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Posted at: Mar 14, 2018, 12:49 AM; last updated: Mar 14, 2018, 12:49 AM (IST)

PU — An institution in peril

There is a concerted effort to facilitate the agenda uppermost in the minds of the ruling clutch.
PU — An institution in peril

Shelley Walia

Professor and Fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, PU

Whereas the university seeks to disseminate learning to build a culture that reflects on deeper ethical and social concerns, there are intellectuals who, in the words of Julia Benda, spend their time "abetting instead the official machinery and its ruthless dominance." For Benda, as for Dante, there was no room for intellectual neutrality or unresponsiveness in times of crisis or academic debate. The responsibility for our present bleak situation lies not only in the governing elite, but also in the people who retreat from the public space, thus allowing regulatory strategies of Orwellian doublespeak and understatements challenging fundamental norms of justice and rationality. 

Such public intellectuals seem to be scarce in times of utilitarian conformism. Take the case of Panjab University and its governing bodies. In the recent days, several professors in support of the establishment have made unfounded and disparaging claims against the 'groupism' of the opposition, which according to them, ostensibly impedes the smooth functioning of the administration at Panjab University. They assert, as reported in press interviews, that the matter of good governance is held hostage by the whims and fancies of certain groups which are disruptive and counterproductive. 

This is patently false. If there is any 'groupism', it is the establishment runners who blatantly toe the line of the powers-that-be. The Gramscian concept of the "organic intellectual" who looks for favours and whose interests are identical with the ruling class that believes in the concept of consensus and coercion versus the "traditional intellectual" who has the inclination to 'disturb and unsettle', ask 'embarrassing' questions and 'force people to think of alternatives' comes to mind. 

Reverence for intellectual culture is indeed waning not only in Panjab University but in universities all across the world. I am dismayed by the gullibility and the bitter betrayal of 'organic intellectuals' who do not cry foul at the decisions arrived at through brute force of majoritarianism. Apparently, there is a concerted effort to facilitate the agenda uppermost in the minds of the ruling clutch. It is incomprehensible how the opposition is being charged with standing in the way of the smooth running of the university. Many are deeply concerned about the overall health of the university and have struggled, in good faith, to bring transparency and fairness in matters of governance, but these efforts have been a frustrating exercise in futility. 

Fairness needed in constitution of selection and inspection committees

As a case in point, the so-called 'opposition' has maintained a consistent stand on the need to have fairness in the constitution of the selection and inspection committees; they want to follow a roster for the selection of committee members who then select candidates. A roster system would ensure transparency and preserve the criteria of impartiality and objectivity. If we hold these committees to a high standard of selection, it will be reflected in the quality of their report on the health of the colleges and the academic acumen of the teachers we appoint in these colleges. Further, the roster will enable an unbiased nondiscriminatory selection process open to all, an idea conveyed to the authorities a number of times over the last few years. The acrimonious debate on this seemingly rational decision rages on. 

There is no reason why the same faculty members should be represented on the committees repeatedly. When the matter is brought up in the governing bodies of the university, counter-arguments in support of the prerogatives and privileges of the Vice-Chancellor to constitute the committees are bandied about. Such arguments form the very antithesis of the operation of a democratically elected Senate. The purpose of the debate has to be the improvement of the governance by introducing the best practices in the system. The supporters of the existing system, however, oppose this recommendation and stand up for the status quo, oblivious of the fact that there is a much larger possible pool of contenders, quite talented, who might make a more valuable contribution. Senators and other teachers raising this issue are not in this for self-aggrandisement; they would like to see a level playing field where fairness, reasonableness and objectivity in selection is the prevailing principle.

There is no objectivity in the constitution of committees for issues facing the university teachers. The verdict that such committees will render is a foregone conclusion, consisting as they are of members who are biased in advance of any open debate or dissent, and opposed to any demand that would ensure an impartial outcome. The overriding question is why the governing bodies of the university would not readily agree to constructive changes motivated by nothing but a deep sense of justice, fairness and objectivity. 

Any favouritism is a serious infraction of the basic structure of our institution, and a compromise of its integrity. How we address the matter of the constitution of the committees will define the resilience of our constitutional democracy and our proclaimed commitment to the rule of justice. We are required to build a supportive environment that encourages everyone to participate. Let us give them a fair shot. There are many in our university who have academic merit. They should be encouraged to participate, contribute and do so with a positive open mind-set. We need to rally our forces collectively to overcome the systemic inertia. We cannot allow sycophancy, tardiness and ineptitude to flourish and ignore competence and high levels of integrity which are the hallmarks of a reputable university. 

When the people at the helm of affairs begin to administer with self-serving programmes and surround themselves with a group of fawning supporters, the integrity of the institution is bound to suffer. It's a matter of shame that we have not been able to discontinue the appointments of teachers with counterfeit degrees, who will shape the future of our student body.

I believe that we can introduce debate and pass some path-breaking reforms for the advancement of our university, making it equitable and just, academically strong and transparent in governance, an institution we can all be proud of. Let us not be weak. Let us not be susceptible. And let us not be manipulated and led by the nose. We are the voices of change! And we need to take stock of ourselves.


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