Ashoka and After: The Universities We Believe In

Inevitably, a crisis in an institution like Ashoka invites schadenfreude. Be it public or private, a university is a shared vision, where thinking and questioning must be kept alive.

After having worked most of my life in a public university and research institute, I started teaching at Ashoka last year. So my response to the many commentaries on the ongoing debacle at this private university comes from being an outsider as well as an insider. This ‘squint-eyed perspective,’ as fellow-sociologist Satish Deshpande has described it, is also a habit acquired over years of participant-observation, our discipline’s classic method of engaging with the world.

Double vision seems to be a dubious faculty to take pride in, but I feel it is indeed what helps most of us academics – or for that matter, anyone who practises a vocation where ideals wrestle with rude political economy – make sense of our work.

First, let’s set aside the schadenfreude that a crisis in an institution like Ashoka inevitably attracts. Any number of commentators on social media can barely disguise their glee that a fast-rising university, flaunting its glittering faculty, hyped by its marketers as providing an ‘Ivy League education in India,’ has been publicly embarrassed. So much for your vaunted liberal values, they snigger. Some measure of malice and envy motivates such responses; they are best shrugged off.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian. Photos: YouTube/PTI Illustration: The Wire.

More serious analysts point to what they see as the fatal flaw in Ashoka’s conception: the contradiction between private ownership and the ability to uphold the public good. When push comes to shove, they say, the funders will invariably yield to political pressure to protect their perceived bottom line.

Freedom of speech and, more broadly, the fundamental conditions where faculty and students can question, think and act independently, will be sacrificed at the altar of investment and growth. Central and state universities, these critics argue, are inherently better placed to realise the progressive mandate of higher education. Private versus public, elite versus egalitarian: these are the binaries that underlie such a response.

Also read: Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Critic of Government Policies, Resigns as Professor at Ashoka University

The larger context of economic liberalisation lends substance to some of these charges. It is true that most public universities have been gutted through mismanagement and political interference at a time when private universities have been on the ascendant. (I’ll leave out the long history of capitation fee colleges and the teaching shops that have made a travesty of technical education) But, even at the best of times, it is difficult to sustain the claim that public educational institutions wholly and solely serve the good of society.

If large numbers of Indian Institutes of Technology graduates, whose four years of study have been heavily subsidised by taxpayers’ money, end up working in non-engineering businesses or settling abroad, what exactly does the public gain from this brain drain?  If Azim Premji University works dedicatedly to improve government schools across India, isn’t it making a valuable contribution to the public good?  The public versus private distinction needs a lot more nuance, and waving it like a flag only distracts attention from the common problems that confront both.

The truth of higher education

The argument about elite versus egalitarian institutions is best answered by turning to the sociology of education. Pierre Bourdieu pointed out that schools and colleges mainly serve to reproduce class inequalities, not eliminate them. Whether public or private, universities enable those who are already better placed to accumulate more cultural capital. While affirmative action provides social mobility to some disadvantaged individuals, by and large, institutional practices of gatekeeping, recognition and reward, favour the already endowed.

We know that the ‘reserved category’ student with uncertain English skills is the one most likely to drop out of, say, Delhi University’s social science courses. We also know that those who come from reputed private schools (read: have well-off parents) will be more adept at the art of passing examinations, getting internships, applying for studies abroad. Initial advantages combine with credentials and social networks acquired by studying at a ‘good’ university to cement class privilege.

Whether it is Presidency or Manipal, all universities are complicit in the cultural reproduction of unequal life chances and lifestyles. However, the degree to which they do so differs. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has an admissions policy that actively recruits students of disadvantaged castes and classes, genders and regions. Ashoka’s student body is nowhere as diverse as JNU’s. Even though half of the students receive some form of aid, its institutional culture undoubtedly reflects the fact that the other half are paying Rs 10 lakhs a year.

However, for most of the adivasi boys I meet in ashram schools in Madhya Pradesh, both JNU and Ashoka lie far beyond their reach, as does college education altogether. They are destined to become marginal farmers and labourers. Thus college education, and the lack of it, tends to reinforce existing social hierarchies.

