Where would higher education be without philanthropy, which funded the establishment of India’s premier institutions from the 19th century to the post-Independence period? Much was expected of Ashoka University, a widely-watched experiment in reviving that culture of philanthropic funding. Standing apart from the derelict state-run university system, which disappoints students, and the blatantly for-profit sector, which gouges them, Ashoka promised rewarding positions to faculty and student fellowships to subsidise expensive courses. And it focused on the liberal arts, which are globally losing their share of the funding pie to the applied sciences and professional disciplines. In the stagnant landscape of higher education, just raising the bar made Ashoka a campus to watch out for. But as an institution, it appears to have faltered at the very first challenge, when it was important to stand up for the principles embodied in the “liberal” in liberal arts.
Three unacceptable things happened in quick succession, which were at odds with the public image of the founders, the academic council, faculty and management. First, students who had circulated a rather strongly worded petition for a plebiscite in Kashmir were told not to associate the university’s name with it. Actually, social media and the press had amplified that association, which cannot be completely erased anyway. What were the students supposed to do, publish a disclaimer with every communication they sent out? The strong feelings expressed in the petition mirrored revulsion in large sections of the people, triggered by the callousness of a government which could sanction the use of pellet guns without counting the cost, and persisted in using them even after the cost became shockingly obvious. Second, two staff members who had signed the petition put in their papers. If this was a coincidence, it was extraordinarily specific. And third, the university adopted a new email policy: All communications between alumni and students would be moderated. This surveillance, too, could have been a coincidence. Even so, the timing was atrociously poor.
It would be easy to dismiss the unfortunate series of events at Ashoka University as a public relations glitch. Indeed, a single statement reflecting concern and a willingness to introspect would have sufficed to quell suspicions. But the vice-chancellor is an old media hand and, presumably, knows how PR and information flows work. No, this was not a communications failure. Rather, like the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata, Ashoka University has failed its first test of strength.