Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed

It is high time the Government of Assam took corrective measures. The University Acts have empowered it to set things right. If our universities are not rescued from the crisis of leadership, our future is at stake.

The academic community in Assam was shocked by the unbelievable news concerning the Dibrugarh University. The print and e-media flashed the news that the entire university community of this premier educational institution levelled serious allegations against the sitting Vice-Chancellor, saying that he had been indulging in financial corruption and demanded a thorough inquiry. The Vice-Chancellor was asked to go on leave, and an inquiry was instituted. We could understand that the magnitude of corruption indulged in by the top functionaries, from the head of the institution to the lower echelon of administration, was astoundingly grave. The University suspended the Registrar and a Deputy Registrar and after a few days, the sitting VC also was put in suspension.

Simultaneously, the media reported that the Dibrugarh University case was not an isolated one; sadly enough, three other universities – Assam Agricultural University, Tezpur Central University and Gauhati University – have come under a cloud. The amount of corruption in all four universities is reportedly more than Rs 100 crore. While Dibrugarh University’s case is under probe, similar action is yet to be initiated in three others.

Those of us who had associated themselves with the academic life of different universities in Assam find it extremely difficult to reconcile with the happenings tarnishing the image of the sacred temples of teaching and research. We are shattered and dismayed by these recent developments. We may painfully conclude that our universities are in deep crisis and wonder whether specific corrective measures would be taken to restore their past glory in our lifetime. What is happening today is the result of the decadency in universities over several years. We wonder whether we take developments seriously.

There has been paradigmatic wrong in some of our universities, despite the existence of university Acts, Rules and Regulations shaping a university’s perspectives. Some of the great stalwarts, namely, Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, academic bodies like the University Grants Commission made honest efforts to give a definite perspective and definition of a university, and its principles and purposes. Mookerjee outlined universities’ autonomy to create knowledge capital free from any uncalled-for outside hindrance and interference. Over the last few decades and more recently, the universities face an unwelcome onslaught from the governments both in the State and at the Centre. In his convocation address to the Allahabad University in February 1948, Pandit Nehru said: “A university stands for humanism, or tolerance, for a reason, for the adventure of ideas and for the search of truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards higher objectives. If the universities discharge their duties adequately then it is well with the nation and the people.”

How many of them have ever tried to internalize the values that a university should cherish and stands for? All the Acts say that the Vice-Chancellor of a university is the ‘principal executive offer’. It implies that enormous power and authority are bestowed on this position. Almost all the Acts of Indian universities have a similar provision which makes this highly-coveted position supremely significant. That is why the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) observes: “The person who is expected, above all, to embody the spirit of academic freedom and the principles of good management in a university is the Vice-Chancellor. He stands for the commitment of the university to scholarship and pursuit of truth and can ensure that the executive wing of the University is used to assist the academic community in all its activities. His selection should therefore, be governed by this overall consideration.” The report further states, “Generally, the Vice-Chancellor should be a distinguished educationist or eminent scholar in any of the disciplines or professions, with high standards in his field and adequate administrative experience.” Any person associated with the academic life of a university would ask, are all the recent appointees as Vice-Chancellors distinguished academics and scholars? How many of them command respect from the academic community of the State? Do the Vice-Chancellor selectors take note of the persons’ academic credentials considered for the coveted position? Has the Vice-Chancellor’s office become a dumping ground of worthless and tainted figures not known in the academic world? Are they not capable of finding the best academic persons to head a university? This writer had raised some of these issues in the article ‘What ails our universities’ (The Assam Tribune, March 22, 2006) written in the backdrop of uncalled for interference by the Chancellor of the Gauhati University pressuring it to declare an unsuccessful PG student passed by awarding grace marks. The questions that were raised in that article did not receive any attention. Similarly, on another occasion, the panel of names submitted to the Chancellor was changed to select and appoint a less-deserving applicant as the VC of a university in Assam. The problem lies not only with the committee’s composition, which prepares a panel of qualified persons, but also the undue interference by the Chancellor. At the same time, we have serious doubt about its competence, which is entrusted with the responsibility to prepare the panel. Nowadays, in total deviation of the earlier procedure, applications are invited for the position of the Vice-Chancellor of a university. Naturally, eminent academics would not put up applications; and why should they? Consequently, the entire procedure of selecting a person to be the VC is plagued by an unhealthy lobby and political manipulation. We may cite some of the examples in which tainted persons have been appointed as the VC. In one case, a university professor, forced to go on voluntary retirement after finding him guilty in a sexual harassment case, was appointed as the VC of a newly set-up university. Another person, against whom an inquiry commission headed by a retired high court chief justice was going on, was appointed to occupy this position. The Commission has reportedly found him guilty of committing financial and other corruption. In the instant case of the Dibrugarh University, the suspended VC was an academically unknown figure, yet he was appointed to occupy the coveted position. The consequences are foretold. In this process, the universities are doomed. It is unthinkable that such people could be expected to lead a university academically and administratively.

It is high time the Government of Assam took corrective measures. The University Acts have empowered it to set things right. If our universities are not rescued from the crisis of leadership, our future is at stake.