Reading Ron Srigley’s lengthy critique of the administrative takeover of universities in the Los Angeles Review of Books is instructive in these troubled times. The article has special resonance as we watch teachers and students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) dig in their heels and challenge administrative fiats aimed at disrupting the functioning of the institution. Over the last couple of years, fresh conflicts have routinely dogged JNU. It is fair to say that these are part of a systematic campaign.
The latest development has come in the form of the authorities setting up a committee whose mandate is bound to stir fresh confrontation. The committee will recommend guidelines to frame “conduct” and “service” rules for teachers and staff. These rules, based on Central government regulations, will be submitted to the JNU vice chancellor in the next few weeks.
A report in the Indian Express on Tuesday quoted a March 6 notification signed by section officer (academic) A.D. Bahuguna, which states:
“As per the 243rd Executive Council Resolution — regarding adoption of Government of India rules in all service matters of JNU… including enquiry, conduct and disciplinary rules — the Vice-Chancellor has constituted a committee to make suitable recommendations for framing regulations for conduct/disciplinary/service rules for teaching and non-teaching employees of the university for consideration of the Executive Council. Where the university rules are silent, the university will be open to make its own rules in these matters from time to time.”
This move tells us the administration is in no mood to back down in the face of stiff resistance from professors and students. The JNU Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) and students are refusing to relent in the face of renewed administrative pressure. Sudhir Suthar, JNUTA secretary, maintains that the new committee’s rules are going to be pegged along the lines of Central Civil Services (CCS) Rules, which among other things, “does not allow for criticism of the government”.
There is, therefore, no end in sight to the impasse in JNU.
For almost a week now, four centres in the university have been in lock down. Earlier, the administration’s decision to remove the deans and chairpersons of eight centres escalated simmering conflict. Much has been written about the absurdity of the summary removals and the equally absurd replacements in these key posts. Just to cite one example, Kavita Singh, dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, has been replaced by Mazhar Asif, a probationary professor of Persian with specialisation in Sufi thought. “They have replaced me with someone who is outside our school, who must be pliant,” Kavita Singh told the Indian Express, adding, “This can only be done when no teacher from the school is available to take that position. This is just part of a long list of things the administration is doing, as people who don’t understand education and educational institutions.”
The rapid destruction of one of the country’s best universities is disturbing to watch. The blame for the campus’s academic decline can squarely be laid at the door of the administration that came to the helm of affairs after the disturbance on campus in 2015. Since then, the administration has single-mindedly bypassed rules and procedures, reducing the role of the faculty in critical decision-making.
The powers that be in JNU are working on two levels – ideological as well as administrative. The ideological game plan of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is evident. The project, in the making for years, has waited for this time to come to fruition. The victory of the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre in 2014 was a key turning point in relations between institutions and the government. The RSS-BJP combine is, as of now, sticking to an old script they have wanted to implement for long: marginalising the Left and facilitating a right-wing takeover of the institution.
But ideology is not the only thing stoking this conflict. On a broader level, a particular kind of anti-intellectual vision – or lack thereof – is motivating the government and the administration to act as they are. No doubt, the technocratic, functional vision of higher education which has gripped the imagination of Indian universities is a global phenomenon. At this juncture, JNU is caught in the mires of an ideological and bureaucratic cesspool. And JNU is not the only institution to be effected this way.
This is where Srigley’s insightful article about the state of higher education assumes special relevance. He touches on critical policies advanced by university administrations that have marginalised the academic community – teachers and students – and replaced them with people who are, effectively, bureaucrats.
Drawing analogies between universities and corporations, in his article ‘Whose University is it Anyway?’, Srigley writes:
“Not all corporations act thuggishly; nor do all universities, which now behave like corporations. Nonetheless, there has been a significant change in the manner in which the all-administrative university comports itself that is rougher, more centralized, less free, and less democratic than that of the community of scholars and students it replaced. There are several reasons for this decline.”
The ultimate objective of university administration is to “control” the modern university. Srigley asserts the university has become an “all-administrative” institution. “Even more telling perhaps, students themselves increasingly resemble administrators more than professors in their ambitions and needs,” he writes. From a time when administrators were meant to be held accountable to the public and to other members of the university community, Srigley argues, we have entered an age when unaccountable administrators hold a gun to everyone else’s heads – especially professors.
Going by the way developments are unfolding, JNU is undoubtedly headed in the same direction. But an institution like it, which has nurtured and promoted a liberal culture of academic interrogation, is bound to resist administrative control, both at the level of ideology and that of administrative intrusion.
The present political dispensation at the Centre and the authorities in JNU seem to be leveraging the university as a laboratory to gauge the acceptability of a particular bureaucratic model of higher education where scholarly inquiry, dissent and cultures of questioning will be replaced by dry, school-like obedience. This is the same global model that has squeezed out both the humanities and some of the pure sciences, transforming academic discourse into the language of the market.
Srigley lists market-friendly academic words like “collaboration”, “communication”, “critical analysis” and “impact”, going on to say that these are all “abstract nouns indicating things you can do or have, but not a word about what you know or who you are. No promise to teach you history or politics or biology or to make you wise or thoughtful or prudent”.
From the abandonment of all conventions, rules and procedures, to the enforcement of new bureaucratic guidelines – whether in faculty appointments or student intake, or most glaring of all, in making attendance mandatory for MPhil and PhD students – everything going on in JNU stinks of the sacrifice of education to a management-spurred culture of consensus and unthinking compliance.