George Yeo Resigns as Nalanda University Chancellor, Citing Government Interventions

"The circumstances under which the leadership change in Nalanda University has been suddenly and summarily effected is disturbing and possibly harmful to the University's development."

File photo of George Yeo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

File photo of George Yeo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Just four days after government constituted a new governing board and overruled the board’s decision on extension of the vice chancellor’s term, George Yeo, chancellor of Nalanda University, has submitted his letter of resignation to President Pranab Mukherjee.  Yeo’s strongly-worded letter was sent to the president in the early hours of Friday, which also coincided with the sixth anniversary of the university’s foundation day.

In a statement, Yeo, a former Singapore foreign minister, said his decision was instigated by the president’s order on November 21, which did not give an extension to the Nalanda Mentors Group – the de-facto governing board of the university which included Amartya Sen, Sugata Bose and Meghnad Desai.

The Nov 21 Gazette Notification constituting Nalanda University's new Governing Board

MEA’s Nov 21 Gazette Notification constituting Nalanda University’s new Governing Board

Instead, the government constituted a new governing board (GB), as per the 2010 act. The only remaining member in the new GB from the old board is NK Singh, former Rajya Sabha member and Revenue Secretary. The government had also nominated Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya, ICCR President Lokesh Chandra and Arvind Sharma of McGill University.

Yeo says in his resignation letter that he was “neither involved in the preparation nor consulted beforehand” on the decision to dissolve the governing board, though he had been repeatedly assured while taking charge last year that the university would have autonomy. “This appears not to be the case now. With deep sadness, I have submitted my letter of resignation to the Visitor,” he wrote.

The former Singapore foreign minister took charge as chancellor in mid-2015. He was appointed as chancellor after his predecessor, Amartya Sen, decided not to seek a second term because of alleged government interventions in the running of the university.

The Wire has parsed the rest of George Yeo’s resignation statement with the appropriate context:

“When I was appointed Chancellor in July 2015, I was told that a new Governing Board would be formed under an amended Act, core aspects of which the Ministry of External Affairs sought my views on. The amended Act would have removed a major flaw in the current Act which in essence offers Governing Board seats to East Asian Summit countries making the highest financial contributions in the last three years. … For reasons not entirely clear to me, the Government of India has decided to form the new Governing Board with immediate effect before the Act is amended. This is of course entirely the prerogative of the Government of India.” – George Yeo’s resignation statement.

The government issued the gazette notification on Nov 21 to constitute a new governing board. There was no official statement from the ministry of external affairs, but officials sources argued that decision had been long overdue. As per the 2010 Act, the Nalanda Mentors group, formed in 2007 with Sen as chair, could only continue November 2011. However, it was given extension by the government on an ad-hoc basis, due to the delays in passing of the Nalanda University amendment bill.

The 2013 amendment bill was first introduced by UPA, but it was referred by Rajya Sabha to the Standing Committee on External Affairs. The parliamentary panel had pointed out to the very flaw in the bill that Yeo also noted – that seats in the governing board should not go to highest bidders. This recommendation had been accepted by the government and the amendment bill modified – but it has not been tabled in parliament, so far.

The NMG-cum-Governing Board has had a difficult relationship with the Ministry of External Affairs over the years – even under the UPA government. The underlying cause of friction had been the ministry’s increasing of loss of trust in Sabharwal, even as she retained the strong backing of the Governing Board. Officials point out that in the last six years under Sabharwal, only 12 graduates had got their degrees at the university’s first convocation in August 2016. Currently, the university has no registrar or director (administration). The construction of the Rajgir campus has yet to begin. Nalanda University authorities had claimed that the delays were due to bureaucratic red-tape and delay in obtaining permissions from the ministry.

“Pending the appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor, the incumbent Vice-Chancellor, Dr Gopa Sabharwal, whose extended term ended on 24 November, was to stay on as interim Vice-Chancellor until the new Vice-Chancellor is in place, to ensure that there is no hiatus in the leadership of the University. This is provided for in the University Statutes and fully supported by the old Governing Board. However, on 22 November, the Visitor overruled the Governing Board and directed that the senior-most Dean be appointed instead.” – George Yeo’s resignation statement.

MEA officials strongly disputed Yeo’s contention (shown above) that there was any provision in the 2012 University Statutes for a second extension for Sabharwal’s term as vice-chancellor. Her five-year term officially ended last November, but she was then given an extension for an year or till the appointment of the new vice-chancellor. On Oct 14, the university issued a circular that the governing board had decided to extend her stay beyond Nov 24, so that there was no leadership vacuum. The erstwhile search panel, set up by the GB to select the nominations for the next V-C, were still receiving applications, since the last date was Nov 30. However, the university statutes clearly said that a VC could continue after the expiry of the original term, provided that it was “not exceeding a total period of one year…”

This was the second time this year that MEA and the Governing Board members have not looked eye-to-eye over 2012 statutes. Earlier, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi’s opinion was sought over whether the search panel had to compulsorily forward three names to the Visitor to make his choice for VC, or Sabharwal’s name could be solely forwarded for reappointment. Rohtagi had opined that Statutes only had the provision to forward three nominees, which could include Sabharwal.

Pankaj Mohan, who is the senior-most dean in the Nalanda University, has already taken charge as acting Vice-Chancellor from Nov 25. However, the appointment next V-C will depend on the speed with which China, Laos PDR, Australia and Thailand would nominate their representation, so that the Governing Board could take a decision on the search process.

“The circumstances under which the leadership change in Nalanda University has been suddenly and summarily effected is disturbing and possibly harmful to the University’s development. It is puzzling why I, as Chancellor, was not even given notice of it.

…It has been an honour and a privilege for me to be associated with the revival of Nalanda over the last decade, to serve as a member of the Nalanda Mentors Group and the Governing Board under the leadership of Amartya Sen, and to be appointed its second Chancellor. Despite difficult circumstances, the University has made remarkable progress through the tireless effort of Dr Gopa Sabharwal and her colleagues.” – George Yeo’s resignation statement.

When George Yeo had been appointed, MEA officials had been rather happy with him replacing Sen. In fact, government officials had said in 2015 that they were were trying to give him as much space as possible to settle down. He had been enthusiastic in fund-raising for the university from private donors, especially from Singapore.

External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj had a cordial relationship with Yeo. In April, the MEA even hosted a special book launch for Yeo inside its auditorium. On the dais were politicians across the political spectrum – Sushma Swaraj, as well as Congress’s P Chidambaram, Sugata Bose of Trinamool Congress and N.K. Singh of JD(U).

However, the gap in communication seems to be have been in Yeo not getting the message that Indian government bureaucracy wanted to see the back of Sabharwal.Yeo had repeatedly justified his dependence on Sabharwal as he was new to the job and the need for continuity. The government, also, perhaps underestimated the interests of the Governing Board in asserting its autonomy, which is a necessity in creating a world-class academic institution.

Incidentally, in his Facebook post about his resignation, Yeo had commented the dissolution of the Nalanda Mentors Group was “bound up with Indian domestic politics which I do not wish to be embroiled in”.

“I am not an Indian citizen and prefer not to make further comments beyond what is contained in my statement of 25 November 2016. On the Nalanda project, I have worked closely with leaders of different political parties in India including the BJP and Congress,” he said.

Yeo said that he was “completely committed to the original mission of Nalanda as supported by the leaders of the East Asian Summit in 2009 and as debated and unanimously agreed to by all political parties in India in both the Upper and Lower Houses when the Act was passed in 2010”.

“Nalanda is an idea whose time has come. It is bigger than and will outlast anyone of us,” he added.

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