File photo of students celebrating at the first South Asian University convocation. Photo: PTI

This is the truth of higher education, public and private, but it is a cynical and selective truth. Like any important institution—elections, the media, the family—the university too only has legitimacy when it stands above the interests of powerful groups or individuals, when it is seen to uphold the greater common good. For the university to have credibility, this claim to universality must work. It cannot be mere smoke-and-mirrors, nor some PR mantra. The notion of the university as a shared endeavour to think and dream, question and challenge, must remain alive.

Distinguished scholars lend their charisma to the institution that employs them. At the Delhi School of Economics, where I studied in the 1980s, André Béteille and JPS Uberoi were not only teachers, they were leading figures in the department’s folklore. The economics department too cherished its legends about Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Amartya Sen. But, more than the stars, it was the sincerity of all the teachers that struck a chord with students. That common sense that this was work worth doing.

Also read: The Branding of Indian Education

At Ashoka, too, I see this shared belief permeating everyday practices. A young colleague rewrites her lecture, again and again, to make sure it’s the best she can deliver. Another spends days designing ways of helping students with disabilities. Students linger after class, intent on thrashing out a particular concept or argument. Others tell me of a course that’s made them change direction from economics to philosophy, or from biology to psychology.

Students campaign vigorously for the rights of contract workers at Ashoka. They were at Shaheen Bagh and at Jantar Mantar. Many distributed supplies to victims of political violence in north-east Delhi; they spoke out in support of the JNU Students Union. Some work with groups fighting climate change; others against caste injustice. Just like progressive students and dedicated teachers elsewhere, those at Ashoka too are living and affirming the liberal promise of the university. They are making the university. Only someone with an utterly bleak vision of the world as totally captive to capitalism would believe that they are fooling themselves.

To be sure, such high-minded striving is not constant or perfect: in public and private universities people succumb to posturing and bouts of solipsism; there are pressing anxieties about jobs and careers. Many students focus on keeping their heads down and their grades up. The conditions for thinking and questioning are vitiated by the larger environment.

As more teachers are forced to work in temporary or ad hoc positions, persistent insecurity eats into the joy of practising a vocation. At the same time, authoritarian directives from the state are getting more frequent and more dire.  The heavy tread and heavy breath of the stormtroopers stalking our steps make us second guess: will I get into trouble for saying this?

In this climate, it is disappointing, but not altogether surprising, that the founders and administration of Ashoka should have fumbled so badly.  However—and this is why this crisis feels like a betrayal—unlike their counterparts in public universities who were deliberately appointed to push the ruling regime’s agenda, Ashoka’s founders and leaders folded of their own accord. They failed to appreciate that the institution they started had acquired a life larger than their fears.

As the faculty and students at Ashoka struggle to institute structural reforms that will firewall the university from its donors, there is an important lesson to be learned from the experience of public universities.

Political meddling has indeed eroded the autonomy of public universities but some of the damage was self-inflicted. Well-intended but ill-conceived rules stifled innovation. Patron-client relations trumped talent and ability. Supremely mediocre faculty members were promoted on grounds of ‘seniority’.  Mutual esteem and trust frayed away into factionalism. When good faith gives way to suspicion, collegiality to barbed remarks and backbiting, when faculty meetings become a minefield, the institution loses its esprit de corps. We can try and craft perfect rules but how do we restore our shared identity and sense of purpose?

Perhaps the answer to this is to be found in my feelings when I was asked: Well, you will also leave, won’t you?  What an odd question, I thought.  Just as when the Modi government came to power and someone said, I can’t live in this country anymore. At that time, I drew strength and comfort from my circles of comrades and friends. And at this time, I am inspired by my students and colleagues at Ashoka. This university is worth fighting for. And those who are striving in their own ways to uphold the integrity of the institutions that they work and believe in will recognise the value of this endeavour.

Amita Baviskar is the author of Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi