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Can Jadavpur University Be Saved?

EducationWorld March 15 | Education World

With the resignation of vice chancellor Abhijit Chakraborty on January 12, peace and calm has returned to West Bengal™s showpiece university. But with the ruling Trinamool Congress Party determined to infiltrate the state™s premier varsity, its future is bleak Somdev Thakur & Summiya Yasmeen

After four months of student and teacher agitations during which classes and academic time tables were routinely disrupted, peace and calm has returned to West Bengal™s showpiece Jadavpur University (JU, estb. 1955). On January 12, the state™s beleaguered chief minister Mamata Banerjee, embroiled in the statewide Saradha chit fund scam and battling the flight of members of her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party to a resurgent BJP, visited the JU campus to announce the œvoluntary resignation of vice chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarty, the students™ hate object.
A majority of JU students backed by some academics had been continuously agitating for Chakrabarty™s removal following a brutal police assault on the university™s students on September 17 last year. The students were demanding an independent investigation into the molestation of a woman student on the JU campus on August 28, when Chakrabarty called in the police to break a 12-hour gherao of the academic council by the agitated students. By summoning the police on the JU campus, Chakrabarty breached an iron ” albeit unwritten ” law of Indian academia. And inevitably the state™s lumpenised policemen broke up the agitation with extreme violence and brutality.
Nevertheless the mercurial Banerjee, whose TMC ended 34 years of rule in West Bengal of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and its allies in a spectacular electoral victory in 2011, adamantly resisted the students™ demands, even confirming Chakrabarty™s appointment as vice chancellor ” he was interim/acting vice chancellor at the time of the police crackdown on students ” on October 6 for a five-year term. But with no let-up in the protests ” in a first for the university, students boycotted the convocation ceremony held on December 24, and 12 students began an indefinite hunger-strike on January 5 ” and the tide of public opinion turning in favour of JU students, Banerjee made a politically expedient volte-face.
The ham-fisted reaction of the university authorities and TMC government, to a peaceful and justified student agitation which snowballed into a bitter three-month confrontation between JU students and the state government, has taken a heavy toll on West Bengal™s top-ranked university, which has an enrolment of 8,738 students mentored by 896 faculty. In the process the 60-year-old hitherto non-political unitary varsity has suffered serious loss of reputation and erosion of academic credibility.
œThere™s no doubt these recent events have badly dented Jadavpur™s academic reputation. The blame for the prolonged student protests and disruption of academic calendar should be laid at the state government™s door. Not only did the TMC government mishandle the molestation case and resulting protests, it aggravated the situation by refusing to dismiss a vice chancellor so universally disliked by students and faculty. Continuous government interference, first by the CPM during its 34 years in office, and now the TMC, has ruined higher education institutions in West Bengal. The appointment of party loyalists to administrative and academic positions in universities by the government in power is a defining feature of higher education in the state.
Unfortunately, these appointments are made with the interests of the party and not the institution in mind. For many years Jadavpur University had been resisting such interference. But now this premier institution is under attack and its downward spiral has begun, says Prithwis Mukherjee, an alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur and University of Texas at Dallas who worked with several blue-chip corporates including Tata Steel, PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM, before being appointed director of business analytics at the Praxis Business School, Kolkata.
The varsity™s recent troubles have hit national headlines and sparked anxiety within academics and educationists countrywide because Jadavpur is not just another Indian university. In all media surveys and university league tables, it is routinely ranked among the country™s Top 5 varsities. More notably, JU is one of only two Indian universities (the other is Panjab University) to be ranked (#47) in the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies™ Top 100 University Rankings 2014, and also features at #76 in  THE™s Asia University Rankings 2014. Spread across three campuses ” Jadavpur, Salt Lake and National Instruments Ltd ” in Kolkata, this unitary university i.e it does not affiliate colleges, boasts 37 departments in three disciplines (science, arts, engineering and technology), 21 inter-disciplinary schools and 41 research centres.
