Two University Vice Chancellors (VCs) were recently dismissed by the President. The first victim, Prof. Ratnam Vigneswaran of the Jaffna University was removed without a proper explanation. Later, unconfirmed information spread that the decision was taken based on national security. On 18 September Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa, a world-renowned sculptor and visual arts academic was eliminated without a proper explanation or inquiry. These two arbitrary and unconstitutional removals have created public outrage, particularly on social media, and have raised concerns related to democracy.
Politics in Education
One must consider the political context of these arbitrary dismissals. As it is stated that the Jaffna VC was removed based on intelligence information, it undoubtedly relates to another political conspiracy. Following this, the University of Visual and Performing Arts (UVPA) VC was removed during the all-island university strike. Prof. Chandrajeewa was appointed soon after the former VC ended his tenure. The young and qualified academics of the UVPA wanted a change as the campus had been directly and indirectly affected by mal-academic practices and poor administration. Within two years, Prof. Chandrajeewa uplifted the financial, administrative and academic activities of the UVPA to a level where it began engaging with regional counterparts and beyond. However, certain anti-progressive academics within the university started challenging this progression and attacked the policies introduced to refine and uplift the status of research and academic integrity.
The people changed the former regime to establish a better political environment and effective governance, including within universities. The academic community expected justice and accountability, where public interest towards higher education was met and flourished. Prof. Chandrajeewa received positive financial feedback from the Auditor General after the UVPA experienced a decade of corruption and misconduct in academic practices. Ironically, he is now the victim of the good governance that promised a just, lawful and free country. This reminds me what Dr Stockmann from Henrik Ibsen’s play The Enemy of the People says:
“The majority is never right. I say, never! That is one of those social lies that any free man who thinks for himself has to rebel against. Who makes up the majority in any country - the intelligent, or the stupid? I think we have got to agree that, all over this whole wide earth, the stupid are in a fearsomely overpowering majority. But I will be damned to perdition if it’s part of the eternal plan that the stupid are meant to rule the intelligent!”
Similarly, the free man and the man of his word has been punished by the system that is being nourished by us all. Now the convict is the man who opposed injustice and corruption. He is punished because he no longer fits the world where corrupt officials and academics remain in power. He must choose whether to join them and start a corrupt life, or whether to vanish forever.
"The majority is never right. ... Who makes up the majority in any country - the intelligent, or the stupid? I think we have got to agree that, all over this whole wide earth, the stupid are in a fearsomely overpowering majority-Dr Stockmann in Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People"
VC appointments have been discussed in local academia for decades. Earlier, the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) had lengthy discussions on political interference in Higher Education. When the news of the VCs’ removals spread on social media, prominent international academics sent statements of dismay and disagreement. Most raised the question of political interference in academia.
Prof. Rustom Bharucha, well-known cultural studies and theatre academic of the Jawaharlal Nehru University contended:
“At a time when academic, cultural and social institutions in the South Asian region are increasingly under attack by parties with vested interests, one needs to protest that such violation of academic norms are counter-productive for the life of the nation at large.”
But Unions are counting the days whether to make a statement or not, conveying how hypocritical and farcical they are. It is farcical because professional bodies are no longer interested in policies and procedures, but bio-politics between individuals.
Nothing has improved since the 2015 government assumed the power to ensure law-and-order and good governance. Ironically many academics who vehemently worked towards democracy and good governance are being punished and removed unlawfully and mercilessly. The happenings in universities nowadays run parallel to the happenings in the country at large.
Universities are publically-funded, and the public has the right to know of appointments and removals, and who teaches and how they teach. Every year, university administrators face the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) to display public accountability. But the same corrupt systems continue to dominate. Writing on the recent VC removals, Prof. Sasanka Perera of the South Asian University, New Delhi, argued that, “If such office- bearers are guilty of malpractices of any kind, their removal must be preceded by due process by ensuring that charges are presented, a formal inquiry is held and an opportunity given to the accused to defend themselves. After all, the country, too, has the right to know what these colleagues are guilty of – if they are guilty of anything at all. In both these cases, nothing of this kind has happened.”
Prof. Perera raises an important and timely question on why the public must know how these removals took place, and how the authorizers justify such actions. As a democratic country where the Right to Information Act is also established, people who benefit from public sector services, in this case, public universities, must know what is happening inside and out. But these decisions appear to be taken abruptly and arbitrary, and the public cannot trace the course of such actions.
Currently, there are many contradictions and controversies related to the University Grants Commission (UGC) policies and how they operate. The UGC has a mechanism, and Standing Committees to oversee activities in teaching, research, administration and quality assurance in the universities. However, it is unclear whether the UGC has a clear vision, or mechanism, to monitor the actual happenings in universities. They neither have a clear plan to improve the poor conditions in universities nor show any interest in how academics and VCs are trying to improve their institutions by introducing reform, codes of conducts and engaging with the international community.
It appears that a few UGC officials act on the information gained through acquaintances from the peripheries. This is similar to an intelligence service which often gets unconfirmed information and takes unintelligent decisions accordingly, as with the removal of the UVPA VC.
These arbitrary acts further question the powers of the presidency, and how such powers adversely affect the progression of educational institutions. Despite the public outcry that the president’s executive powers should be removed, authorities continue to hide behind this overpowering authority to cover their guilt and unjust actions. So the Executive Presidency is good for some because they can hide behind its power to cover their sins.
These VC eliminations raise more questions on university autonomy. Although the University Act upholds university sovereignty and autonomy, such powers are absent in practical situations. In recent months, universities experienced drawbacks due to decisions taken by higher authorities outside the system, thereby affecting their autonomy to make decisions. One example is the recent Higher Education Ministry circular blocking universities from signing MOUs with overseas institutions. This sparked a lengthy argument, and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) also raised the matter, but finally, no one knew the outcome. Another is the Finance Ministry circular cutting international conference travel and symposium attendance. This policy adversely affected university research and such drawbacks cannot be recovered for years.
"The majority is never right. I say, never! That is one of those social lies that any free man who thinks for himself has to rebel against. Who makes up the majority in any country - the intelligent, or the stupid? I think we have got to agree that, all over this whole wide earth, the stupid are in a fearsomely overpowering majority.-Ibsen"
Such incidents make academics and scholars feel discouraged and isolated, especially when their professional bodies remain silent. The first UVPA International Arts Camp was cancelled due to the VC removal, and nearly 20 international artists had to cancel their trips. The humiliation and monitory loss incalculable. The event was initially planned for July but was postponed due to the Easter bomb attacks.
With such disturbances and uncertainties, how can one imagine state-funded universities competing with mushrooming private institutions and foreign universities? The quality assurance of universities demands a culture of research and disseminating knowledge with the public and beyond. Public universities need expansion beyond their limits, and engagement with their global counterparts to attain globalized education and trade. But there is no promise that public universities have a peaceful and clear path to this. With student unrest and bureaucratic interference, it is doubtful that public universities would see the light.
Swimming Against the Tide
The message disseminated by the VC removals is that if you swim against the tide, your survival is at risk. Once again Dr Stockmann’s struggled has failed. The people for whom he stood up and served are engulfed in silence. He stands alone, against the tide. The silence of like-minded people would not restore the system or create another Dr Stockmann who could realize their dreams and aspirations. Mature professors such as Chandrajeewa and Vigneswaran could continue their careers and contribute to the nation in the final phase of their university lives. But the challenge is for the young and emerging academics who are silent and in darkness, waiting for someone to be victimized for them to pave their paths. I reiterate Dr Stockmann’s question: “who is the majority, and what is right”. If you want to be a ‘free man’, then you should challenge majoritarianism. They must consider not just their own careers, but also the political and institutional contexts they inhabit. Without an awareness of these situations, politics and global trends, the careers of the young academics could be at stake.
The UVPA escaped the focus of Higher Education officials until it began engaging with national and international discourses. Traditionally it has been a centre for teaching dance, music and other crafts. But for the last ten years, its role has been evolving with insights from foreign-trained academics, increased exposure and new leadership. Even though it embraced certain liberal educational changes proposed by authorities, such changes brought significant improvement and enhancement to teaching, learning and research.
But recent incidents indicate that some want to keep the UVPA in its embryonic state, where politicians and officials can order dance troupes and musicians for their rallies and ceremonies. They want the university to produce jesters and marionettes to be showcased as entertainment at tourist shows. Deans and Department Heads can write institutional and program reviews and prepare fake documents to submit to quality-assurance authorities. They can further manipulate students and ask them to worship them from dawn to dusk and earn well doing musical shows, reality shows and other income-generating activities. There’s no need to update the curriculum and introduce new interdisciplinary discourses. No need to teach English and waste salaries and infrastructure as we no longer welcome international partnerships. We are trying to close our doors and discourage the international community from engaging with us. In the meantime, we will manipulate the next presidential candidate to survive in the university while preserving our kalayathana tradition.
The UGC need not bother with UVPA administration. There’s no need to write quality-assurance reports, no need to send external reviewers, since we can review our arts and craft, and we govern our institution with our own rules and regulations. This is what the UVPA is currently propagating and communicating with the public.
Serious arts education has been ignored by policymakers. It is clear they lack a vision as to why arts education and arts administration is vital to developing the country’s cultural economy. Therefore, the UVPA will continue to sustain its feudal relationships and teacher-disciple educational rituals for another decade. The UGC will not have a headache as long as it is not an emerging university among others.
So, in conclusion, I further like to quote Dr Stockmann’s final words. Dr Stockmann tells his daughter Petra: “And the essence of it, you see, is the strongest man in the world is the one who stands most alone.” Change does not occur arbitrarily. It happens when a few self-motivated individuals take action. Failures may foresee this journey. However, they are the strongest and most determined people who ignite future struggles that may erupt like a volcano without being noticed. Till then, the UVPA will remain as an obedient servant, my sire!
Prof. Saumya Liyanage is an actor and academic working as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, UVPA.