There are 55 central universities, the crown jewels of the Indian academic system. They are endowed with prime land, extensive funding from the central government and there is a long line of students waiting to get in. Here, faculty have security of tenure, and their job fully protects free speech, so they are the most vocal among academics. Among them are the handful of real universities in the country — vishwavidyalayas or universitas, that focus on all the major branches of learning, where cross-disciplinary research, so necessary to solve complex modern problems, can genuinely take place.
Yet, they are in turmoil. In recent years, six vice-chancellors (VCs) of central universities have been sacked. Another five have been charge-sheeted. Some of these institutions have seen their glory days, yet increasingly, the energy is going out of the system. The locus of innovation has switched to new and innovative private universities. However, not a single new private university has so far been able to create a true broad-based viswavidyalaya with the full range of humanities, social and natural sciences and the professional disciplines. Therefore, to save academia in India, central universities must be saved.
It is tempting to blame the problems on a few bad apples in the leadership. But if the problems are so pervasive, then the challenges must be systemic. The response of academics who are witness to this decline is to blame a lack of autonomy. But in reality, it is a crisis of accountability.
Each of the 55 central universities is governed by a separate Act. While there are differences, the broad structure is as follows. The Visitor of the university is the President of India. On his behalf, the Ministry of Education recommends an eminent citizen as the chancellor, whose role is mostly ceremonial. The Ministry also constitutes a search committee that typically interviews multiple candidates and comes up with a list of three candidates. From this list, the government picks a VC. Separately, and through a different process, a senate or court is chosen. Technically, this is the governing council (GC) of the university, which will usually have nominees from various stakeholders, including the government, faculty, students, and citizens. The university’s work is carried out by the executive council chaired by the VC, who also appoints the registrar. A separate finance committee is constituted, headed by a chief finance officer, who is often a civil servant on secondment to the university. This arrangement is designed to maintain financial checks and balances.
But this is where the major problems begin. The GC has no say in the selection of the VC. Further, the GC typically meets only once a year. If any work gets done in this meeting, it is a miracle, since the GC of Delhi University, called the Senate, for example, has 475 members, probably a world record. In theory, the VC presents and gets approval for the annual plan of the university from the GC. In practice, after much grandstanding on both sides, the plan is rubberstamped. After that, throughout the year, there is minimal direction or monitoring from the GC, which may or may not meet again. There are typically no quarterly updates, and there is little oversight. Under the circumstances, the high number of failures should not come as a surprise, since effectively, there is minimal governance.
By contrast, the new IIM Bill very sensibly limits the GC to at most 19 members. They are expected to be eminent citizens, with broad social representation and an emphasis on alumni. This GC chooses the director, provides overall strategic direction, raises resources, and continuously monitors his or her performance. Within the guidelines provided by the GC, the director has full autonomy but also full accountability.
This arrangement is based on the best global examples, including Harvard. Today, most people do not know that Harvard too was a sarkari university until 150 years ago, that was dying a slow death. It is a fascinating story that I have documented elsewhere. When its governance was reformed by creating an empowered board comprising its most successful alumni, this small provincial university soon became world-class. The reason was simple: No one knew or cared more about the university than its alumni board members. They brought dynamism, oversight, and resources. The creation of a journey to world-class status began with the governance reform.
Accordingly, the governing councils of all central universities, IITs, and all other central institutions, need to be restructured by an Act of Parliament. The most eminent alumni of these institutions must be brought on their boards. IIT Delhi has just announced a billion-dollar endowment campaign. This campaign is being spearheaded by its most successful alumni, over a dozen of whom have created Unicorns, or billion-dollar companies. If these individuals are cordially invited to join its GC, not only will this money be raised quickly, but it will also be spent well. The dynamism and exposure that these alumni will bring to the table will promptly lead to world-class innovations.
The warrior-poet Rahim, who knew a lot about administration, famously said — ek saadhe sab sadhai, sab saadhe pat jaaya, Rahiman mool hi seenchiye, phoole phale aghai. If you accomplish one big thing, everything gets accomplished, but if you try and fix everything at once, then nothing gets fixed; as in plants, water the roots, and the whole plant prospers and yields flowers and fruits. To allow central universities, the IITs and other public institutions to truly blossom, we need to reform their Governance. There is no time to waste.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 25, 2020 under the title ‘Saving the public university’. The writer is president and director of MICA, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
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