New Delhi: The scientific board of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, housed within Ashoka University and set up by Professor Gilles Verniers, has announced that it will be dissolving itself because they were not informed or consulted before important decisions were made about the Centre. Verniers, the Centre’s founder and director, was “forced to leave”, the board said in an open letter.
After having left Ashoka, where he was Assistant Professor of Political Science, Verniers is now Karl Loewenstein Visiting Fellow at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
The board members – comprising reputed academics from across the world and a former Indian chief election commissioner – have stated that they agreed to this role because of the respect they have for Verniers’ work and the importance of publicly available political data. The datasets released and maintained by the Trivedi Centre have received acclaim from multiple quarters in the seven years since the Centre’s inception, they say.
“Currently, data made public through the TCPD website is a primary source for nearly all scholarship and commentary on Indian politics. The data are frequently used by scholars and journalists and have a substantial impact on the research and coverage of Indian elections. These data have also found their way into other major public data repositories, including the CLEA dataset at the University of Michigan and the SHRUG database from the Development Data Lab, to name a few,” the open letter says. In addition, the Centre also played a key role in training and mentoring students at the university.
Announcing the dissolution of the board, the open letter says, “Given this track record of excellence, we were surprised and disappointed that we, as the Scientific Board, were not consulted before substantial changes were made governing how the Centre is run and situated within its home institution, in breach of academic norms.”
In a statement, Ashoka University said that the Trivedi Centre was being merged with a new centre being developed at the varsity, the Centre for Data Sciences and Analytics. “The CDSA aims to become the leading academic Centre in its domain in India, offering world-class and first-of-its-kind research, training, teaching and capacity building in data science. It also aims to provide a repository of open access public data across interdisciplinary fields,” the university’s statement said.
“It is proposed that some of the Centres and offices at Ashoka University be integrated with the new Centre in an effort to enhance its data-driven capabilities and fostering a readily accessible collection of data sets. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) is among them, and TCPD’s proposed integration with the new Centre has been communicated to the TCPD Scientific Board recently,” it continued.
The university also said that Verniers had left the university “due to him not clearing the University’s stringent tenure process, which in his case happened almost an year ago”. “Faculty who do not qualify for tenure exit the University within 3 semesters. Prof. Verniers has not been teaching at Ashoka for the last one year, and has now chosen to leave the University. The University appreciates Prof Verniers’s many contributions as a teacher and towards building a strong reference source of political data for researchers and students,” the statement concluded.
The university’s statement does not address the main question that the Scientific Board asked, which is why wasn’t it informed of the plans Ashoka University had for the Trivedi Centre until the Board sent a letter last week asking for clarity on this matter. The Wire has learnt that at that point, the Board received a brief confirmation on their question about whether TCPD was being merged into a larger data centre, but was given no further details nor invited for a discussion on the matter.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Verniers questioned the university’s statement, saying they had avoided answering the Boards primary concerns. “The university’s statement says they ‘communicated’ this to the board, but they did so two days ago, and 10 days after the board sent a first letter to seek clarification about the status of the centre and of the data. None of the international partners of TCPD, including collaborators in generating its data sets, were informed about plans regarding the centre, future use for the data, or plans for its leadership transition, both outgoing and incoming leadership. This is standard practice in academia,” he said.
Verniers also alleged that the university made the decision on his departure without going through the tenure process. “I did not want to leave and they took that decision for me, without going through the tenure process. My file was stopped before that. The question is why did they stop valuing the contributions TCPD has made after supporting it?” he asked.
Read the full open letter written by the Scientific Board below.
Open letter from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data’s Scientific Board
The empirical study of democracy and elections requires evidence. For years, research on Indian elections and democracy was limited by the absence of publicly available data. Scholars had to wait for months after an election to access Election Commission of India (ECI) statistical reports, which came in all sorts of formats, none of them readily usable. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) at Ashoka University changed this situation by providing quality open-access data in real time and by conducting cutting edge analysis of India’s elections.
TCPD’s vibrant and important agenda, under the leadership of founding Director Professor Gilles Verniers, is what attracted each of us to serve on its Scientific Board, and contribute to its intellectual mission. We now write to state our regret that the Centre’s founder and director was forced to leave, and that the university did not inform the Centre’s scientific board about decisions that affect not only the leadership of the Centre but also its future as an institution.
TCPD was initially built around the research of Dr. Gilles Verniers, who analyzed the electoral politics of Uttar Pradesh and expanded his work to all states and national elections. While teaching at the Young India Fellowship in 2014, Dr. Verniers assembled a data unit with the help of Young India Fellows and in collaboration with colleagues outside the university. He collaborated with Dr. Francesca Jensenius, who had assembled the first version of the dataset on India’s national and state elections, which became the foundation for the development of the Lok Dhaba database. Both Dr. Verniers and Dr. Jensenius were co-recipients of the Lipset/Przeworski/Verba Best Dataset Prize from the American Political Science Association in 2023, our profession’s highest recognition for public data contributions.
In its seven years of operation, scholars at TCPD have produced 16 groundbreaking datasets, led 20 research projects, organized 80 research seminars, published 20 research papers and book chapters, and organized two major conferences on computational social sciences. The team has also published more than 300 analytical articles in the Indian press and built high-quality academic partnerships. In 2017, it was awarded the label of ‘International Research Partner’ from the Centre for National Scientific Research (CNRS) in France, in association with CERI-SciencesPo.
Currently, data made public through the TCPD website is a primary source for nearly all scholarship and commentary on Indian politics. The data are frequently used by scholars and journalists and have a substantial impact on the research and coverage of Indian elections. These data have also found their way into other major public data repositories, including the CLEA dataset at the University of Michigan and the SHRUG database from the Development Data Lab, to name a few.
Importantly, the TCPD Data Centre’s influence is not limited to data and research projects alone. It has also played an important role for students from Ashoka and beyond. In seven years, TCPD researchers have mentored 125 interns, mostly from Ashoka. Its summer program has trained large numbers of students and data journalists. Eight of its collaborators, all Ashoka graduates, have been admitted to prestigious PhD programs.
TCPD also built partnerships with scholars and institutions from across the world. Last year, it hosted two Fulbright scholars. It is no exaggeration to say that the Centre has had, in its short existence, a transformative impact on the field of Indian electoral politics.
Given this track record of excellence, we were surprised and disappointed that we, as the Scientific Board, were not consulted before substantial changes were made governing how the Centre is run and situated within its home institution, in breach of academic norms.
Under such circumstances, we, signatories of this letter, are dissolving TCPD’s Scientific board. We commit to supporting Gilles Verniers’ and his partners’ efforts to maintain the future and the integrity of the data and of the work associated with it.
We recognize Ashoka’s contribution to the development of TCPD and we are grateful for the efforts that made TCPD such a success. We will, guided by academic norms, ensure that Ashoka continues to be recognized for the existing publicly released data.
Research Director at CERI-SciencesPo/CNRS
Professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s College London
Scientific Board Chair, Trivedi Centre for Political Data Centre
Professor of Political Science, University of Oslo
Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Associate Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science
Assistant Professor of Global Affairs and Political Science at the Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame.
Former CEC, Distinguished Fellow and Advisory Board Member, Trivedi Centre for Political Data Centre
Director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India and Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India, University of Pennsylvania
Note: This article was updated at 9:05 am on September 13 to include addition details, including the university’s statement.