A prolonged feud between Maharashtra’s tripartite (Shiv Sena, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party) MVA government and BJP-appointed state governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari has thrown a spanner in the works of Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU, estb.1949).
Following the retirement of vice-chancellor Nitin Karmalkar on May 18, the VC’s office of the 73-year-old university (ranked #2 in Maharashtra in the latest EducationWorld India Higher Education Rankings 2022-23), has been vacant. A vacancy at the top on the eve of the new academic year scheduled to begin in June is a serious matter for this state government university, which has 950 affiliated colleges.
S.12 of the Maharashtra Public Universities Act (MPUA), 2016 mandates that the process for selection and appointment of an incoming vice chancellor should be completed at least one month before the “probable date of occurrence of the vacancy of the vice chancellor”. The Act prescribes constitution of a three-member search panel to shortlist candidates for the VC’s office. Governor Koshiyari has yet to appoint a chairperson of the search committee.
Monitors of Maharashtra’s academic scene are unanimous that Koshiyari’s failure to initiate the process of appointing SPPU’s new VC is not an act of forgetfulness. Last December, the MVA government amended MPUA, 2016 to create a new post of ‘pro-chancellor’ in public universities to balance power between the state government and the chancellor. Clearly, the objective was to clip Koshiyari’s wings. Under the amendment, the state government’s higher education minister will occupy the pro-chancellor’s office.
The amendment also cancels past practice of the search committee submitting a shortlist of five VC probables to the governor’s office. Instead, it directs the search committee to forward the shortlist to the government. Subsequently, the governor is obliged to select one of the two names forwarded to him by the state government.
Although the amendment bill was passed in the state’s assembly on December 29, it still requires governor Koshiyari’s assent before it becomes law. Meanwhile, the MVA government has reiterated that SPPU’s new vice chancellor will be appointed under the amended bill.
The backstory of antagonism between Koshiyari, a former RSS veteran and former chief minister of Uttarakhand, and the MVA government, is that since November 2019 when the Shiv Sena — a longstanding ally of the BJP — ended its 25-year alliance with the party and formed a coalition government with NCP and the Congress party, Koshiyari has been at daggers drawn with the MVA government and chief minister Uddhav Thackeray in particular.
Now with prolonged delay in appointing SPPU’s vice chancellor becoming inevitable, the state government has appointed Prof. Karbhari Kale, VC of the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Technological University, Lonere, Raigad district, to serve as pro tem VC of SPPU. However, seasoned academics warn against a prolonged top-level vacancy in SPPU.
“Part-time VCs attend to administrative and academic emergencies and can’t make important policy and faculty recruitment-related decisions. Thus, handing additional charge of SPPU which has 950 affiliated colleges to a part-timer on the eve of the new academic year is likely to be very damaging for SPPU. In the first instance the MVA government should not have legislated the MPUA 2016 amendment which is in breach of UGC regulations stipulating the process for selecting and appointing university vice chancellors. It has been unmindful that UGC is the apex regulatory authority for higher education institutions in the country,” says Shamrao Lawande, president of the Maharashtra Federation of Universities and Colleges Teachers Organisation (MFUCTO).
Lawande’s argument is fortified by a Supreme Court order (March 3, 2022) in Gambhirdhan Gadhvi vs. State of Gujarat. In this case, a two-judge bench of the court quashed the appointment of Shirish Kulkarni as VC of the Sardar Patel University (SPU), Anand (Gujarat) on the ground that the appointment was not made by a search committee as prescribed by UGC regulations. The court held that state governments are obliged to follow UGC regulations in case of a conflict between state and Central legislation.
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