A controversy has erupted in Kerala over the reappointment of Gopinath Ravindran as the Vice Chancellor of Kannur University, with Governor Arif Mohammed Khan saying he approved the decision against his “better judgement” as Chancellor. In a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on December 8, Khan expressed his desire to step down as Chancellor, alleging political interference in the universities. The CM downplayed the episode, saying “misconceptions can be sorted out through discussions”.
In most cases, the Governor of the state is the ex-officio chancellor of the universities in that state. While the Governor’s powers and functions as the Chancellor are laid out in the statutes that govern the universities under a particular state government, their role in appointing the Vice Chancellors has often triggered disputes with the political executive.
In Kerala’s case, the Governor’s official portal asserts that “while as Governor he functions with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, as Chancellor he acts independently of the Council of Ministers and takes his own decisions on all University matters”. In marked contrast, the website of Rajasthan’s Raj Bhawan states that the “Governor appoints the Vice Chancellor on the advice/ in consultation with the State Government”.
Under the Central Universities Act, 2009, and other statutes, the President of India shall be the Visitor of a central university. With their role limited to presiding over convocations, Chancellors in central universities are titular heads, who are appointed by the President in his capacity as Visitor. The VCs too are appointed by the Visitor from panels of names picked by search and selection committees formed by the Union government. The Act adds that the President, as Visitor, shall have the right to authorise inspections of academic and non-academic aspects of the universities and also to institute inquiries.
Last month, Ravindran was re-appointed to the post of Kannur University VC for another four years. Ravindran is above 60 now; the Kannur University Act says no person above the age of 60 shall be appointed as VC. In his letter, the Governor wrote that he had tried to convince the legal advieor to the Chief Minister that re-appointment does not amount to an extension of the term of an incumbent VC.
Also, the state government recently, amended the University Act, which took away the powers of the Governor as Chancellor to make appointments to the University Appellate Tribunal. But the discord cannot be seen in isolation as the Governor and the state government have locked horns over many other issues. In 2020, Khan had turned down the recommendation of the state Cabinet to convene a special session of the Assembly to discuss the new farm laws of the Union Government. Khan had then questioned the very purpose of summoning the legislature. He had also criticised the government when the Assembly passed a resolution demanding that the Centre revoke the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
The disputes are, quite naturally, more common in states run by political rivals of the party running the Union government, which appoints the Governors through the President of India.
In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress government had in 2019 curtailed the powers of the Governor in appointing VCs, and to take action against them. The state universities were empowered to convene meetings of key decision-making bodies without keeping the Governor in the loop, and it was made clear that all communication between the Governor and the VCs would have to go via the state Education Department.
In Odisha, the state government and the University Grants Commission are locked in a legal dispute in the Orissa High Court over the Odisha Universities (Amendment) Act. The Act brings appointments to universities in the state under the control of the state government. The UGC has challenged the Act, saying it violates its regulations, a charge denied by the state government.