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The end of autonomy: Panjab University at the crossroads

“The goal of democracy is education, intellectual development, and nobility of spirit, the most important weapons public intellectuals hold against the degeneration of democracy.”

Bob Riemen.

It strikes a blow at the very core of academic life when the teaching community is mandated to acquiesce to the state authority and be subservient to a governing body that is in turn accountable to a patron seemingly bereft of a broad progressive policy. The diagnosis of the world-wide crisis in education finds a confrontational reflection in the Dutch scholar, Rob Riemen’s essay, The Eternal Return of Fascism, where he accentuates the theoretical feebleness of fascist thinking marked by severe hostility towards freedom in thought and action.

Reform indeed is always welcome and necessary, but destroying age old and tested institutions deeply wedded to democratic traditions is unquestionably retrogressive. Take the case of Panjab University, one of the oldest universities in the country, which has been functioning through a governance structure as embodied in the Panjab University Act, 1947. The four year term of the old senate expired on October 31 this year and the elections for the new senate have been indefinitely postponed with no news from the establishment regarding the future course of the university’s governance structure. All important academic and administrative functions of the university have therefore come to a standstill. The situation is indeed dismal.

For all purposes, therefore, the Panjab University senate stands dissolved. It must be noted that neither the University Grants Commission nor the Chancellor have the authority to change the governance structure without consulting the constitution of the university. In a milieu of self-righteousness and indifference, the Central government, it is believed, has overreached itself in deciding to replace the senate with a board of governors, the intention being to adopt a corporate model for the university. This is obviously in keeping with the current practice of blatantly sidelining eminent academics and vice-chancellors, and instead making appointments arbitrarily on the basis of party affiliations. Any form of dissent or disagreement with the official policies is thereby discouraged. The conflict apparently is between viewing a university as a seat of diversity and learning or a seat of conformity and indoctrination.

Any plans to replace the senate of the university with a board of governors would be a violation of the Panjab University Act. The unresponsive nature of official politics with its failure to veer even a little towards bringing reform in its basic structure rather than completely obliterate it has deepened the sense of alienation and mistrust. At a time when the political discourse in the country is taken to a different level of authoritarianism, the pursuit of a more conducive democratic governing set-up in the form of an elected senate with a membership from various ideological and academic backgrounds was the dire need of the times. This was appropriately envisaged by the forefathers of the university who ensured that such a democratic body would be reliant on animated free discussions, a glowing example of an open field where diverse interests and opinions contribute to a robust critical conversation. In the present predicament there are no signs of initiating even a public debate on governance reforms.

The silence of the authorities on the future of the senate is rather intriguing, leaving many faculty members in a state of indignation and outrage amidst the wreckage of age old structures which undergird the university. I wonder if the leadership in power has dwelt on any visionary roadmap for a political ideology to stimulate a new generation of academics in a university that constantly aspires towards new frontiers of knowledge.

A far-sighted governing system requires academics with vital administrative experience along with the understanding of new pedagogical practices equipped to confront the present situation in which the valorization of mediocrity has resulted in denigrating those who accomplish their responsibility with sincere impartiality. It is disdainful to be subjected to the arrogance and incapability of the political elite to guide the course of higher education in the interest of the students and the teachers. Sliding downhill towards self-deluding and bureaucratised governing bodies that lack the ability to handle alternative views and guard against any retrogressive decisions, the university faces a crucial challenge to its autonomy. The chasm between the public intellectual and the inflexible establishment stands wider than ever.

At this dark hour when higher education is poised on the cusp of ideological dogmatism, a far deeper involvement is required in the ongoing struggle for winning back a more autonomous system of academic functioning. This is possible if an objective exercise is carried out for seeking innovative forms of governance that strive for an unassailable commitment to free thought inculcated in the true spirit of the pursuit of knowledge. It would therefore be egregious to accept a non-elected and selectively constituted governing body that could impede the independent working of the institution. The teachers of Panjab University stand vindicated by their ongoing confrontation and opposition of this assault on the deep-rooted self- governing character of the university.

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[The writer is formerly professor, department of English and cultural studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh. Views expressed are personal]

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