Why Are Senior Professors in Charge of Universities, Anyway?

As the MHRD mulls bringing in the tenure-track system in India, we must remember that it will only worsen the already significant power gradient between junior and senior faculty members.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) will soon call a meeting of the directors of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER) to discuss the benefits and shortcomings of adopting a tenure-track system for faculty appointments, The Hindu reported on June 24.

Under the proposed system, when researchers join an institute as assistant professors, they will be considered ‘on the tenure-track’, meaning that within five years of joining they must apply for tenure: an indefinite extension of their appointment that can only be terminated under truly extraordinary circumstances. Tenure also comes with significant protections of academic freedoms, including the freedom to pursue unfashionable research directions and the freedom to take up controversial political positions. Given that researchers spend close to a decade in training (in graduate school and during postdoctoral fellowships) with little job security, tenured positions are the stuff of a young researcher’s dreams.

It isn’t clear why Jayant Udgaonkar, director of IISER Pune, believes “there will be a massive improvement in the quality of research done in the country” (as told to Hindustan Times) once we switch to the tenure-track system – as if this was the only thing holding research in India behind. However, the comments of other researchers quoted by The Hindu are quite clear: the tenure-track system will exacerbate the already significant power gradient between junior and senior faculty members.

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Its structure is blind to the difficulties of establishing oneself as a young faculty member, and the insecurity it engenders by encouraging young academics to reach for low-hanging fruit instead of embarking on long-term research programmes. More egregiously, the tenure-track system forces people out of academia. There is also a strong case to be made that these pressures disproportionately affect women academics and academics from lower classes and castes.

Significantly, as T.N.C. Vidya, from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, says, it is “interesting how senior professors who did not have to go through the kind of competition that exists today keep coming up with these recommendations that affect young faculty and not themselves.” This prompts a more subversive question: Why are senior professors in charge anyway?

The origin of the university

The quest for an answer takes us back many years. In the late 11th century, groups of foreign students organised into mutual aid societies called ‘nations’ (as they were grouped by nationality) cooperatively founded the University of Bologna – the oldest university in the world. They hired scholars to teach them the arts, theology, law and scrivenery. According to Harold Berman’s Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (1983), this incipient university was controlled entirely by students, in sharp contrast to the “professorially controlled” universities that opened up a short while later in Paris. In fact, professors were not even considered members of the university!

At Bologna, a council of elected student representatives, two from each nation, had the power to enact university statutes regulating fees and salaries, housing, codes of conduct, aspects of the curriculum, etc. The more important decisions were decided by the equivalent of a referendum among all students of the university, at an assembly where attendance was compulsory and each student had a vote and the right to speak.

A committee of students wonderfully titled the ‘Denouncers of Professors’ was constituted to report professorial irregularities, such as failure to fulfil one’s teaching responsibilities adequately or to complete the syllabus on time. It was their understanding that professors were hired to provide services, and if these services were found to be inadequate by the students, they would be fined or, worse, their employment would be terminated.

This moment in history, from over 900 years ago, ought to be the centrepiece of our meditation on the tenure-track system because its mere existence forces us to broaden our conception of what a university could be. It is in the nature of democratic institutions to effect a perturbative reform of their statues across space and time.

These measures, though admirable at times, often take for granted certain mantras that contain the seeds of their own destruction. At other times, they take the form of cosmetic changes to a structure that rests upon a fundamentally inconsistent ideological foundation. A more critical reimagining of our universities and institutions of higher learning affords us the opportunity to analyse and smooth out these contradictions, and recognise unsound foundations and discard them for more robust and resilient alternatives.

With higher education, the example of the universitas in Bologna highlights how universities should be structured: in a way that serves the best interests of the students as decided by the students. This is a legitimate claim to authority over educational spaces. But how are student governance and the issue of tenure-track appointments related?

A proposal

It’s foolish to apply old formulas to new problems, and I’m not arguing that we should drop the notion of tenure itself. Academic freedom does require the institutionalisation of certain protections, including protecting scholars when they offer a measured counterpoint to public opinion.

While universities often speak highly of democratic institutions, the way they function is anything but democratic. It is often taken for granted that senior professors know what is best for an institution and should be entrusted with running it. Instead, why not put younger academics – assistant professors, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students – in charge? Let them sit on the committees that make decisions regarding university policy, such as attendance requirements and hostel curfew timings. Let them participate, collaboratively and in consultation with other stakeholders including senior professors, in the authoring of curricula. Let them participate in the evaluation of their peers, juniors and seniors, in good faith and as equals. And let them sit on internal complaints committees, to ensure that the issues of sexual harassment and abuse of power will not be taken lightly.

These young academics will naturally act in their self-interest and their priorities will not be congruent with those of senior professors who have, until now, held sway, but this is precisely the point. Assistant professors will understand most acutely the difficulties of setting up a new laboratory or starting a research group, and will evaluate their peers more fairly and compassionately. Postdoctoral fellows will seek out collaborators that are eager to tackle ambitious research programmes and are interested in working with graduate students. Undergraduates really just want good lecturers to show them the ropes and good advisers to guide them as they take their first steps in the world of academic research.

The much-recycled trope of the disgruntled graduate student, or the vindictive undergraduate, are caricatures drawn by senior faculty and propagated with the objective of undermining any assertions or claims to this authority.

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These groups of young academics – assistant professors, postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students – interact often and amicably, and share many of the same problems. A governing council comprising these communities, backed by an able administration that will steady their hand, could radically alter educational spaces, making them more dynamic, relevant and plugged into society at large. If the lack of experience is a problem, the council can constitute a committee of senior academics who can make recommendations. And since the council will periodically be infused with new blood, institutions will become less prone to ossification.

Won’t the focus of these institutions turn “too pedagogical” and won’t research quality suffer? Consider the expectations one has from, say, an IISER: at least half its job is pedagogy, and if the quality of pedagogy is improved by shifting the centre of power, what reason is there to hesitate? Good research comes from people who understand their disciplines thoroughly, and there’s no reason why this will not continue to be the case.

Our institutions are built to serve certain purposes, but we have to remember that their modes of functioning are not sacrosanct, that they should be challenged constantly. The voices of young (and older) academics speaking out against the tenure-track system in particular, and the authority of senior academics in general, are to be commended.

Mukund Thattai, a researcher at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru, tweeted on June 27, “Retired scientists can be excellent mentors, but their role can only be marginal. Satish Dhawan became Director of IISc at 42. Bhabha founded TIFR at 36. And Vikram Sarabhai founded PRL at 28!” One hopes that we won’t stop there, that we will follow the trail of breadcrumbs that could lead to a fairer, more inclusive and more democratic educational space.

Malhar Dandekar is a scientist from Bangalore.