For once, it is the HRD ministry that is accusing a vice-chancellor (VC) — of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) — of appointing a non-academic for administering the university (IE, October 4, 2016). Usually, it is the ministry that is under attack for having appointed a non-academic VC.
In the case of AMU, even the honourable court of justice wondered about the academic credentials of a much-decorated lieutenant general to head that august university even though under his charge, as we know from available university ranking information, AMU has done far better for itself than ever before.
The default position is that a non-academic VC is a bad VC. So much so that the University Grants Commission (UGC), if only to curb the propensity of governments to appoint non-academic VCs, even formulated rules that insist a person being considered for VC’s office should have at least 10 years’ experience as a professor.
The stated explanation to have academics as VC is that such a person would be able to provide academic leadership to the university. It is another matter that the Indian university system is such that anyone appointed VC is liable to come under intense attack from students and faculty should he not be able to manipulate both these groups. Managing the politicians too is an important ability.
Academic leadership is the least of the bothers before a VC. The university body — students and faculty — today does not seek the approval of the VC, nor do they look up to him for any leadership. Rather, it is the VC on whom falls the onus of seeking the approval of the students and faculty. Any lapses on his part attract serious criticism from whomsoever had not been cultivated. Draconian, incompetent, undemocratic, fascist and stooge of the government are words that are often heard in this context.
The VC of Delhi University (DU) fell foul of the students and faculty when he introduced the Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) in the university. The only reason why he was able to implement it for a year was because he had the full backing of the ministry. A change of government resulted in the rolling back of the FYUP amidst much hullabaloo.
When a year or so later the new VC of DU, under directions from above, implemented the Choice-Based Credit System, a new scheme of examinations which is much akin to the previous FYUP, there was not a murmur from anyone. It could be that he had been able to “manage” everyone who could possibly be vocal.
The important thing was it was not the academic credentials of the VC that mattered but the ability to “manage”. Even following proper rules and procedures would not save the VC humiliation. The only thing of importance was the VC’s ability to overcome vocal opponents. Political support helped him initially to have his way. But political support could be transient. An inevitable shift in politics put paid to his good intentions to reform the university.
The course of events at JNU was slightly different. The appointment of the current VC was seen as a welcome humiliation of the then HRD minister, Smriti Irani. News reports suggested that he was appointed by the president of India “despite not being a choice of Smriti Irani”. A few months later, JNU students were charged with promoting anti-national activities. Requisite proctorial and police action followed. Since then the JNU VC has been dubbed an RSS/BJP stooge by the vocal faculty and students. “Someone appointed to destroy the autonomy and democratic bases of JNU” has been one of the observations. The VC’s academic credentials, his being a professor of long standing in one of the leading institutions of the world, did not matter. What mattered was the extent to which the VC could “manage” people who held contrarian views.
In contrast is the case of the numerous private universities that have sprung all over India. VCs in such universities are mostly not academics of any particular standing. Puppets in the hands of the owners they certainly are. The owners wield absolute control over everything. Yet, by all reports, those universities are not doing badly at all. Many leading academics have joined such universities without ever making public mention of the manner in which these universities are managed and the academic consequences of such governance.
Perhaps there is a lesson here: The job of the VC now is not to provide academic leadership. The current generation of academics in Indian universities are quite capable of leading themselves. Rather, it is to manage the conflicting aspirations that exist within the university and create an atmosphere conducive to academic work. In some cases, this could mean the VC needs to be a good manager of people and politics. In other cases, the VC may need to be a good fund raiser. An academic of great standing he need not be.