Education

How to Wreck a University

Can the MHRD reverse the damage it has inflicted on Pondicherry University?

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Students hold up placard demanding the removal of the Vice Chancellor. Credit: Pondicherry University Student Movement (PUSM)

Puducherry: Even at its bustling best, this south Indian Union Territory retains a sleepiness which its tourism department loves to plug as ‘Peaceful Puducherry’. But  just 12 kilometres outside the city, this image of calm is belied by the turmoil at Pondicherry University, which has been besieged by student protests, vandalism and vigilante violence. After a month of  disturbances, there is finally hope among students and faculty that the university will return to routine. This follows a communication from the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) ordering Vice-Chancellor (VC) Chandra Krishnamurthy—whose stewardship of the university triggered the unrest—to remain on “compulsory wait until further orders … in the interest of restoring normalcy to Pondicherry University.”

The Pondicherry University Student Movement (PUSM), supported by the Pondicherry University Teachers Association (PUTA), have been demanding the ouster of Krishnamurthy—VC since January 2013—citing plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts in her resume, administrative malpractices and human rights violations.

Campus clouded by fear

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Ransacked office. Credit: PUSM

In the past week, pro-Krishnamurthy sections of the teaching and non-teaching faculty, along with some students, have targeted those protesting against her, ransacking departments, destroying equipment and interrupting classes. Even as cases and counter cases (for instance a case filed by the Registrar against PUTA for harassment) were booked, regional and linguistic tensions surfaced among students. The Joint Action Committee (JAC), which comprises various campus associations, alleged they were an outcome of divisive tactics deployed by the VC’s supporters.

But a deep sense of fear has long lurked in the campus. “We have been walking around in groups even when we go to the mess or the hostel, since the day we launched the protest,” said an apprehensive male student. “In the course of the protest, students have been lathi-charged by cops and roughed up by the VC’s henchmen, said another postgraduate student.

The detention and torture of a male student for 27 hours and the suspension of two female students who complained of sexual harassment on campus in 2014—the NHRC is probing the former while the Madras High Court reprimanded the university for the latter—has aggravated the sense of anxiety over safety on campus. “Anytime anyone has voiced a serious issue, goons have been deployed to intimidate them,” says a research scholar.

Some faculty who have kept away from the protest also say their decisions are shaped by fear. “For many of us, the university is also our home and we fear thugs may turn up at our doorstep anytime,” says a humanities professor. “It is appalling that we do not have the basic right to teach or learn freely, without being terrorised,” adds a senior professor.

Research slackens, reputation nosedives

Faculty members who raised red flags in the administration were transferred out to the university’s other campuses. The VC violated statutes to appoint her coterie to important posts, with one person holding as many as four positions, derailing the administration, said a PUTA member who requested anonymity. Those who dared question irregularities have seen roadblocks introduced in new or existing academic initiatives. “When research projects are put on hold by the administration, grants start drying up and so does research,” says an assistant professor. “When you spend years of effort in building up a department, it is upsetting to see someone ruin everything with a few months of mismanagement,” says a faculty member who has been with the university for 15 years.

A major outcome of the debacle is the beating the academic reputation of the university has taken, at least among staff and students. The university, which had risen in stature over the past decade and which regularly attracts Fulbright scholars, had its ‘Study India’ programme suspended. Its ranking has suffered, as has  the number of application it receives. “You cannot hoodwink students. They are aware of what transpires in universities around the country through social media,” says the head of a department.

High-handed leadership

Police drag away a protesting student. Credit: PUSM

Police drag away a protesting student. Credit: PUSM

The situation in Pondicherry University is a classic case of what can go wrong with poor leadership. According to PUSM representatives, nearly two-dozen student demands have been shot down over the last two years. The last straw was the denial of hostel accommodation to meritorious students.

What infuriated students further was the VC’s refusal to communicate with them or acknowledge their mounting disenchantment. “She did not attempt to address us once during the three weeks of protests, even when students required medical attention during the hunger strike,” said a PG student. Tact and communication instead of high-handed means of dealing with dissent could perhaps have defused the circumstances. Instead, they escalated to a situation that even the MHRD described as “too explosive for her to return”.

The VC neither rebutted claims of plagiarism nor made her resume publicly accessible. However, it was accessed by PUTA using an RTI application.