A prime factor behind the excellent reputation JU enjoys among the middle class and in academia, is its distinguished parentage. The 60-year-old university traces its origins to the National Council of Education (NCE) founded in 1905 by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and seer-philosopher Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, and has a rich history linked with India™s freedom struggle. Ghosh was the first principal of the Bengal National College (which was merged in 1910 with NCE) and faculty included Tagore, Sir Gurudas Bandyopadhyay, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Surendranath Banerjee, Ramendra Sundar Tribedi, Radha Kumud Mukherjee and Benoy Kumar Sarkar.
Even in post-independence India after JU was conferred full varsity status in 1955, the university was further served by eminent academics such as Dr. Amartya Sen, Sudhindranath Datta, Buddhadeb Basu and Panchanan Chakravorty whose deep scholarship and research enhanced the reputation of JU, especially of the arts and science faculties. In turn, JU™s brilliant faculty produced distinguished alumni. Among them: Saroj Ghose (former director of the Birla Industrial and Technological Museum, Kolkata), Swadesh Chatterjee (co-founder of the US-India Friendship Council), K.S. Dasgupta (director, Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology), and Subir Raha (former chairman, ONGC).
Despite the excellent start of JU in its early years, its infirmity is that the government mandated tuition fees contribute less than 1 percent of the varsity™s annual expenditure of Rs.240 crore. The low fee structure makes it pathetically dependent upon the West Bengal state government for funding and thus vulnerable to government and bureaucratic interference. The rot began during the years of the CPM-led Left Front government (1977-2011), when in keeping with textbook Marxist strategy, the CPM began packing colleges and universities statewide with party faithfuls, and converting students and teachers into its notorious election agents. JU was no exception ” the CPM-affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI) has been active on the campus since the 1970s.
Although the TMC leadership promised poriborton (˜change™) and swept aside the CPM and its Left Front allies in the state assembly election of 2011, it also succumbed to the temptation of appointing and infiltrating its own party loyalists into academia. Immediately after being sworn-in as chief minister, Banerjee, who had promised to purge the state™s higher education institutions of all communist dogma and restore their past glory, piloted the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2011 through the state legislative assembly to facilitate this process.
However a year later, the Act was amended again to provide for a state government representative to replace a UGC nominee on the search panel to select vice chancellors of West Bengal™s 18 state universities, including Jadavpur. Under the amended Act, state government nominees constitute a majority on the search committees, with the state™s education minister invested with the power to nominate one of three candidates for the VC™s office to the state™s governor, who is the ex officio chancellor of all Central and State universities.
Under the first (2011) amendment, the newly elected TMC government recommended Abhijit Chakrabarty, a TMC sympathiser reportedly hand-picked by Banerjee to counter the CPM-affiliated faculty and students™ unions which are still powerful in Jadavpur University, for the post of vice chancellor. However in July 2012, an independent search panel appointed Dr. Souvik Bhattacharyya as JU™s vice chancellor. But when Bhattacharyya resigned in October, 2013 after a mere six months in office following œdifferences with the state government ” the fifth vice chancellor to resign after the TMC government was sworn in in 2011 ” empowered by the 2012 amendment of the Universities Act, the state government appointed Chakrabarty interim VC of JU.
Chakrabarty™s appointment as interim VC was fiercely opposed by the powerful Jadavpur University Teachers Union (JUTA), which argued that as a mere professor of Bengal Engineering and Science University (BESU), he was an œunfit candidate and politically active ” a local television channel had flashed Chakrabarty attending a ceremony celebrating the foundation day of Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad (TMCP), the student wing of TMC. A year later, following molestation of the woman student and police crackdown on protesting students shattering the peace on campus, the outcry against Chakrabarty, also accused of plagiarism, grew louder. In a students referendum held last October, over 96 percent of students voted for immediate resignation of the VC. However, despite this crescendo of protest, that very month Chakrabarty was confirmed as vice chancellor for a five-year term by Banerjee.
