There is a compelling reason behind this “open letter” to young students seeking admission to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I want to tell them that they should not be disturbed by the news, comments and opinions about the events on the campus in February-March, 2016. The public at large also needs to know the reality of JNU. Narrating the university’s inside story has become even more necessary because after the Union government charged a few students with sedition, a section of the public has come to regard JNU as a den of anti-national activities.
JNU has distinct characteristics which have guided multi-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary academic programmes in its schools — social sciences, international studies, languages, life sciences, environmental sciences, physical sciences, computer sciences, biological sciences and arts and aesthetics. Faculty members frame courses, decide syllabi and the mode of evaluation. Faculty and students are partners in the pursuit of knowledge.
The university’s faculty does not prescribe “textbooks” around which examinations take place. They do suggest “reading lists” and there is a lot of self-study at the university’s libraries. JNU works on pedagogic principles that regard “all students as adults”. Dialogue and debate among members of the faculty and students, and among the students — both in classrooms and in the informal surroundings of the sprawling campus and its dhabhas— is the essence of JNU’s educational project. The university’s academic ethos gives students the freedom to differ with the faculty. But freedom is not confined to academic assignments; it is also a distinct aspect of relationships between the faculty and the students. Young students are allowed to frame their own boundaries; in this respect, JNU is unlike other campuses in India, where hostels impose multiple restrictions.
The JNU model of campus life is based on libertarianism in the purest sense of the term. JNU does not treat students’ political activities as undesirable encroachment on academic life. On the contrary, political-ideological debates are considered an extension of everyday student life. That diverse social groups supported the students of JNU after the events of February-March testifies to the university’s social standing.
JNU is the only university in the country where “students manage elections for their own union”. These elections are free from an evil that ails most universities in the country: Unhealthy use of money power. The Lyngdoh Commission appointed by the government to suggest regulations to curb the evils of student elections on campuses held up JNU as a model for the country.
An ethos that regards teachers and students as partners in the pursuit of knowledge often disturbs academics of established universities and also a section of politicians who describe JNU as the “university of communists”. The traditional university professor feels very uncomfortable with the teacher-oriented system of framing syllabi and evaluating academic performance because he/she trusts only external examiners to certify the merit of students. JNU’s teacher-centered model is built on a simple premise: If teachers are good enough to teach, they can also be trusted to evaluate their own students. Traditional universities are beginning to grudgingly accept the quality of JNU’s academic programmes and its teacher-centered approach.
The story does not end here. The faculty has learned much from students. In the early 1980s, students demanded representation in the university’s academic decision-making bodies — committees of the centres, the university’s academic council and boards of study of schools. This demand was based on the reasoning that academic decision-making process should be “open” and “accountable”. Student participation in JNU’s academic bodies has been a success because the university treats its students as adults who are responsible for decisions that concern them directly.
A section of students also demanded that answer sheets evaluated by the course in- charge should be “re-evaluated” by a committee of other teachers in the centre/school. This innovation has increased trust between teachers and students. It should not be forgotten that the educator is a part of a “power system” where teachers awarding grades have power over students; if proper checks and balances are not evolved, a professor could abuse his/her powers.
JNU’s cultural diversity makes it the only all-India university in the real sense of the term. Such diversity may pose initial difficulties to new entrants. But the university also provides students with an atmosphere where they can exercise their choices. This open letter asks new entrants to JNU: Can you break away from your academic past? Can you start a new journey of freedom and equality?
The ball is in the court of teachers and researchers. Only an academically alive community of teachers can fulfill the students’ aspirations for high-quality education. The choice before JNU’s academic community is whether it wants to remain intellectually and academically-relevant or decline — like the faculties of “old” universities, who stopped reading latest books and did not conduct research in new areas of social significance.