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Don’t blame the politicians

Indian academics have themselves to blame for the poor regard they’re held in.

Written by M. Rajivlochan | Updated: July 16, 2015 12:14 am
Nalanda, Nalanda is a syndrome, Nalanda university, Indian academics, Indian education system, political interference in acedemics, Express column Nalanda, Higher education, proffessional courses, IE editorial Indian academics today have largely themselves to blame for the poor regard in which they are held. It is for the academic community to have sufficient self-esteem to put their house in order and to set up and enforce norms of academic merit.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s concern about political interference in institutions of higher education and other problems (‘Nalanda is a syndrome’, The Indian Express, July 14) is a welcome reiteration of why people from universities outside Delhi show little sympathy for the elite academics of India when they get booted around by the political dispensation of the day. If anything, Mehta’s comments obfuscate the rot in academic institutions by constant reference to general principles of autonomy and the role of outside agencies. There is a complete ignorance of the details that allow the rot to continue. Such a stance also gives no value to the tremendous work being done in various universities and other research institutions under the present circumstances.

In my experience, political interference is really not as much of a problem as it is made out to be. It does provide a good excuse, however, for academics to say why they did not do their work properly, take fair decisions and find ways and means to further the interests of the academy. There are numerous instances of academic leaders, not necessarily from Delhi, having refused to agree to requests that were contrary to the norms.

The larger problem is that it is the academic leaders themselves who flout all norms of fairness and merit, to the extent of even protecting the criminal behaviour of colleagues. One of the best-known examples was the case of V.J. Gupta, once a renowned geologist, who had faked the data in his publications for several years. When the fraud was discovered, the first line of defence put forth by academic leaders was that the charges against Gupta were the result of colonial attitudes or the desire to find fault with a renowned Indian academic. When a detailed inquiry held Gupta guilty on all counts, the academic leaders bent backwards in a most visible distortion of the rules to ensure that he would get away with a mere censure. The point to note is not about Gupta’s misdoings but the efforts made by senior colleagues to save his skin, much to the discomfort of the local community.

Then there was the case of the editor of a renowned sociology journal, Sociological Bulletin. This professor, after rejecting a paper sent for publication to the journal, plagiarised major portions of it and published it under his own name. When the original author complained, an inquiry committee was duly set up. The committee found the editor guilty of flagrant misconduct and imposed a penalty: he was asked to leave the editorship of the journal, which he did. But the matter was kept a secret from the rest of the academic world. Since his guilt was not taken public note of and he was not publicly shamed, he went on to become the dean of arts of a major university, remained an editorial consultant to other academic journals and rose to head another academic institution.

Cases of this kind have been far too numerous all over India where the academic wrongdoer has been allowed to get away with not even a proper slap on the wrist. In none of these instances was there any “political interference”. Academics themselves did whatever wrong was done.

The one area where the charge of political interference comes up the most is in appointments. We should, however, not forget that on selection committees, it is the academics themselves who insist vociferously on the appointment of candidates with no proven academic records. One could point to the numerous sons, daughters and in-laws of senior academics who have been “adjusted” in permanent faculty positions by “uncles” and “aunties” in the selection committee despite not having anything to show by way of merit.

At the same time, there are enough instances of vice chancellors and professors politely telling off political recommendees that they need to have some merit too for getting a faculty appointment. Contrary to popular perception, none of those who stood up for merit were hounded out; rather, many went on to complete their terms, and win accolades for their professional competence. The point is simply this: in order to be shown respect, you have to earn it.

Indian academics today have largely themselves to blame for the poor regard in which they are held. It is for the academic community to have sufficient self-esteem to put their house in order and to set up and enforce norms of academic merit.

The writer is member, State Higher Education Council, and professor, Panjab University, Chandigarh

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  1. Anil Maheshwari
    Jul 16, 2015 at 9:40 am
    Kudos to M. Rajivlochan for his frank and candid remarks. But are there any takers for admitting faults within the system. After Independence the persons claiming to be progressives/marxists hold the fort just to perpetuate hegemony for themselves and their cronies. The same is being done in the present dispensation of political power. One of the "Gods" of Marxist Historians Prof. Irfan Habib, son of an illustrious historian Prof. M. Habib, managed to remain Coordinator of the Center for Advanced Studies in History, Aligarh Muslim University for a period of 12 years though a term lasts only for three years. The malpractices are manifested in every walk of our higher education system.
    1. G
      Jul 16, 2015 at 1:19 pm
      I agree wheartedly with the author. Our academics are in dire shape because they have let themselves be corrupted by the lure of higher positions and faculty appointments for their friends and relatives. Faculty appointment in India are given to the well connected, merit if at all plays a small part in it. Only yesterday, Narayan Murthy at the IISC convocation asked the question; what good has come out of IISc and other insutes of higher learning. How many new ideas were initiated and developed by these insutes for the good of the society? The answer is non or hardly anything worthwhile. Some time back a PhD graduate from a premier insute in India mentioned to me with all the ego at his command that his insute is the best in the world. I asked him how many Nobel Laureates has his insution produced; ZERO. Whereas, top academic insutes globally produce research worthy of a Nobel prize, not so in India. Our academia wallows in its filth of mediocrity and calls it their excellence. There exists a strong, you scratch my back and I scratch your back culture in our academic insutes where students (particularly research students) are at the mercy of their professors who run a fiefdom of their own answerable to no-one. The time that it takes to get a PhD (typical is 6-8 years) in some premier Indian insutes is way too long and is a criminal waste of a students time and effort.
      1. V
        Jul 16, 2015 at 9:15 am
        Cant agree more, look at Nalanda University v2, it was Amartya Sen who messed it up not the leaders..
        1. G
          Jul 16, 2015 at 9:57 am
          Indian academics in the social sciences have closely ociated themselves with our socialist politicians. Indeed, our academics have distorted history to provide muscle to a very destructive form of religious politics. There are entire "research insutes" like "center for equity studies" where research has been replaced by ideology, and they produce nothing but hateful articles. It is ironical that these people live in comfort on ries paid by the people of India and they spend all their time spewing hate towards India. Is it any wonder that people have such low opinion of our educational insutes?
          1. H
            Jul 16, 2015 at 10:33 am
            Do you include among the culprits (academicians who degraded themselves and lost respect) all those who willingly and without merit accept academic posts offered by politicians in return for personal/party loyalty? For example, the new ICHR team? Or is it just that these latter people never had respect anyway, so they cannot be accused of degrading themselves ... ?
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