In an unprecedented move, President Ram Nath Kovind has overturned his decision on the appointment of a central university Vice-Chancellor (V-C), at the behest of the government. Kovind is learnt to have withdrawn his assent to appoint Swapan Kumar Dutta as the head of Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan — the President is its Visitor and the Prime Minister its Chancellor. He has also scrapped the panel of three finalists forwarded by the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry last year.
As first reported by The Indian Express on February 15, the HRD Ministry had asked the President to reconsider his assent to Dutta’s appointment.
The government will now launch a fresh search for the V-C’s post.
Visva Bharati learnt of the President’s decision on Thursday, when the HRD Ministry asked the university administration to call a meeting of its Court and Executive Council (Karma Samity) to nominate two new members to the search-cum-selection committee, said varsity sources.
The earlier committee headed by S K Srivastava, V-C of North Eastern Hill University (NEHU), which had recommended Dutta’s name along with P N Mishra of the Institute of Management Studies at Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya (DAVV) in Indore and Sankar Kumar Nath of the geophysics and geology department at IIT-Kharagpur for the top job, now stands disbanded.
Visva Bharati has been functioning without a regular head for two years. The university administration has urged the government to expedite the V-C’s appointment. The university’s acting Registrar, Saugata Chattopadhyay, wrote to the HRD ministry this week flagging the administrative difficulties being faced by the institution, as well as a general policy paralysis and zero recruitments.
Although President Kovind had approved Dutta’s appointment in January, the official order was not issued. Instead, Rashtrapati Bhavan received a note from HRD Ministry, requesting Kovind to reconsider his decision and let the ministry scrap the earlier panel and send a fresh one.
Dutta, an agricultural scientist who served as Acting V-C for close to two years, retired last month. Sabujkali Senn, director of the Studies, Educational Innovations and Rural Reconstruction at Visva Bharati, assumed charge on February 3.
While the request to scrap a panel for the V-C’s post is not unusual, this was the first time such a proposal was received by the President’s office after the appointment of a candidate was already approved.
The government is learnt to have justified its stand on the ground that the finalists lack leadership skills. It’s unclear why the ministry forwarded the panel to the President, and waited until after a decision was taken to change its mind about the candidates.
The only example closest to Dutta’s case is that of scientist Anil Kakodkar, whose appointment as chairman of IIT-Roorkee was approved by Rashtrapati Bhavan in July 2017. Until date, the ministry hasn’t issued formal orders notifying the appointment. Interestingly, neither has the government approached the President’s office to reconsider the decision, as it did in Dutta’s case.
Dutta was given the responsibility to act as the head of Visva Bharati in February 2016, right after the regular V-C, Sushanta Dattagupta, was sacked by the HRD Ministry, then under Smriti Irani, for alleged administrative irregularities. This was the first time the head of a central university was fired by the government.
Dutta’s time as Acting V-C was eventful with teachers often protesting his decisions. The last agitation happened in January this year with two sections of teachers writing separately to the HRD Ministry, one demanding that Dutta be made permanent V-C and the other seeking the appointment of a new head.
Visva Bharati is the only Central university with the Prime Minister as its Chancellor. The institution was founded by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and its alumni list includes filmmaker Satyajit Ray and economist Amartya Sen.