Legal Doubts Over Second Extension of Term For Nalanda University Vice-Chacellor

As the search for a new vice-chancellor continues, the governing board of the university has decided to extend previous vice-chancellor, Gopa Sabharwal's tenure for the second time.

New Delhi: For the second time this year, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) is examining the legality of a position taken by the Nalanda University governing board related to the appointment of a new vice-chancellor. This time, the ministry will consider whether the governing board’s decision to extend Gopa Sabharwal’s tenure till selection of new vice-chancellor, is legally valid.

The Wire had reported in August that the MEA had sought the view of attorney general, Mukul Rohtagi, to interpret the 2012 university statutes for the selection process for new vice chancellor. His advice was required as the five-member search panel, formed way back in January, could not arrive at a decision. They were divided on whether they should give a choice of three names to the president, rather than just suggesting the current vice chancellor for reappointment.

Nalanda University, which is still at a very nascent stage in Rajgir, was rather uniquely set-up as part of India’s ‘Look East’ policy. It is also the first international university established by the Indian government, with foreign countries nominating members to the governing board and providing funds. Therefore, there have been concerns over the delays which have plagued the project, which was to be the modern chapter in India’s ancient linkages with south-east Asia.

The latest difference has cropped up after the university’s finance officer-cum-officiating registrar, K. Chandramoorthi, issued a notice on October 14 that the governing board had decided to appoint Gopa Sabharwal as “acting vice chancellor” from November 25 – when her already extended term ends.

The decision was taken by the governing board, in “order to ensure continuity of the leadership in the university and also for the smooth functioning of the university,” said the notice.

It further added, that Sabharwal would be acting vice chancellor for up to a period of one year, or until the new vice chancellor assumes office, “whichever is earlier”.

The notice from K. Chandramoorthi.

The notice from K. Chandramoorthi.

However, the MEA, which is the coordinating ministry in the Indian government for Nalanda University, is not ready to give their stamp of approval yet.

“We are looking into it. We have yet to give our legal opinion, which will be conveyed soon,” said a senior government official.

The attorney general had earlier given his opinion of Article 12 (1) of the 2012 university statutes.

This time, the disparity in interpretation is the subsequent clause – Article 12 (2).

The statute says that the vice chancellor will hold office for five years, or till 70 years of age. Sabharwal was appointed in 2010 and her term ended on November 24, 2015.

The next paragraph in the same sub-section says that “notwithstanding the expiry of the said period of five years, he/she shall continue in office until his/her successor is appointed and enters upon his/her office”. Sabharwal was granted an extension last year, till the next vice-chancellor was appointed.

The last line in Article 12 (2) then puts a limit on the extended term: “Provided further that the governing board may direct any vice-chancellor after his/her term has expired, to continue in office for such period, not exceeding a total period of one year, as may be specified or till his/her successor is appointed and enters upon his/her office, whichever is earlier”.

When The Wire asked for a clarification on whether the extension of Sabharwal’s tenure, after the already extended one-year term was in compliance with the university guidelines. The university released a statement defending the decision of the governing board.

“Under the university statutes, the incumbent vice-chancellor is to stay on until the new vice-chancellor is in place.  This is to ensure that there is no leadership vacuum in the university,” the university spokesperson told The Wire.

The statement also mentioned that the “governing board is grateful to Gopa Sabharwal for agreeing to stay on and act as the interim vice-chancellor until the new vice-chancellor which the visitor will select from a panel of names assumes office”.

There was, however, no reference to the operational part of the Statute 12 (2), which specified that the extension after extension of original term was not to exceed “total period of one year”.

A week later after the October 14 circular about Sabharwal staying on at Nalanda University, there was another internal notice – this time from the Chancellor George Yeo, former Singapore foreign minister, to all university staff. “In line with the advice of the attorney general that a reappointment under the Statutes is to be treated as a fresh appointment, our honourable visitor as required the governing board to put a panel of names for the post of vice chancellor regardless of whether it is a reappointment or a fresh appointment when Gopa Sabharwal’s current extended term ends on November 24,2016,” said the circular dated October 27.

It also informed that an international advertisement would be placed soon and had generous praise for Sabharwal.

“For avoidance of doubt and without prejudicing the work of the search committee, I want to put on record that the governing board considers Dr Sabharwal to be an outstanding vice chancellor who is contributing hugely to the development of the university,” said the circular signed by Yeo.

The circular from Chancellor George Yeo. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

The circular from Chancellor George Yeo. Credit: Devirupa Mitra

Four days later, the university issued the advertisement calling for applications for the vice-chancellor. It cited three specific qualifications, with the first being, “an outstanding scholar with proven record preferably in the field of Asian studies, broadly defined”. The other qualifications were experience in administering a higher education institute and the ability to deal with stakeholders, like foreign governments. The deadline for applications is November 30.

Even as the MEA puts the governing board’s decision under the legal spotlight, a senior government official admitted that that it didn’t look tenable as per the statute.

On the plea of continuity, he pointed the most central universities have provisions for the senior most official to take over during the interim period between the appointment of new vice chancellor. “This is not the first time that it has happened in a university in India,” he said.

The ministry may, however, not be ready to put the university chancellor and governing board in a corner – yet.

“We have a commitment that we will get the three names by January, to be forwarded to the president,” he said.

When asked if the MEA will take a decision on extension before the next vice-chancellor is appointed, the senior official said, “watch this space”.

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