Patronage in universities :A worrisome development

Rajesh Kochhar 


(The Tribune , Chandigarh ( Op-ed) 19 April 2009)


INDIA is perpetually fighting a civil war within itself. While a part of it strives to build institutions, the other part — bigger, more powerful and adamant — tries even harder to subvert them. If India has survived as a state, it is because of the innate strength of institutions such as the military, higher judiciary, Election Commission, RBI and the like.

Some time ago, at a conference in Malaysia, I met a retired Pakistani science administrator who had spent some time in Indian labs using his pre-Partition connections. He felt that unlike the Pakistanis who subordinated their institutions to their personal egos, Indians tended to place theirs above themselves.

This observation describes the situation as it obtained in the years immediately after Independence. At the time Indian institutions were still influenced by traditions established during the colonial period.

The new helmsmen, guided by a spirit of nation building, saw the institutions under their charge as powerful instruments of change.

The phenomenon, however, was short-lived. Like most others, academic institutions were also made part of the patronage system.

Earlier, students sitting in the cafeteria and teachers in their tea clubs speculated on whether on the coming Republic Day, their Vice-Chancellor would receive a Padma Shri or a Padma Bhushan.

The Vice-Chancellor still remains the main topic of conversation, but very often the speculation is whether on coming Monday he would get anticipatory bail from the High Court or not.

Earlier, there were court pronouncements that the state Governor served as the Chancellor of the universities in his individual capacity, meaning thereby that he was not bound by the Cabinet advice while appointing Vice-Chancellors.

Reacting with promptitude, the state legislatures amended the laws to make the Vice-Chancellor’s appointment a political prerogative.

Recently, a chief minister magnanimously allocated the vice-chancellorship of a state university to his coalition partner. The media blandly reported the development without any sense of shock or outrage.

And now even Central and semi-central academic institutions have been made part of patronage system.

A Governor may be legally bound to act on the Cabinet advice, but there is a willing surrender of moral and legal authority even in cases where the appointing authority is the President or the Vice-President of India.

The bulk establishment of a dozen new Central universities has largely been seen as politically motivated. To compound matters further, the Vice-Chancellors’ appointment was rushed through to beat the model code of conduct.

The whole exercise, which bordered on the farcical, has predictably been challenged before the Supreme Court.

One of the new universities remains headless. In this case, the selected
candidate very cleverly used the letter of appointment for bargaining for a
better deal elsewhere.

While the Visitor of the Central Universities was at least mindful of the impending clamping of the election code, the Chancellor of a semi-Central university has decided to respect it selectively.

He has postponed the interviews for the posts of professor and reader on the ground that the election code has come into operation.

At the same time, the code notwithstanding, he has gone ahead and offered a full-term extension, amounting to a fresh appointment, to the present incumbent

Disrespect for the election code becomes more noticeable when it is realised that there was no urgency.

The vacancy is non-existent! It would arise only in July by which time the elections would be over and a new government installed.

The matter is now before the Election Commission which has reportedly issued notices to parties concerned.

One would have thought that purely academic appointments should be made, elections or no elections, while executive appointments would be subject to the election code. That the reverse has happened is significant.

May be, the university authorities felt that before they appoint/promote professors, it would be advantageous to know who the new political bosses are.

British Prime Minister Harold Wilson aptly said that a week is a long time in politics. India has extended the dictum to education as well.

The methods and the vocabulary being employed in defining and describing
events and developments in academic institutions now increasingly resemble
those of the political street.

There is a fundamental difference in the case of powers of the President and the Vice-President as appointing authorities of Vice-Chancellors.

A clear-cut procedure exists in the case of Central Universities where the President makes the final appointment.

Unlike the Governor, the President is within her rights to return the panel submitted to her. This has happened in the past.

In the solitary case where the Vice-President is the appointing authority, the power to appoint the Vice-Chancellor and extend his term any number of times vests in the Chancellor. No procedure is manifestly laid down.

However, this does not mean that the Chancellor cannot lay down a suitable procedure on his own and follow it as a matter of convention.

Indeed, some procedure has been followed in the past whenever a fresh appointment was made.

If a position is taken that no procedure needs to be followed for the grant of subsequent terms, it can only be called disingenuous.

The executive heads of academic institutions should be appointed in a manner that commands universal respect.

A Vice-Chancellor exercises more powers than any functionary in the government in a similar or higher pay-scale.

He has to make important appointments under his charge and provide leadership to academics and students.

While first-rate persons appoint first-rate ones, second-raters appoint third-raters. Also, if a person obtains an appointment by belittling himself, his only revenge can be the humiliation of those under him.

If the President and the Vice-President do not exercise moral authority, who would? Is it appropriate for the highest functionaries of the country to take morally indefensible decisions and then dare bodies like the higher courts and the Election Commission to annul them?

Is it the responsibility of only such bodies to uphold the rule of law? If these bodies buckle under pressure, are we ready to go the Pakistan way?

The writer is CSIR Emeritus Scientist, Indian Institute of Science Education
and Research, Mohali

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