œFollowing the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2012, the state government has full control over the appointment of the vice chancellor and pro vice chancellor in state-funded universities. In turn, the VC and pro VC have the power to constitute the university™s Internal Complaints Committee. Now with all top-level appointments politicised, teachers and students ” the most important stakeholders ” are excluded from having any say in university administration. Inclusion of teachers™ elected representatives is of utmost and immediate importance as is reinstating democracy on the campus. JUTA has demanded the immediate withdrawal of police surveillance, arbitrary circulars, notifications, rules, and executive council decisions which hamper free and open access to university spaces, says Nilanjana Gupta, an alumna of Jadavpur and Florida universities, professor of English and general secretary, JUTA.
Despite having won a major victory following Chakrabarty™s belated resignation on January 12, JU students are dissatisfied that their representatives are not on the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), and that police personnel are still present on the JU campus. œThe resignation of the VC was only one of our demands. We want the state government to include a democratically elected students™ representative in the ICC, revoke the high court order which permits surveillance and police personnel on campus, and most importantly we want an independent probe into the sexual harassment and police brutality incidents, says Shounak Mukhopadhyay, convenor of Forum for Arts Students (FAS), which won the AFSU (Arts Faculty Students™ Union) election held in January this year.
FAS is one of the numerous student unions on the JU campus. Others include the CPM-affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI), Forum for Engineering and Technology Students Union (FETSU) and the Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad (TMCP). Unsurprisingly, West Bengal™s student unions have strong affiliations with political parties and are deeply involved in state politics. For instance in 2007, the science club of Jadavpur University was ransacked by storm troopers of FAS to protest the CPM-led Left Front government™s land acquisition drive in Singur and Nandigram districts to carve out a special economic zone for the promotion of large-scale industrial units.
Therefore, after the massive electoral victory of TMC in 2011, its student wing ” TMCP ” which hitherto had no presence in JU, has been using all its political connections to make inroads and break the university™s Communist-party dominated students™ unions. In August 2013, the TMCP forced JU™s executive council (EC) to change the examination rules of the engineering faculty, allowing students to progress from one semester to the next without clearing the previous one. The EC, in its resolution, publicly admitted the decision was influenced by TMCP.
Even as politicisation of the student body and frequent organised protests and agitations disrupt the academic calendar, within the JU faculty the dominant opinion is that the university™s management must include and consult students in administering the institution.
In this connection, it™s pertinent to note that the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2012 has curtailed the power of student unions by excluding student representatives from the day-to-day functioning of universities. œJU attracts the best and brightest of the state. The university must make use of the intellect of its students by inviting and including their suggestions not only in resolving student-related issues, but in making important policy decisions. We need an able vice chancellor capable of synthesising the interests of students, teachers/researchers and staff with the aim of raising JU™s academic standing globally, says Sagnik Sinha, associate professor in the department of mathematics, Jadavpur University.
The consensus of opinion among academics is that the prime objective of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2012 is to stifle the autonomy of the state™s 18 universities including JU. Under the Act, not only does the state government now have full discretion in appointing vice chancellors, but also in the appointment of deans, who were hitherto elected by the lecturers/professors of each faculty. Now, under the amended law, deans are selected by a three-member state government selection committee which recommends two names for the post of dean in order of preference, with VCs making the final choice. Moreover, the tenure of deans has been limited to one three-year term instead of the existing two four-year terms. In another significant provision, the VC now has the power to remove deans.
Moreover, in a patent bid to tighten its grip over higher education institutions in the state, last August the TMC government constituted an omnibus statutes committee to frame common  rules and regulations for all state universities. The committee, chaired by Calcutta University VC Prof. Suranjan Das, has representatives of the Burdwan, Kalyani, Vidyasagar, North Bengal and Netaji Subhas Open universities, but none from JU. These proposed common statutes will uniformly apply to all state universities including JU, and until these statutes come into force, there won™t be any elected representatives in university decision-making bodies, enabling vice chancellors to take unilateral decisions.