Getting away with academic fraud

“We started looking into her credentials and found that our academic work was coming to a standstill due to administrative reasons,” recounts N. Dastagiri Reddy, secretary of PUTA. While supporters of the VC allege PUTA members have their own axes to grind, the association lists supporting documents on its website: only one of the three books listed by the VC among her publications is traceable. Even this, according to detection software, appears plagiarised. There is no record of publication of listed articles; and the number of research projects undertaken and Ph.D scholars guided has been falsely ratcheted up. A law professor, Krishnamurthy lists an honorary D. Litt degree from the Open International University for Complementary Medicines, Sri Lanka, an institution whose academic distinctions the UGC has warned universities against.

“How can we expect postgraduate students to heed our warning against plagiarism when they see someone getting away with it at the highest level?” wonders a science department faculty.

That this is Chandra Krishnamurthy’s third run as VC raises questions about the general state of education governance across the country. She was VC of SNDT, Mumbai for five years, and National Law University (NLU), Odisha, for eight months, apart from a brief tenure as acting-VC at the University of Mumbai. Has the higher education system in India become so fallible that someone responsible for validating the degrees of thousands of students, is herself never scrutinised, faculty members ask.

Search committees faulted

A candle-light protest.Credit: PUSM

A candle-light protest.Credit: PUSM

By statute, VCs of Central Universities are appointed by the Visitor, i.e. the President of India, from among names nominated by a search committee. The committee’s members are in turn chosen by the Executive Council of the University and the UGC.

If anybody is to be blamed for the mess Pondicherry University finds itself in, it is the search committee that shortlisted Krishnamurthy, says M. Ramadass, former MP and a professor at PU who has challenged Krishnamurthy’s appointment in the Madras High Court. The search committee violated the 2010 UGC’s minimum qualifications for a VC: “a distinguished academician, with a minimum of ten years of experience as Professor in a University system or ten years of experience in an equivalent position.”

Krishnamurthy, who served as the Principal of Jitendra Chauhan College of Law, completed her PhD in 2002, before taking charge as VC at SNDT University, Mumbai, four years later. The UGC’s minimum qualifications did not apply to NLU or SNDT during that period.

The committee that shortlisted Krishnamurthy was headed by M. Anandakrishnan, Chairman of the IIT-Kanpur board, who incidentally also headed the Committee to Revisit UGC Regulations 2010 that upheld stipulations such as the minimum qualification of 10 years’ experience required to be a VC. A document accessed by PUTA also reveals that former MHRD Minister Pallam Raju flouted due procedure by recommending Krishnamurthy for the post.

Despite prolonged agitation and various pending probes, it is multiple political connections that have kept the MHRD from acting until now, allege university insiders.

Several senior academicians feel that the entire process of constituting search committees is an eyewash. According to a former VC of Madras University, “There is often one name which the state government or the ministry [in the case of central universities] favours, and they ensure that name is introduced in the shortlist, even if there are better candidates in the fray.”

By virtue of association, VCs shape the reputation of a university. Furqan Qamar, secretary general, Association of Indian Universities (AIU), notes that in order to improve the quality of leadership, the government must start with ensuring search committees are headed by independent chairpersons. To ensure greater transparency, the search committee could make public the shortlisted names, says V. Thangamuthu, former VC, Bharathidasan University. “Reservations backed by solid evidence against any nominee can be brought to the attention of the MHRD rather than bungling up a university beyond redemption by wrong choices”.

Thangamuthu recalls the provisions suggested by the task force of the National Council for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), which never materialised. The NCHER had proposed compiling an updated nationwide registry of academics eligible for selection as VCs. But this move was vehemently opposed by several state governments as an infringement of their autonomy.

While advertisements for the post of VC have become the norm recently, senior academics say they only give a veneer of transparency and have done little to enhance the quality of leadership. The problem that ails academia is not the lack of candidates but reluctance on the part of competent persons to cast their hat into the ring. Search committees must identify and persuade distinguished academics with administrative competence.

Krishnamurthy perhaps is just one cog in the wheel that rewards political clout and the power of the purse over merit. If Indian universities are to occupy their rightful place in the world, they cannot afford to take such a casual attitude towards leadership.

On request, names and departments of students and staff are undisclosed.
Despite repeated attempts, it was impossible to reach Vice Chancellor Chandra Krishnamurty for her response to the allegations against her.

Olympia Shilpa Gerald is a reporter based in Puducherry