The Ongoing Attack on JNU’s Democratic Academic Structures

The administration has been encroaching on the educational structures of JNU which is dangerously undermining the democratic ethos of the university.

Students protest outside the convention centre in JNU. Credit: Twitter

Students protest outside the convention centre in JNU. Credit: Twitter

Devising and maintaining academic norms are central to the making of a good university and a vibrant intellectual culture. A good university is one which offers students not only an excellent education, but also the necessary democratic space that makes this really meaningful. The essence of this is critical thought, the spirit of questioning and an excitement about ideas. When buttressed by reading and learnt skills like research or writing, it makes education truly significant and transformative, rather than a mechanical means to achieve ends process. The attack on the public universities that we are witnessing all over India is designed to kill public education. At the heart of this is gagging voices, stopping dissent, ending debates and attempting to erase difference. In other words, the end of the university as a democratic space. It is this that we have been witnessing in this last year in JNU.

In brief – there has been a steady encroachment on and an attack against, perfectly viable structures of education that had been in place in JNU. At the risk of repeating the obvious, JNU has had an exemplary academic record – in the areas of teaching, research and publication. JNU’s students can be found in all areas of public life – government, politics, education, the arts, scientific research and active politics – to name but a few. It is then urgent to ask why everything that has not only functioned well, but has been exemplary, is being undone.

In this year we have witnessed different attempts to undo principles that maintain university structures. These include undoing the principle of seniority and rotation as the only grounds for becoming chairs or deans of centres (departments in JNU are known as centres); the appointment of wardens; the creation of a rash of new committees whose decisions have become binding; holding such important meetings as those of the academic and the executive councils during vacations; incorrect minuting of the proceedings of such meetings and the blatant refusal to correct these when pointed out, amongst others. Additionally, informal meetings of the vice chancellor with chairs and deans of the university are becoming places for discussing matters of both academic and statutory relevance to the university. Further, there is an alarming push to dilute the academic standards of the university by increasing the numbers of “certificate courses” and encouraging the system of online education.

The administrative undoing of the university first. Those unaware of the details would wonder why a university with a well oiled, routinised, system, should needlessly revamp it. However, a closer look at the patterns emerging make it patently obvious why this overhaul has been undertaken. The ‘whetting’ of all incumbent chairs and deans, with demands for ‘vision documents’ from them, followed up by an interview with the administration, is merely a way of lining up loyalists. However, sustained protests by the faculty and the teachers’ association has ensured that at least the seniority and rotation principle has not been entirely dispensed with.

Similar interference has been noticed in the renewal of contracts of some faculty members who also double as wardens of students’ hostels. The changes in these procedures, which should – according to JNU’s statutes be discussed and decided formally – have all been brought in without following due process and are being hastily implemented. This kind of motivated revamping of administrative structures is matched by the attack on academic practice. Normally, all academic matters in JNU – like the creation of courses or requests for creating new centers – are whetted at different levels. This usually goes through a rigorous process from within centres, via schools, boards, and finally the academic and executive councils. This ensures both quality and a democratic decision making process and the deliberations in statutory bodies like the academic, or the executive councils are done with care, giving attention to detail.

'Ideas are notice-proof' Credit: Twitter

‘Ideas are notice-proof’ Credit: Twitter

This year we have seen these being flouted repeatedly – thereby violating the sanctity of academic procedures. To begin with, following due process in relation to these meetings is essential for maintaining the sanctity of both academic practice and of intellectual standards. Amongst other matters, this would mean ensuring that the largest numbers of members would be able to attend these. Instead, we have seen academic and now executive council meetings being fixed in vacations – a practice unheard of in any good university. Second, all meetings must maintain accurate minutes. This is the essential for efficient and ethical functioning. Normally, draft minutes are circulated, and members’ responses in writing solicited – these are then formally approved by the floor in its next meeting. However, not only have there been glaring errors in minuting the 141st meeting of JNU’s academic council, these were not corrected even when pointed out.

Two of the most shocking of these has been the fudging of an academic council decision regarding selection committees for posts, giving the vice chancellor undue rights to change the list of experts and, the claim that the UGC Gazette notification of May 2016 that makes interview marks the principle criteria for admitting research students had been discussed, which was certainly not the case.

Third, the discussion of some courses has been done in a manner that substitutes academic rigour with skulduggery. Take, for instance, the case of the certificate courses brought by the special centre for Sanskrit studies to the 141st academic council. These courses were discussed very seriously and received thoughtful and generous, suggestions from colleagues. However, the Sanskrit faculty chose to deliberately misrepresent the fact that they had been asked to revise their courses and instead went to the press to report, incorrectly, that their courses had been turned down. On the contrary, one out of the three presented was passed, while two were sent back for revisions. Under normal circumstances revised courses should be brought back for discussion when the academic council reconvenes. However, in a shocking turn of events, the course on Yoga, declared as “approved” by the chairperson at the 142nd academic council held on December 26, was not discussed after revision. And here, I am not even entering the more messy terrain of why JNU should even consider offering ‘certificate’ courses, when it has a well established structure of research degrees in place.

These are just a few examples of how JNU’s excellent intellectual and political culture is being undermined. The very worst has been the utterly unacceptable language of attack, steady marginalising and more recently threats of “disciplinary action” against colleagues who attempted to protest this blatant violation of all norms and functioning of the university. The fight to protect JNU – and all other public universities in the country – is a fight for a democratic Indian future that ensures just and equal education to all. This is not just JNU’s fight – it is something every concerned citizen should be a part of.

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