Investment of absolute power in the vice chancellor has already adversely impacted Jadavpur University™s structure and academic reputation. In the 15 months (October 2013-January 2015) Chakrabarty served as VC of JU, under instructions from the state™s department of higher education, directors and joint directors of the university™s highly-prized 21 inter-disciplinary schools were replaced with arbitrarily chosen (often junior) faculty, while six schools are still without directors and academic committees. Promoted by small groups of like-minded teachers on their own initiative, JU™s 21 inter-disciplinary schools are self-sustaining research centres, headed by senior faculty. According to a NAAC report during the period 2008-13, the 21 schools raised Rs.5 crore in research funding and income, and signed over 55 national and 25 international research collaboration agreements.
œThe onslaught on JU™s academic identity has attracted relatively little public attention. Police violence on campus and its aftermath have diverted attention from the deeper academic damage caused by erosion of the university™s autonomy. The truth is that academics and research at JU have been severely disrupted in recent times. Taking advantage of the newly amended universities Act which gives the vice chancellor complete control, the rules of all inter-disciplinary schools of JU have been rewritten over the past one year. Currently seven-eight schools are without directors.  None of the schools have academic committees and Ph D enrolments have been in suspension for months. This has adversely affected research with schools losing funding and collaboration opportunities. The faculty, research scholars and academics of the university are very demoralised with the autocracy imposed on JU, says Dr. Sukanta Chaudhuri, an alumnus of Presidency College, Kolkata and Oxford University who taught English at Presidency and Jadavpur University for nearly four decades, and is currently a professor emeritus of JU.
According to Chaudhuri, just as the CPM-led Left Front government was bent on destroying Presidency College for political ends during its rule, the TMC is now hell-bent on destroying Jadavpur. œWhile under the previous regime leftists packed academic boards and manipulated the rules, their successors are rewriting the rules, as often as the need arises. Their goal is to shrink JU to a familiar undemanding model within an amenable education system, says Chaudhuri.
This brazen assault on Jadavpur™s academic autonomy ” one of the few higher ed institutions in the state to advance academically despite the long Leftist stranglehold over education ” by the TMC government has aroused the indignation of academics countrywide who have witnessed the steady decline of West Bengal™s, especially Kolkata™s tertiary institutions, once rated among the country™s best.
Comments Dr. Rajarshi Dasgupta, professor at the Centre for Political Studies of Delhi™s highly-ranked Jawaharlal Nehru University: œDuring its over three decades rule, the CPM damaged West Bengal™s higher education system by making political faculty appointments. This process was aided and abetted by SFI which dominated most campuses, and it™s undeniable that many eminent academics chose to back the political appointments to suit their own ends. However, the CPM had at least some social, cultural and intellectual capital to enable the functioning of the colleges and universities. On the other hand, TMC has no such capacity. It™s pushing mediocrity everywhere ” the appointment of Abhijit Chakrabarty as JU™s vice chancellor is prime example. Downright ad hocism built around the overarching figure of the chief minister is suffocating the state™s higher education system.
There is some substance in Dasgupta™s charges of reckless interference and œdownright ad hocism of the TMC government. Last November-December, when Chakrabarty was VC, bypassing all procedures prescribed by the University Grants Commission (UGC), JU was all set to recruit a dozen full-time faculty through walk-in interviews. Only at the last minute the Kolkata high court stayed the process. But now that the new West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Act, 2012 specifies that the vice chancellor rather than the executive council, is the final authority to approve faculty appointments, there™s widespread apprehension of infusion of sub-par faculty, chosen for party loyalty instead of academic merit and qualifications.
œIt™s only a matter of time before faculty positions in JU will be gifted on considerations other than merit. The decisive factor will be political advantage rather than the interest of students and the university. Many governments the world over control education appointments, always with negative results. Initially, the TMC pledged to liberate education from politics, but the party has broken that promise, says Dr. Ananda Lal, an alumnus of Presidency College, Kolkata and University of Illinois, and eminent theatre critic and professor of English at JU.
