Philanthropy and the Curious Case of Ashoka University

Unlike Ivy League schools, many of which were funded by slave trade profits, Ashoka's source of philanthropic money is clean. Yet, there is hesitation to use it boldly to uphold liberal principles and ideas.

What distinguishes philanthropy from charity is the ability and willingness of the former to bet on unpopular causes and to take risks if the end results are likely to lead to advances in society. That is why it is disheartening to find that the founder-philanthropists of Ashoka University have shied away from taking risks for a worthy cause –  in this case, freedom of speech and the right of the individual citizen to dissent against state policy and action.

Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an eminent scholar and public intellectual, resigned first from the Vice Chancellorship of the university and recently from his professorship of the political science department after a meeting with the trustees where it was made clear to him that his association with the university may become a “political liability”. Though not stated explicitly, it is clear that the trustees succumbed to political pressure to disengage from Mehta for his outspoken and fearless critique of the current political establishment – a fact presumably unpalatable to the powers that be.

The news is disturbing not only because the university and students have lost the guidance of one of the ablest scholars of today, but even more because it shows that even private universities/institutions – which have their own sources of funds and are not dependent on government largesse – can also succumb to political pressure when they need not.  What chance do state-funded institutions then have for taking an independent stance on any issue? Such institutions have no autonomy; neither on syllabi, nor on appointments – even of vice chancellors. What is to be taught, who teaches it, who is invited to participate, are all subject to political decisions.

Also read: Ashoka and After: The Universities We Believe In

Given this situation, one had great hope when it came to Ashoka University. The philanthropy which led to the establishment of Ashoka is unique in many ways.

First, it is a rare example of collective philanthropy by a group of like-minded individuals such as Pramath Raj Sinha, Ashish Dhawan, Vineet Gupta and others.

Second, the wealth that these individuals put to use for higher education was not family wealth but wealth made by the entrepreneurs themselves at a young age. As such, they need not have worried about bringing down inherited family fortunes or reputations in case of adverse action against them.

Third, in the Indian scenario, Ashoka is one of the few examples in recent times of wealthy individuals setting up a liberal arts university for the social sciences and humanities and not a technical or professional higher education institute; most of the other higher educational institutions set up by contemporary philanthropists are almost all for technical education. While we undoubtedly need technical and scientific advances in education, the contributions of humanities and liberal arts to society have been undervalued. But as is well known, human beings do not live by bread alone. The need and space for academic freedom of thinking and expression is all the more necessary in these troubled times when several questions of ethics, individual liberty, income and social inequality have arisen due to advances in science and technology, the phenomenal growth of wealth and the suppression of human rights across the globe.

Mehta’s exit has already been followed by that of Arvind Subramanian, another leading scholar. It could be the beginning of an exodus of talented faculty and work against attracting future talent to the university.

Also read: Why Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s Voice Will Endure, but Ashoka University’s Halo May Not

It is true that many of the Western universities recognised today as strongholds of liberal thought were not only illiberal in their thinking but also endowed with dirty money when they originated. Universities like Yale, Harvard, Princeton and others were founded with endowments derived from profits made from the slave trade. Many have defended their origins in tainted money, arguing that slavery was the order of the day and that it was impossible to avoid it institutionally. But this defence will not hold since there were advocates and active opposition to slavery outside the universities at the time. In fact, the universities should have been at the forefront of such ideas. Where, if not in a university, should we expect a refuge for such ideas?

The case of Ashoka University is the opposite. Here, the source of philanthropic money is clean but there is hesitation to use it boldly to uphold ethical and liberal principles and ideas. It would be a weak defence to argue that if their persistence in opposing political pressure jeopardises their very existence then sacrificing a scholar or a few principles is a small price to pay. They may argue, “We will live to fight another day”. But once such a road is taken, the way is mostly downhill thereafter.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the motivations, aspirations and actions of the philanthropists and not just their benevolence. Philanthropy is one way in which the super rich wield power. Or in this case, yield to power.

As Anand Giridhardas observes in his book Winners Take All, business elites may “believe they are changing the world when they may instead – or also – be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve”. He makes his case by sharing stories of many different people who struggle with the subtle compromises inherent in working for the public good without giving up their own privilege. Hopefully, in the case of the trustees of Ashoka, good sense will prevail before it is too late.

Pushpa Sundar is the author of The Changing Face of Indian Philanthropy (OUP) and other books.