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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

Dirty politics taints Pune university’s English department

The Savitribai Phule Pune University’s decision to appoint an assistant professor as head of the English department has resulted in a turmoil in the department. While students protested against the appointment of a junior professor as the HOD (head of department), former faculty members, including HODs, have also objected to this appointment on grounds that it has led to the lowering of academic standards at the university. Here’s what a former HOD has to say about the politics in the university that has compromised with the pursuit of academic excellence in the department.

pune Updated: Mar 18, 2018 15:16 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, Pune
While students protested against the appointment of a junior professor as the HOD (head of department), former faculty members, including HODs, have also objected to this appointment on grounds that it has led to the lowering of academic standards at the university.
While students protested against the appointment of a junior professor as the HOD (head of department), former faculty members, including HODs, have also objected to this appointment on grounds that it has led to the lowering of academic standards at the university. (HT FILE PHOTO)

In September 2010, the vice-chancellor of Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), then known as the University of Pune, appointed a professor from the Marathi department to head the department of English. I was a full professor by then, and the headship of the English department should have been offered to me, since it was my turn to be the head, after other professors had been appointed to the post and had completed their tenure.

Yet, for reasons best known to itself, the university invited a professor from the Marathi department to head the English department.

When some newspapers confronted the university administration and asked if I was denied the headship because I was openly queer, the university denied the charge. My being queer was my “personal affair” they claimed. Yet it was obvious that it was my sexuality that bothered them.

It will be recalled that it was in that very year (2010) that Shreenivas Ramchandra Siras, a Marathi professor, was suspended by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) administration for being gay. This was the result of a “sting operation” that they conducted that showed him having sex with a “lowly” rickshaw-puller in his campus apartment. Professor Siras was unceremoniously thrown out of his campus flat and was later found dead in a flat that he was forced to rent. The film Aligarh, released in 2016, is a biopic on the professor’s life.

It must be reiterated that 2010, the year when both the above events took place, was a year when the Delhi High Court ruling of July 2009, which read down Section 377 (a law that criminalises sexual activities “against the law of nature”) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to exclude consenting adult homosexuals from its purview, was still in force.

In my case, it was only after the then dean of the Arts faculty intervened and put in a word in my favour, that the university finally appointed me as head of the English department ten months later, in July 2011.

Cut to April 2017 when I retired from the SPPU. With my retirement, six of the eight sanctioned posts in the English department got vacant. These were all senior posts, two of them being professor and four associate professor posts. Yet, when the circumstances actually demanded that a professor from another department be invited to head the department of English, the university did not do so. Instead, it flouted all norms by appointing an assistant professor of the English department as the head.

Before retiring, I met the then vice-chancellor of SPPU twice with a request that the interviews be conducted, and at least some of the six vacant posts in the department be filled. Earlier, I and another senior professor of the department who retired a few months before me had scrutinised applications and found at least half a dozen candidates to be qualified for the posts. But the university turned a blind eye to my request. The department of English remained one of the only departments in which the posts were not filled, while they were duly filled in most other departments.

For technical reasons, the assistant professor who was made the head of the department was found to be unqualified for the post of associate professor for which she had applied, although she had a reasonably good academic record. Her lack of experience was reflected in the clumsy way in which she managed the day-to-day teaching and research programmes of the department.

Instead of inviting experienced faculty from colleges affiliated to SPPU, such as Fergusson college, Symbiosis and Garware college, to supplement the teaching done by her and the only other assistant professor in the department, which has always been the practice followed, she appointed teaching associates who were mere MA (Master of Arts) and MPhil (Master of Philosophy) students of previous years, with virtually no teaching experience, to handle the bulk of the department’s workload. I believe she had a vested interest in doing so—the faculty at the affiliated colleges were all of associate professor rank, while the lady herself was an assistant professor. So it was hierarchical considerations, rather than the interest of students that governed her decisions.

Incidentally, the rules permit teaching associates to be appointed to supplement the work of the tenured faculty. It is ridiculous to let teaching associates handle the bulk of the workload of a department. But that is unfortunately how it is in SPPU’s English department today.

The same hierarchical considerations surfaced when the head appointed a committee of unqualified persons to conduct the MPhil and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) interviews recently. One committee member did not possess a PhD, while another had a PhD but wasn’t a research supervisor.

I joined SPPU’s English department in 1988 and retired in 2017, nearly thirty years later. Before me, doyens of English studies, such as professor S Nagarajan who started the department in the 1960s, and professor Meenakshi Mukherjee, the distinguished critic, had taught in the department. During my time, I have seen other luminaries such as Gauri Deshpande (daughter of Iravati Karve), Rajeev Patke, a Rhodes scholar, Udaya Kumar and Freya Taraporewala Barua, both Oxonians, among others, teach in the department.

It is truly a pity that the present university administration is blissfully unaware of the department’s glorious legacy, and has allowed it to go to seed. The sufferers’ undoubtedly are the students who come to study at the department from far off places because of its legacy. A seminar here, a film screening there, isn’t enough to atone for the department’s lapses.

A year has gone by. Will the honourable vice-chancellor kindly sit up and take notice?

R Raj Rao


Amruta Fadnavis, let’s sing a song to save Pune’s rivers

Dear Amruta Fadnavis,

As persons who have resided in Maharashtra most of our life, we can say with all certainty that all of Maharashtra is proud to have you as her First Lady. You have blazed new trails, be it for political events or for charity. You are a woman of conviction and a trailblazer setting new benchmarks and changing perceptions in the role of First Lady.

The song you sang for the video Mumbai River Anthem has already crossed 2.3 million views in the first week of release and just proves your thumping popularity, while driving home the fact that you care for Mumbai’s natural beauty and her water bodies.

Pune is no strange place to you, as you have been a student here doing your MBA course. You’ll agree that the basis of the natural beauty of Pune has been its clean rivers. However, over the past few years, they have been in a state of dire neglect and have been badly treated. For Punekars, it is heartbreaking to see her natural resources like water bodies go through such merciless abuse. It is time we revived Pune’s rivers, and we need your help in saving them.

The newspapers inform us that the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) is about to release 976 hectares (2,411 acres) of land along our river banks to builders. What small semblance of green zone we have is slated to disappear. This will be very much detrimental to our future and a curse on future generations (our children and grandchildren) who will live here.

How do you like the idea of singing a song for Pune’s rivers and performing it over a much publicised event on one of Pune’s iconic bridges, such as, the Lakdi Pul? A poem has been written by the well-known poet Shrirang Godbole who has also set the tune for it.

The event is being envisioned to be organised and advertised in a way that citizens of all age groups gather on each bridge in Pune and sing the same song as a precursor to the main event where you will sing.

No event of this magnitude can be complete without the active participation of political stalwarts like MPs, MLAs, the mayor of Pune, as well as the principal secretary (housing and urban development), municipal commissioner and other senior government officers. The idea is to have a chief singer on each bridge ably supported by senior MPs and MLAs. It will be for the first time that Pune would brace herself for an event of such high significance and magnitude to save her rivers.

May we also request that you put in a good word to your husband, the chief minister, to grace the occasion and lend his good offices to the event in Pune?

DVR Rao, Satish Khot, Gautam Idnani