The Visva-Bharati Debacle: Are Indian Universities Facing a Leadership Crisis?

Probably every Indian academician, especially physicists, fondly remember Ashutosh Mookherjee, the second Indian vice chancellor of Calcutta University, for his role in building world class departments. He recognised the potential in Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha and recruited them in the physics department, where C.V. Raman and D.M. Bose were also faculty members – thus arguably bringing together the best science department ever assembled in India. It became possible in pre-independent India only because of the great leadership role played by a VC with a vision.

If we look at recent incidents at different universities in India, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Hyderabad Central University (HCU), Delhi University (DU), Jadavpur University (JU) and now Visva-Bharati, it will increasingly clear that the modern counterparts of Mookherjee lack leadership qualities – they have neither the ability to reduce conflicts with students and faculty, nor do they possess a vision.

Before I proceed any further, let’s consider a recent example. Over the last few weeks, some unusual incidents have been taking place at Visva-Bharati in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. As my frustrated colleagues report, a few initial incidents like the sealing of the office of a professor of economics and the sealing of the geography department created an ambience of fear in Visva-Bharati. The events led to some kind of commotion which resulted in a mass petition that criticised the way the central university was being run. The professors thought it was their fundamental right to put out such a petition, but the university had a different viewpoint.

Reportedly, the university administration wanted faculty members to handover that letter to them so that the signatories could be identified – so much so that faculty members of the English department were detained in the central office for hours on February 26.

Upon receiving messages from professors with the English department, faculty members of other departments, including a few of the physics department also reached there. Considering this as an objectionable act, Visva-Bharati administration has show-caused a large number of physics faculty, as well as a few members of other departments. The detained teachers were released only when two faculty members of the Visva-Bharati’s physics department filed a complaint at Santiniketan police station which accused vice-chancellor Bidyut Chakrabarty of illegally detaining faculty members.

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In the aftermath, one faculty member has been suspended and his office sealed. The honourable VC has asked other faculty members to socially boycott another teacher, an outstanding experimental physicist. Using some other excuse, the office of the HoD has also been sealed. Now, protesting against this act of administration and claiming that the administration has threatened them, two faculty members have independently filed FIRs against the university administration. In reply, the university has filed charge-sheets against them.

As an alumni and a physicist, reading about these incidents in news reports has pained me greatly. All the same, it has not been a surprising turn of events considering how we have been witness to similar show-cause festivals and faculty-administration and/or student-administration conflicts in other campuses too. For example, in November 2020, eight faculty members alleged a “gross violation of ethics and procedures” in faculty appointments for Physics in the School of Physical Sciences (SPS) at JNU. More so, over the last few years, various faculty-administration and administration-student conflicts have been reported from the campus.

Such incidents have become commonplace in many Indian university campuses. In an effort to understand the origin of this undesired conflict, if we try to have a deeper look into the matter, we will easily observe that there is mistrust between the faculty and the administration (and also between the administration and the students) and a systematic effort to create an ambience of fear so that faculty members don’t practice their fundamental rights.

Visva-Bharati is not an exception, in the recent past, many institutes and universities have tried to bind their employees in the name of modified service rules and reduce their fundamental rights. This is leading to conflicts, and the conflict between faculty and the administration is leading to a tense and grave situation in university campuses. This in turn is affecting the teaching-learning process in many campuses; be it JNU, Visva-Bharati, Jamia Millia Islamia, JU or DU. In short, the conflict is causing a great loss to the students as their teachers continue to labour under a cloud of fear of receiving show-cause notices and suspension letters.

This conflict needs to be brought to a swift end, and to do so it’s important to understand the cause.

Every conflict arises from differences in expectations. The expectations are set over the years. In the present case, there is a difference between the expectations of the university administration and the faculty members. To be precise, most of the faculty of premier universities start their career rather late, as usually they are supposed to do PhD and post-doctoral works before being selected – especially in the science faculty. The love for education keeps them afloat till that time, and even at that stage of their careers, they are often found in the dilemma of joining a teaching university or a research institute without much teaching component and adequate time and infrastructure to do research. Only when the passion for teaching wins is when the best people come to universities.

This set of people are so good that they could have done anything they wanted and most could have a very comfortable life and appropriate positions in developed countries. It’s the love for teaching and their own country that brings them to the best universities of India. They expect that universities will offer them an ambience at least as good as what they were witness to as students. They expect the universities to stand by freedom of thought, provide windows to do scientific and social experiments, and invoke inquisitiveness among the students.

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Now, these expectations were to some extent fulfilled until a few years back. Most universities were not funded well, salary was not great, but there was an ambience which used to attract the best brains to teach in the best campuses of the country.

The situation today has changed considerably. In most places, the faculty has not changed – only the person holding a time-bound administrative position – like the post of VC or director – has been changed. It is many of these figures who can be considered largely responsible for the unwanted situations arising at different campuses.

It seems as though many among those who are filling these positions today have completely forgotten that they too were teachers before they came to be appointed to a particular post. Most of them are extremely authoritarian and are not ready to listen to any criticism or idea that’s not in sync with his/her thought. These authoritarian leaders expect that the faculty will say ‘yes’ to all their proposals and orders, whether they fall within the purview of the laid down norms or not.

This is in contrast with the expectations of the faculty and this difference in expectation is leading to conflict. Further, in an effort to quantify the quality of everything, be it a faculty member (think of API score) or an institute (think of NBA accreditation, NAAC accreditation and NIRF ranking etc), leaders of Indian academic systems are trying to convert all faculty members into data entry operators at the cost of their research, teaching and other creative works. This is also adding to the frustration of faculty members and enhancing the gap in expectation, thus leading to further widening of the rift.

Once we understand the origin and nature of the conflict, we have to address it. Firstly, we need to understand that universities cannot be run like factories. A leader need to have vision, passion and understanding of the culture of the specific place – what is appropriate for BHU may not be appropriate for Visva-Bharati or AMU, and vice-versa.

They need to remember that they were faculty and students at some point of their career. Whatever we have achieved as an independent nation has been made possible because teachers and researchers are socially respected – not socially boycotted – and this respect and freedom of thinking and performing research has continually brought the best brains to teaching at reputed universities that have taught millions of students who have gone on to make the teaching community proud.  Selecting academic leaders without respect for the faculty members and to the above causal relation can be disastrous.

It’s high time we stopped meandering on this dangerous path and found people like Ashutosh Mookherjee to lead our universities.

Anirban Pathak is a professor with the Department of Physics at the Jaypee Institute of Information Technology, Noida.

Featured image credit: Viswa Bharati University/official website