Steady erosion of academic autonomy, corruption and nepotism apart, the state government-funded Jadavpur University is confronted with the prospect of steadily depleting funding. The cash-strapped West Bengal government allocates about Rs.170 crore annually to the university, 90 percent of which is spent on faculty and staff salaries. The UGC, which has classified JU as a centre of excellence, conferred it an ad hoc grant of Rs.60 crore in January, after JU was accorded this status  again. Against this, the annual budget of the university is Rs.240 crore. With any proposal to increase the varsity™s rock-bottom tuition fees of Rs.1,500-2,500 per year triggering violent student reaction, the university is reeling under a perennial funds shortage.
Living hand-to-mouth, the university™s management hasn™t had the wherewithal to upgrade its infrastructure. œBeing a state-funded university, Jadavpur faces a considerable shortage of funds… This, in turn, hampers the necessary growth in terms of infrastructure development and maintenance of the university, wrote former VC Abhijit Chakrabarty in a ˜self-study report™ submitted to NAAC (January 2014).
Given the sorry condition to which this reputed varsity is being reduced, it™s unsurprising that the Jadavpur University Teachers Association has mounted a campaign to convert Jadavpur into a Central university. JUTA has passed several resolutions demanding that JU be granted Central university status. But with the TMC having bent all the rules to tighten its grip on JU, it™s unlikely to accede this demand. As the state government through its hand-picked vice chancellor is now empowered to sanction and monitor expenditure under various heads of account and approve all faculty appointments, opportunities for favouritism, kickbacks and commissions have multiplied manifold.
œStudents and faculty protesting this political takeover need to be supported by broader civil society in the public interest. It™s imperative for academics and civil society nationwide to protest and save one of the nation™s premier universities, says Dr. Savita Singh, professor of gender studies at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Delhi.
Although after a prolonged agitation JU students have won a famous victory forcing Mamata Banerjee to prompt Chakrabarty™s resignation, it™s unlikely an independent academic will succeed him. According to all indicators, Banerjee and the TMC top brass are determined to appoint another loyalist as JU™s next vice chancellor. Therefore none of the highly respected academics shortlisted by the search panel prior to Chakrabarty™s appointment ” Dr. Anupam Basu of IIT-Kharagpur, Sujoy Saha of BESU, and Dr. Rajat Acharya, dean of JU™s arts faculty ” are likely to be considered. Academic opinion is unanimous that following the example of the CPM which thoroughly infiltrated ” and ruined ” West Bengal™s higher education institutions, the TMC is also determined to establish a stranglehold over educational institutions with vice chancellors at the beck and call of the party, and chief minister in particular.
Sukanta Chaudhuri believes the time has come to take some bold decisions to save JU. œThe first reform needed is appointment of elected faculty representatives to the university™s Executive Council and University Court, currently comprising only nominated and ex officio members. Statutes for electing faculty representatives are pending with the government for the past two years. Without these statutes being passed, elections for faculty representatives cannot be held. Second, an independent search panel should be appointed to select an academically enlightened person as JU™s new VC. Third, the academic autonomy of JU™s departments and schools needs to be restored immediately, he says.
With the state assembly election less than a year away and the scam-tainted TMC government fighting a two-front battle ” resisting the rise of the BJP, and suppressing a Left resurgence ” it™s unlikely it will give up on its strategy of wresting political control of the state™s higher education institutions. The return of peace after four months of turmoil on the JU campus is a temporary hiatus. West Bengal™s top-ranked university remains under siege, and there is a real danger that the state government armed with legislation will complete its takeover of JU in the coming months. In the lexicon of West Bengal™s winner-takes-all politics, the steady decline of the state™s once nationally-envied institutions of education, is unavoidable collateral damage.

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