Shri Ram College of Commerce and Delhi School of Economics in the 1960s.

The special convocation in which this African head of state was conferred an honorary degree prompted me to try and understand how the african studies department began in the university. It seems that State initiative some 55 years ago, specifically the interest of Jawaharlal Nehru, was instrumental in the creation of the department. Mohan Ram, a retired professor of botany at Delhi, in a piece that was published for the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of the university in 1997, recounted why the event has a special place in university lore.

“People ask me, why study Africa,” vice-chancellor GS Mahajani is said to have commented, in a hilarious speech at the inauguration. “My simple answer is the same which Sir Edmund Hilary gave when he was asked why he had climbed Mount Everest: because it is there.” Characteristically, as Ram Guha gleefully noted, Mahajani had got his facts wrong — it was George Mallory who said “because it is there” about Everest, not Hillary!

Prime Minister Nehru who was present on that occasion in the audience, though, was not amused. His face apparently turned red in annoyance and in his own speech, he clarified that “we are not studying Africa because it is there. We are deeply concerned about the African nations which should be liberated from colonial rule.”

The inauguration marked India’s first foray into African studies, and the PM hoped for great things from the discipline. He would be disappointed: it has not taken off and there remain few job opportunities for Africa specialists in India.

While State initiative and strategic interests can create departments and push for honorary degrees, they can never ensure academic excellence.

Nayanjot Lahiri was Dean of Colleges, University of Delhi, from 2007 to 2010 The views expressed by the author are personal.

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