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JNU’s indifference to falling academic standards in other universities is now biting back

Brand JNU has become more important than the product; instead of appreciating what it requires to be at JNU, it is being assumed that being at JNU will provide what is required.

Written by Sudhir Raniwala | Updated: December 4, 2020 8:55:59 am
The JNU campus.

Like many others on social media, I also noticed the letter from some faculty members of JNU to the President of India sharing their concern over the gross malfeasance in the recent faculty appointments and requesting his intervention.

A university is known for its faculty. People know this too well, across various individual and institutional hierarchies. In support of the statement that a university is known for its faculty, it is worthwhile to cite an example I know well: the University of Rajasthan. At one time, it had on its faculty people like L S Ramaswami (zoology), Yogendra Singh (sociology), Daya Krishan and B Pahi (philosophy), R C Mehrotra (chemistry), S Lokanathan and B L Saraf (physics), Iqbal Narain (political science) and many others, and M V Mathur (economics) as the vice-chancellor. What brought the university to its current state were two major reasons: Some of the best people left to join the new JNU in Delhi, and a large number of teachers from government colleges of Rajasthan were absorbed as faculty members in university departments, compromising the selection process, and changing the academic ethos of the university with long-term consequences.

Considering the importance of faculty, and hence of appointments, it is worthwhile to note that appointments cannot be challenged because the expertise of the selection committee cannot be challenged. However, what can be challenged in a court of law is the compromise of process or established practice. While it is impossible to have an undebatable objective criterion for academic merit, too much emphasis on merit cannot hold sanctity in a country like ours. Unfortunately, people who “sell” merit as a criterion have little appreciation for those not as privileged, or not as gifted. Different forms of nepotism are not unknown in the appointment process. Also prevalent in the process of selection, rather rejection, is the attempt at superiority by maintaining a monopoly. After all, authority and superiority are matters of perception, and often actions and decisions are taken to keep the perception unchallenged.

Assuming there is truth in the letter written by the colleagues from JNU, and there is no reason to assume otherwise, the unhappiness over the current appointments is ample. I do not think it was just a matter of some “permanent jobs” for people who expressed obeisance to the current masters. Brand JNU has become more important than the product; instead of appreciating what it requires to be at JNU, it is being assumed that being at JNU will provide what is required.

Blaming the ideological divide for everything is at best parochial. While much has happened in many universities across the country, the IITs and IISERs have remained relatively unaffected by the turmoil. JNU, after all, is just another university even though it remains at the top of the huge gradient of academics in the hundreds of universities in the country. It occupies the position of a role model for many in the academic community. Despite being a young university, JNU earned this position because its faculty focussed on quality teaching and research and presumably ignored the crumbling academic culture in the country. While it could maintain its position on the hierarchy ladder by inertia alone, it may be stupid to expect that the ladder will remain stable with the earth shifting underneath. The complete indifference and/or silence of the people in JNU on academic matters affecting the other universities across the country demands a price. The current appointments should be seen as the price they are paying.

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Universities span centuries and JNU’s isolation cannot contribute to the long-term sustenance of its top position. The university has to become more inclusive, and people have to descend from the pedestal. Snobbery, in any form, is not a virtue. Ideally, people on higher rungs of the ladder should pull up those on the lower rungs. In practice, this did not happen.

JNU’s elitism could work both ways — it could be a role model or it could be a target. It depends both on the people and on JNU. When malfeasance happens at the University of Rajasthan, nobody is bothered. When it happens in JNU, social media is active. It pays to be in the limelight.

Is there any silver lining to the current state of affairs? It will decrease the hierarchy of universities across the country, and as a consequence, it will help some people come down from a pedestal, become a little more humane, and learn to be kind to those who may not have had such affiliations by strokes of luck, or fate. Sure enough, many of these people are likely to frown on the idea of fate, more so because of their achievements, disregarding that their current identities are a result of their efforts and a large number of accidental events, including their birth.

What effect will these appointments have outside JNU? Respect for knowledge and intellect will further decrease. Students aspiring to join JNU will decrease. The next trained set of students may include few who have benefited from very good training. Experience of the faculty of a university reflects in the society through their students and otherwise. A conducive academic culture is essential to make the faculty member perform to the best of her/his capabilities.

What is the way out? Recall, the present incident of appointments was inevitable in a culture where authority matters more than reason and rationale. If we accept that nothing can be done about this, which is most likely the case, then the option is that the new colleagues be groomed into the academic culture of JNU.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 4, 2020 under the title ‘Just another university’. The writer retired as professor from University of Rajasthan, Jaipur.

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