Anything With the Word ‘Swami’ Sounds Appealing to US Universities

Aerial view of campus of University of California, Irvine. Credit: Poppashoppa Wikipedia commons

Aerial view of campus of University of California, Irvine. Credit: Poppashoppa Wikipedia commons

In January 2015, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), signed an agreement with the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), to set up the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilisation Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilisation Studies. The agreement stipulated a transfer of $1.5 million to the university over the next five years.

Six months later, the DCF signed three similar agreements with UCI for Chairs in Sikh, Jain and Modern India studies, with a donation of $ 1.5 million for each. Soon after the endowment became public, it was met with severe opposition from the university’s faculty and students, whose main bone of contention is the DCF’s ideological linkages with the RSS in India and the US. They argue that the DCF, through its donation, is attempting to influence academic autonomy and dictate terms for the appointees to the Chairs. Following petitions by hundreds of UCI faculty members and students to reject the donation, the university authorities were forced to set up a review committee, which is currently preparing its report. A final decision on accepting or rejecting the grant will depend on the recommendation of the review committee.

Catherine Liu, professor of Film and Media Studies at UCI who has been among the leading academics urging the university authorities to revoke the donation, speaks to The Wire about the issues involved.

Was UCI unaware of the DCF’s ideological leanings and linkages when it signed the agreement accepting the four endowment Chairs in the School of Humanities? 

It depends on how you define “university” here. Does university mean the Dean of the School of Humanities Georges Van den Abbeele? Or Religious Studies Faculty Keith Nelson (retired), Jack Miles, Carol Burke, Susan Klein? Or University fundraisers Gregory Leet (now gone), School of Humanities fundraiser Nicole Balsamo? The UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gilman? Or the Provost Enrique Lavernia? All of these entities had to sign in on the gift for it to have materialised.

Did they have any understanding of Indian history and politics?

No, not a single person among these signatories has any expert knowledge of India. It is quite possible that none of these people had any idea of the politics of the DCF. They can simply then plead ignorance. And certainly the administrators at the top of the pyramid, making the most money, must have believed that the Dean had consulted the Faculty in the School of Humanities, for them to approve the gift.

Were the scholars who teach South Asian history in the department consulted?

The fact is the Dean did not consult the South Asian scholars. During the meeting on December 1, 2015, the scholars publicly informed that they had been excluded from the consultation process. When they learned of the gifts, it was already a done deal. It is unlikely that despite knowing about DCF’s politics, UCI administrators and faculty members welcomed the far right organisation because of their own political leanings. But in an era of austerity and budget cuts, administrators are eager to show their ability to raise large sums of money coming from donors dictating the terms of new and innovative ways.

The alleged apolitical liberalism of UCI is certainly not inviolate. We live in a very conservative area: Irvine is a diverse community of immigrants, but most of the communities are religious and politically far to the right of the rest of California. If it were up to our administrators to deal with donors and their projects, we would look like a dystopic field run by aging billionaires.

Prof Catherine Liu Of UCI

Prof Catherine Liu Of UCI

In an earlier media interview you had said that UCI “desperately” required the study of Indian history, but that “they want Dharma studies, which is different.” Could you elaborate the implications such funding could have on academic freedom and research?

Appallingly, despite all our happy talk of training global leaders, our own UCI and the new class of administrators are ignorant of the world. I’m sure that anything to do with the word “Swami” appears “spiritual” and appealing in a vaguely Oriental way. Let’s not underestimate the provincialism and ignorance of the American white collar professional.

Yes, we desperately need an Indian history specialist in the History department. Even though such a hire would not change everything, it would bring in an expert who would engage with the study of India and its relationship to South Asia and the world. Dharma studies do nothing of this sort. That the above mentioned colleagues believed the study of Dharma to be legitimate is based on their own wilful ignorance of Indian politics and culture. Vague religiosity rather than religious studies is what they want to promote.

Does UCI need a Religious Studies programme?

We are not a very mature campus in terms of program building: we should look at the Religious Studies programs in University of Chicago, Michigan and UC Berkeley. I argue that the Religious Studies programme at our university is considered to be a selling point to conservative wealthy donors. And in his attempts to fulfill his fundraising, our Dean is willing to focus entirely on donor driven projects that serve no academic purpose.

To what extent are such controversies fuelled by a growing need to get endowment money? Are religious endowments more restrictive of research agendas than, say, corporate endowments? This may be especially pertinent since many Indian corporations fund programs/departments/chairs in US universities.

Focused now on creating technology transfers, corporate gifts guide the research of universities, serving as R&D facilities for all sorts of companies. This is more common in the Sciences than in the Humanities. Some faculty members are finally beginning to complain about these restrictive gifts. Private foundation money funds expensive medical research – stem cell research funded by Bill and Susan Gross, is one such example. These gifts may look like UCI is ‘saving’ taxpayers’ money. But these labs, scientists and all the ancillary research – the ‘overhead’ costs – bloat our budget much more than a Humanities professor’s salary does.

Besides ideological influence what are the other ramifications of private funding for University of California (UC) campuses?

As the state steadily reduced its funding to the UC since 1970, the UC has been pressurised into raising money to replace that funding. Donors don’t fund basic education. Nor do they care about excellent graduate students and good faculty to promote smaller classes and better teaching. In the process, UC education has become more expensive.  And in these neo-liberal times, the California legislature refuses to fund the UC’s needs. And Deans and Chancellors spend 50-70 percent of their time raising funds.

To what extent are such controversies produced by a wider structural crisis in funding humanities research in US universities? Can you contextualise the DCF endowment within the political economy of US universities?

As universities become places where their budget strategies try to meet the wider goals of austerity, everything is up for competition – resources, positions, faculty support. Things have gotten particularly bad under the present university chancellor Gilman. We are now told that we are not going to ‘grow’ any other departments. All academic positions have become prizes in a Hunger Games like competition, even as Gilman wants to expand our student body from 25,000 to 40,000.

How will you educate those students if you don’t hire more faculty? Who decides what faculty to hire – donors and committees with some magic formula? In general, the Humanities and Arts will suffer under this regime. The vision that our Dean and the Chancellor and Provost have is privileging vocational education rather than academic inquiry, shunting History and Politics.  And the Humanities are not income generating centers. Finally, the compromise of quality in education produces a half-educated consumer and a non-professional, who views the rest of the world as an exotic vacation spot.