Confusion Over University Statutes Reigns in Hunt for Nalanda’s New VC

The attorney general stepped in to provide an opinion on the statute, as differences have run rife among the ‘search’ panel set up to consider Gopa Sabharwal’s successor.

An image of Nalanda University's upcoming campus. Credit:

An image of Nalanda University’s upcoming campus. Credit:

New Delhi: After internal differences sprung up over the interpretation of a clause on appointing Nalanda University’s vice-chancellor, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi was tapped to provide an opinion on whether the rules allowed for only the incumbent’s name to be forwarded for re-appointment or if three names had to compulsorily be provided to the president.

The term of Gopa Sabharwal, Nalanda University’s first vice-chancellor, ends on November 25. As the vice-chancellor is only entitled to a maximum of an additional year after the completion of the official tenure, Sabharwal cannot get a further extension to her term. Therefore, the visitor – President Pranab Mukherjee – has about two months to reach a decision on who replaces Sabharwal, if the university is not to be left without a head.

Mukherjee can only make a decision based on the names provided by the university’s governing board. But even months after being set up in late January, the search panel is yet to agree on any names to nominate for consideration as Sabharwal’s successor – a process that has been stymied over the reading of a sub-clause in university statutes.

Nalanda was the first of two international institutes of higher education, along with South Asian University (SAU), which were started by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as instruments of foreign policy. They are both, therefore, ‘coordinated’ by the ministry of external affairs rather than the human resources development ministry, which holds the portfolio of higher education.

Unlike SAU, whose ambition is clear from its nomenclature, Nalanda, located in Bihar, was envisioned as the link to revitalise India’s connection to South East Asia through the historic memory of foreign students travelling to the ancient university many millennia ago. The university was first endorsed by all leaders at the second East Asia Summit in Philippines 2007.

Currently, the international flavour is mainly through the multi-national governing board, which comprises representatives from member states of the East Asia Summit.

In November last year, Sabharwal was given a one-year extension in her term as vice-chancellor – the maximum allowed under university statutes.

Two months later, George Yeo, the chancellor of the university Chancellor and Singapore’s former foreign minister, chaired his first governing board meeting in Rajgir. Yeo had taken over in July 2015 after Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, the first chancellor and head of Nalanda mentors’ group-cum-governing board, ruled himself out from a second term after crossing swords with the current NDA government.

Clear statutes  

On January 30, the university governing board set up a five-member committee – comprising Yeo, Lok Sabha member of parliament Sugata Bose, former Rajya Sabha member N.K. Singh, Professor Wang Bangwei from China and Professor Wang Gungwu from Singapore – which, according to sources, was meant to search for suitable names for consideration as the next vice-chancellor.

The university statutes issued in March 2012 has this to state about the appointment of the vice-chancellor.

  1. Vice Chancellor – (1) The Vice-Chancellor shall be appointed by the Visitor from a panel of not less than three persons recommended by the Governing Board and if the Visitor does not accept the recommendations, he may invite fresh recommendations.
There has been some confusion over whether Gopa Sabharwal's tenure as Nalanda University vice-chancellor can be be extended for another term. Credit:

There has been some confusion over whether current vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal can be the only person nominated for the post. Credit:

The dispute over the interpretation over this clause became apparent from the day the panel was formed.

On January 31, Yeo issued a statement through the university explicitly stating that the “Governing Board left open the possibility of reappointing the existing Vice-Chancellor for a second term”.

He also asserted that the committee was not a ‘search panel’, but rather had to first decide whether Sabharwal should be re-appointed. “The 5-member Appointment Committee which I ​C​hair will deliberate whether the existing ​Vice Chancellor should be reappointed or the search for a new ​Vice Chancellor be made. The Board will then put up a formal recommendation to the Visitor for his approval,” Yeo had said at that time.

The statement led to some confusion as the statute did not seem to indicate that the president could be given a single name, if the committee decided to vote for Sabharwal’s reappointment.

Over the past few months, the committee members have remained divided, debating over the legality of nominating Sabharwal as the only name for Mukherjee to consider.

There was some conflicting views whether to give one name or three names…Whether reappointment is appointment,” Singh, a member of the five-member committee, told The Wire.

Finally, Rohtagi’s opinion was sought. He pronounced that the statute clearly stipulated that the governing board was legally bound to convey at least three names to the president. A single name would have been equivalent to submitting a fait acompli to Rashtrapati Bhawan.

We will be giving three names,” said Singh. Asked if all the board members were on the same page regarding the nomination of the university’s next vice-chancellor, he added, “The opinion of the attorney general is binding on us”.

He also implied that India being the main funder of the university played a key role in deciding whether the attorney general’s opinion had to be given weight. Several countries have committed contributions to the university, but India is making the major capital investment in the project, to the tune of Rs 2,727.10 crores till 2021-22.

Could Sabharwal return?

The five-member committee is yet to decide when to submit the list of suitable candidates to the governing board, which will send that forward to the president. “We are giving some thought on how to proceed further,” Singh said.

There are no restrictions in the statutes on the choice of the nominations, so a current vice-chancellor can well be part of the list sent to Mukherjee. However, the president will have the final say in who is to become Nalanda’s next vice-chancellor.

While Yeo has been seen leaning towards the reappointment of Sabharwal for reasons of continuity, Raisina Hill has been keen to see a fresh face at the helm of the university.

The Wire reached out to Nalanda’s administration to ask whether the appointment committee had submitted its report to the governing board and if the panel had reached an agreement on the number of nominations for the post.

The Appointment Committee is still deliberating on the matter,” said the university spokesperson in reply to both queries.

Meanwhile, the university is getting ready for its first ever convocation, to be held in the last week of August. According to the university, twelve students who have completed their coursework will be conferred degrees by the president, who will travel to Rajgir for the ceremony. A governing board meeting is also likely to be held on the sidelines, which could take stock of the process of appointing the next vice-chancellor.