For Indian Universities, Merit Must Come First in Faculty Appointments

The JNU vice-chancellor reportedly favours outsiders over home-trained PhDs for faculty positions. But is that really because he's worried about candidates' merit?

Pushkar is director, The International Centre Goa, Dona Paula (Goa). Views expressed here are personal.

In a previous co-authored article, I made the case against academic inbreeding in India’s universities, especially in premier institutions such as central universities, IITs, IIMs and others. I argued that academic inbreeding – certainly under Indian conditions – lends to discrimination against not only better-qualified outsiders who apply for faculty positions, but also against better-qualified inbreds. Therefore, if India’s premier universities aspire to become better institutions, they should typically not hire their own PhD graduates for their first job. In opposing academic inbreeding, I emphasised that merit takes a backseat in faculty appointments.

Since then, it has come to my attention that senior officials at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of India’s premier universities, have determined that JNU PhDs should not be favoured for faculty positions. The vice-chancellor has reportedly advised selection committees that outsiders be considered over home-trained PhDs.

From the anti-academic inbreeding perspective, this is a good thing, right? Does the vice-chancellor deserve a round of applause, then?

To properly answer that question, however, understanding the context is important.

JNU has a long history of Left dominance. Student elections have almost always been dominated by Left parties. Much of its faculty, certainly in the various social science departments (known as schools) – though excluding the School of International Studies – is left-wing. This left-wing faculty has reproduced itself ideologically through academic inbreeding, though at the same time, the non- and less-ideological types too have preferred inbred candidates for faculty appointments. These are of course stylised facts.

M. Jagadesh Kumar, the current vice-chancellor, was appointed by the NDA government in 2016. Since taking charge, it has been quite obvious that he was given the mandate to cleanse the university of Leftists to the extent possible and it would seem, by all means possible. He has left no doubt through his words and actions about his intentions. It will be hard to forget, for example, his stated fondness for installing tanks on campus to inspire feelings of patriotism. The vice-chancellor’s oral directive to selection committees forbidding inbreeding is a step in that direction.

Also read: Quotas Are Not a Magic Wand to Resolve Problem of Discrimination in Universities

Given this context, is it fair to applaud the vice-chancellor’s initiative to curb academic inbreeding?

Let me reiterate why I argued that academic inbreeding should be discouraged at India’s universities. Academic inbreeding translates into the rejection of meritorious faculty applicants from other institutions in favour of inbred applicants who are often considerably less qualified than outsiders. Meritorious potential faculty is the first and main casualty of academic inbreeding. In short, the case against academic inbreeding rests primarily on its rejection of merit, which is not good for the university at all.

Is the JNU vice-chancellor taking up the cause of merit in insisting from selection committees that JNU PhDs be rejected for faculty positions?

I don’t know. Perhaps JNU-based readers of this article have the answer. But, based on the vice-chancellor’s record as an administrator and his proximity to the current government, it is safe to say that his war against academic inbreeding is not to promote the cause of merit in faculty appointments but to bring in outsiders of his kind, whether deserving or not. Of course, JNU’s left-wing and less-ideological academics have been doing the same for decades, but that surely does not justify a new era of promoting mediocrity and demoting merit.

It would seem then that the arguments against academic inbreeding need to be reformulated. If the rationale for opposing academic inbreeding is to promote the cause of merit and the good health of the university, there is a case for opposing those who are opposed to academic inbreeding for reasons that have little or nothing to do with promoting merit. At the end of it all, if JNU recruits better-qualified outsiders than less-accomplished inbreds, the vice-chancellor will be deserving of applause. If all that JNU achieves instead is recruiting second-rate outsiders at the expense of more meritorious inbreds, the very logic of opposing academic inbreeding is defeated.