The resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University have raised questions over academic freedom. Mehta had written in his resignation letter that his “association with the University may be considered a political liability” by the founders. There have been allegations that the resignation had to do with smooth acquisition of land for campus expansion, which has been disputed by the university. Regardless of the factual accuracy of specific claims, as the resignation letter shows, there is little doubt that Mehta’s resignation was closely linked with his public writings and speeches.
Ashoka University functions on a philanthropic model, where many founders fund the university. Some of these founders are part of the highest decision-making body, and exercise considerable influence over the administration of the institution. As professor Mehta’s resignation letter makes clear, his decision was a direct result of a discussion with some of the founders.
This level of interference and power exercised by the funders has been rightly seen as a structural issue in the institution. Given that the founders have big businesses, there is scope of coercion by the agencies in a number of ways, which could lead them to act in ways that are detrimental to the vision of the university. Universities are not corporations where an all-powerful board can take all decisions. Its operations need to reflect the vision of all stakeholders: particularly the students and faculty.
One of the solutions is to democratise the structure of decision-making of the university, involving the creation of systems where other stakeholders have a significant say in top executive bodies. Founders should not have any interference whatsoever in academic freedom, which includes freedom of expression more broadly, of the faculty – there needs to be a firewall of sorts between funders and administrators. This is one of the demands of students.
It is perhaps tempting to look at the issue as being particular to Ashoka. But it’s a no-brainer that these developments are symptomatic of a broader assault on academic freedom. Most public institutions have already been hollowed-out over time. The few remaining good public universities in the recent years have also come under attack. Therefore, even the best within-university structures can only withstand for so long against the might of a determined vindictive government. This begs a larger question about the role and discretion of the state in education, and the need for autonomy of private institutions.
This is not to give a free pass to the founders of Ashoka University. Despite the perception of an environment of suppression, it is not clear what were the real threats – if at all? Based on the information available as of now, there was no credible danger to the survival of the university. Instead, the founders seem to have acted pre-emptively to signal cooperation to the government with prospects of ‘better relations’ and ‘smooth functioning’. Perhaps that would have been the ‘rational’ thing to do if Ashoka was simply a corporation. After all, a company cannot get into ‘trouble’ as it risks getting outcompeted by rivals because of potential disruptions.
A university is different. It cannot operate with mere considerations of ‘smooth functioning’. It must do everything it can to protect the sanctity of academic freedom, including that of expression, of its students and faculty. It is this ‘space’ that builds the credibility of a university over the years. Of course, there have been occasions where the administration has acted in ways that are far from ideal. Nonetheless, broadly speaking, Ashoka has so far looked like a great university in the making. The founders should recognise that it takes decades to build an excellent university. Therefore, they must think about the long-term. There is no point entering this ‘philanthropic enterprise’ if they get cold feet so easily.
All is not lost yet. If the founders are still committed to their original vision, it’s high time that they do everything possible to reverse the resignations, and make sure something like this never happens again. Otherwise, in their quest for short-term gains like ‘smooth operation’, the founders might end up settling for yet another mediocre private university. As professor Mehta said in his resignation letter, “The founders and the administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom”.
Finally, I would request those who identify as patriots to think the following. Pratap Bhanu Mehta could have excelled in his academic career at any top university abroad, but he came back to contribute to building institutions and research capabilities in India. Arvind Subramanian came to Ashoka to set up a centre for high quality research on economic policy. With his exit, the centre may never reach the potential it could have.
Whose loss is it if not ours? What message does it send to top researchers and thinkers who wish to do something in – and for – India? Ashoka started gaining international repute in a short span of time, inspiring similar models of private universities that value academic excellence and freedom. The chilling effect will deter many potential ‘Ashokas’ that the country could have had. Meanwhile, mediocre ‘teaching shops’ will continue to flourish. Think about this the next time you talk about ‘brain drain’.
The author is a current student at Ashoka University.
Featured image: Ashoka University/Facebook