Historian Romila Thapar, who was asked by JNU to submit her CV in order to review her status as Professor Emerita, on Sunday said the move was an attempt to “dishonour” her since she had been “critical” of the changes introduced by the administration.
According to a letter that Prabhat Patnaik, another Professor Emeritus at JNU, wrote to EPW magazine on Saturday, the JNU administration had told her that “a committee appointed by the university could evaluate her work and decide whether she should continue as professor emerita of JNU”. Thapar confirmed she received the letter on July 12.
The move comes after JNU’s Executive Council (EC) in August last year revised the rules and regulations of the university to say that a committee appointed by the council would review the continuation of emeritus professors after they turn 75.
Thapar, 87, who retired from JNU in 1991, told The Indian Express she responded to the letter a few weeks after she got it, but has not heard back the administration since.
“I pointed out that nowhere in the world is the status of professor emeritus re-evaluated once it has been conferred. The JNU letter of conferment stated quite clearly that the position is honorary and is for life. Since there are no requirements on either side and it is only a status, there can be as many emeritus professors as the university wants. I also asked the university to inform me of the methods that would be used by the committee concerned to evaluate my work,” said Thapar.
She said the letter indicated that the “university administration is unaware of the meaning of an emeritus professor” and that it was “rather laughable if they think that my ceasing to be emerita will affect my reputation as a historian or my academic work”.
Saying the reason behind the letter was “quite apparent”, Thapar added, “It is a move to try and dishonour someone who has been critical of the changes that have been introduced in JNU by the present administration. I have been quite vocal in saying that their ways of functioning are detrimental to an institution such as a university. Some of us spent a lifetime in building a new university that we were determined would be a world-class university, both to make the point that such universities were essential to our academic and intellectual life, and also that we Indians were capable of setting up such a university. We succeeded.”
“But the freedom of thought and the right to question the world around us, which we encouraged, now meets with objections. Our students as professionals ranged from… scholars and researchers, many bureaucrats and media professionals, to some current Cabinet ministers. So I am wondering what the university will gain, if anything, by taking away the emeritus status of any such professor,” she said.
The JNU Executive Council’s (EC) revised rules of August last year read: “Once appointed, E.C. as an appointing authority, will review the continuation or otherwise for each existing Emeritus Professor after attainment of her/his age of seventy-five years by considering her/his health status, willingness, availability, university needs etc. so that more positions will be available to other potential candidates. For this purpose, E.C. will appoint a sub-committee for each existing Professor Emeritus above the age of seventy-five years, which will examine each case as it deems fit, including by interaction, inviting latest CV, peer group views etc. The recommendation of this committee will be considered by E.C. for its decision.”
The administration in a statement on Sunday said it had written to those 75 years and above to “know their availability and their willingness to continue their association with the university”.
“Writing these letters as per the ordinance is not for discontinuation but for an informed review by the executive council, the highest statutory body of the University. Such a review is consistent with the practices at other reputed universities such as MIT and Princeton University where, as given below, the university has the right to review the academic contributions of the emeritus professors. They even have the right to rescind such appointments,” the statement said.
When reached for his reaction, Prabhat Patnaik said, “When we were made emeritus Professors, it was understood that it was for life. That is the way emeritus professorship in JNU always functioned… The question of it being subjected to periodic review is absurd. Nobody applies for it,” he said.
Asked about the administration citing new rules, Patnaik said, “Even if this is a rule now, it was not there when any of us were made Emeritus Professors. So it cannot be applied to us retrospectively. As far as American universities are concerned, in most of them, you don’t even have retirement. Professor Amartya Sen at 85 years old is still a professor at Harvard. In Princeton too, Nobel-Prize-winning economist W Arthur Lewis was on Princeton faculty even after crossing 80 years of age,” said Patnaik.
R Rajaraman, also Professor Emeritus at JNU, confirmed to The Indian Express that he too received such a letter a month ago. “I think everyone above the age of 75 got it,” he said.
Other Professor Emeritus/Emerita at JNU hit out at the university’s move.
Former Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Nayyar, 72, also a Professor Emeritus at JNU, said, “I think this is absurd. In universities all over the world, appointments for Professor Emeritus are an academic honour and it’s a recognition of the contributions made by the scholar during his or her tenure. It’s always for life. It’s not for review. I have never heard of this before,” he said, adding that he hadn’t received any such letter.
Calling the university’s move “senseless” Professor Emerita Zoya Hasan, 72, said, “For a university administration to send a letter asking for CVs shows that they have no understanding of Professor Emeritus. Professor Emeritus is honorary so there’s no application for it and hence no re-application. It’s a recognition of your contribution to research and teaching already done and not for work that will be done in future. Therefore, any periodic reassessment is out of question. It indicates an anti-intellectual approach which will not help in improving the quality of higher education.”
JNUTA general secretary Avinash Kumar said teachers’ representatives in the EC had “recorded their dissent on the ground that this process amounts to insulting the retired faculty members whose immense contribution to JNU had made them distinguished” and that it was “unilaterally” imposed.
Kumar also said, “Prof. Thapar was designated Professor Emerita in 1993, a full 25 years before this misplaced guideline was formulated. Any retrospective application of this guideline to her is simply illegal.”
In a tweet on Sunday, higher education secretary R Subrahmanyam wrote: “Discussed with JNU Vice Chancellor about the controversy regarding Professor Emeritus status in JNU. There is no move to discontinue Professor Emeritus status to anyone, especially respected academicians; only provisions of Ordinance are being followed.