St. Stephen’s College Students, Teachers Protest Administration’s Decision on Autonomy

Students and faculty members have said that the administration is not holding the required consultative processes and making decisions in a secretive manner.

Students and staff members protesting at St. Stephen's College. Credit: Special arrangement

Students and staff members protesting at St. Stephen’s College. Credit: Special arrangement

New Delhi: Students and faculty members in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, are protesting against the college administration’s decision to apply to be an autonomous institution (and therefore no longer come under the university).

On February 25, the college held a governing body meeting to decide whether or not to apply for autonomy. Students have said that this meeting did not adhere to University Grants Commission guidelines, which say that all stakeholders – students, faculty and karamcharis – must be consulted before the decision to hold such a meeting is taken. “There are several areas where proper preparation is necessary if college autonomy is to be implemented successfully. These are: faculty preparation, departmental preparation, institutional preparation, and preparation of students and the local community. Such multi-pronged preparation should be completed well before autonomy is sought and conferred upon a college so that no part of the college community is found unprepared for the new responsibility which it is called upon to shoulder,” the UGC directive says.

Nearly 500 students and close to 30 faculty members signed a petition asking that the governing body meeting be deferred, but it was held nonetheless. The governing body decided to go ahead and apply for autonomous college status. “This decision (to become an autonomous college),” the petition read, “due to its potential to fundamentally alter the character of the College merits careful examination and legitimate consensus building. It is the college administration’s imperative to create consultative processes that are capable of building genuine consensus among all stakeholders.

After the meeting, college principal John Varghese issued a press release announcing the governing body’s decision. “The resolution proposing Autonomy noted that the proposal for Autonomy be made and implemented in a manner which does not affect the Christian character of the College and the constitutional rights emanating therefrom. The Governing Body also noted that the proposal to seek autonomy has no adverse impact on the service conditions of permanent staff nor will it affect the course content and fee structure of the present students of the College,” the release said.

Students protesting in St. Stephen's College on Wednesday. Credit: Special arrangement

Students protesting in St. Stephen’s College on Wednesday. Credit: Special arrangement

“That’s when we decided to start protesting, we first had a big protest on Monday. The principal then agreed to meet us, but he didn’t give us any satisfactory answers or tell us why the college followed no democratic processes. He then promised us that a governing body meeting would be held on Wednesday (today). But then in the afternoon he called us and said that the governing body had refused to come to meet us. So we decided to have another protest – we entered the Andrew’s Court (a lawn which students are not allowed to enter, a rule that was made under previous principal Valson Thampu) and had a meeting there,” a student who did not want to be named told The Wire.

The protests are not against autonomy per se, but against the lack of democratic process. “There is no clarity on what this autonomy would mean for us,” the student said. “We need to make an informed decision and for that the college needs to have some sort of workshop or seminar on what this autonomy would mean. The autonomy that college authorities are talking about seems very different from what is mentioned in the UGC directives.”

The staff association has also passed a resolution that all permanent members of the teaching staff will resign from any voluntary administrative positions in protest (such as staff advisors to college societies and convenors of committees), Nandita Narain, who teaches mathematics at the college, told The Wire. “We (the staff association) want the governing body’s decision to be reversed,” Narain said. “It was taken in a great hurry, surreptitiously and without any application of mind. There was no consultation or consensus amongst the college community.”

“Autonomy does change the very character of the college,” added N.P. Ashley, who is part of the english department. “In such a process, all the stakeholders should be consulted in detail. Lack of transparency about the governing body meeting created a lot of apprehension and clarifications have been inadequate. Students have been protesting this without disrupting academic activities. The college does not seem to have any real plan on what to do with this autonomy – it needs to be spelt out in academic, administrative and financial terms, rather than repeating the reassurance that nothing will happen to the existing faculty or students. A college that is so proud of its alumni should not make the argument that for students college only matters during their years in college”

The college administration had not replied to The Wire‘s request for comment at the time of publication.