Naked is the emperor

Why is the Delhi University vice-chancellor hell-bent on destroying this prestigious academic centre of learning?

Ratna Raman Delhi 

We were ushered into the Academic Council Room inside the Viceregal Lodge in Delhi University (DU) and found seats around a wooden conference table. Vice-Chancellor (VC) Dinesh Singh and his team introduced themselves to a group of teachers of English from various DU colleges. We had all assembled there as this was an opportunity to hear what the VC had to say. Since assuming office, this former colleague with whom I share an alma mater had become a man of very few words. While he eloquently spoke of university affairs to everyone who had little to do with the university, he didn’t seem to be on talking terms with any of the real universitywallahs, over whose professional and academic lives he had gained absolute power. 

He didn’t seem to believe in the need for discussion and debate. He issued orders, refused to meet elected representatives, facilitated the serving of show-cause notices on teachers in university departments who dared to disagree with his diktat, dismissed the Delhi University Teachers’ Union (DUTA), a collective of teachers from DU and its affiliated colleges, as an illegal body, and issued statements to the press much in the manner of a media moghul. 

Subsequently, he hosted academic congresses where the criteria for admission and participation was the absence of any academic connection whatsoever to the university, particularly in its everyday life. He frowned at marches, scoffed at rallies, sniggered at hunger strikes, policed protests, and denied in thought, word, deed, and spirit the need for any dialogic space within the university. 

Our vice-chancellor, while addressing audiences, exalts the work space as the karma bhoomi and calls upon everyone to do their share of work. Now, work is by itself a good thing and, as his current office requires him to be in station, possibly the VC is now living up to his karma. However, as the head of India’s premier central university, he is responsible for the futures of lakhs of students and for the well-being of countless teachers and karamcharis who have given their life-blood to the institutions they work in. Surely, he is not motivated by nishtha (faith) and dhrithi (resolution) to uphold satyam (truth). If only he had bowed to this dharma, ordained by our university logo, he would have done the right thing in a timely manner.

This is particularly unfortunate as the current incumbent of the erstwhile Viceregal lodge drew his adult sustenance from Delhi University, first as a student and then as a teacher. His predecessor owed nothing to the university and arguably felt little obligation to nurture an older heritage, as he set into motion the systemic violation of due procedure, disregard of statutorily elected bodies and disrespect for collective college staff councils. 

The former VC’s administrative dictates worked around a top-driven timetable wherein academic standards and safeguards were not factored. Teachers in undergraduate colleges protested and were supported by their departments. They were declared lazy, self-serving and hostile to change. 

An academic calendar announcing the schedule of the new semester was put up first. Overnight, the old political game of divide, arm-twist and deliver was put into motion and excised syllabi were churned out, first by the science departments. The anguish of distinguished professors and serious academics continues to be felt as one walks through the university’s science departments. Oral narratives and written invectives stockpile the dismantling of a well-loved central university and are now in the process of
being archived. 

At this crucial juncture in university history, the current vice-chancellor, a tall man who grapples with unsolved mathematical problems and paints for recreation, assumed office. He worked twice as hard and at double the speed of his predecessor to effect the changes that were underway. Our VC’s modus operandi was channelised by his driddkalpana (firm resolve); that teachers and students are extraneous in matters of policy, decision-making, syllabus formation and implementation. In his mind, administering at the university’s helm had very little to do with holistic academic health.   

The reasons for this imperial outlook are rooted in the historic details associated with the VC’s office. This office was previously the residence of the Viceroy of Imperial India. We reclaimed it from imperial rule, but we have clearly been unable to dislodge the authoritarian, feudal air that pervades the entire structure. This stagnant air, circulating within a gated and policed fortress, is responsible for the VC’s amnesia for the rule-book and elected constituent bodies, contempt for procedure and the bypassing of all hard-won and well-formulated academic and democratic norms. The seminal space for ideas and free thought that universities need in order to construct a modern, resurgent India is quickly being swallowed up by hide-bound attitudes that receive endorsement from the new distributors of political favour in the national capital. 

At the meeting with teachers of English, the VC imperiously put forward his schemes for awakening the sleeping elephant on Delhi University’s logo. All the teachers were given an opportunity to speak and then required to put down views in point form on a sheet of paper. Most teachers spoke of the problems facing the university. Six months later, the VC’s office sent us letters thanking us for coming in for the discussion and for our views, which were being taken seriously.  

It is, of course, not out of order for the VC to exchange notes with colleagues in different disciplines across colleges. However, his re-inventing of the wheel is disturbing because serious forums for exchange of ideas, discussion of syllabi, teaching pedagogies and statutory academic bodies are constituted in the university structure. This is perhaps the reason why the huge photo print of Mahatma Gandhi on the central wall of the council room shows Bapu walking away from it all, wanting no share in contributing to the collective anguish at Delhi University. 

The university is in dire straits. Prestigious honours courses, which showcased the university’s academic credentials and featured syllabi on a par with the best universities abroad, have been whittled down and fractured and are in need of urgent medical attention. These programmes formed part of well thought-out revisions of syllabi where feedback and correction was an instituted, on-going, academic process. Teachers who taught the subject after specialising in it were always an integral part of the syllabi-making process.  

Most courses had credit based options and focused on interdisciplinary learning and teaching. What we teach now across disciplines is a truncated version of the earlier three-year annual programme. Courses are finished shoddily and ill-equipped students are pushed into taking exams. 

Added to all this is a space and infrastructure crunch that most colleges face. An increase in the number of students took place when the university implemented OBC quotas. The trouble is that a space crunch already existed because student aspiration to university education has been increasing in geometric proportion over the decades and the availability of seats in teaching institutions has not kept pace. 

Building bylaws prevent construction, and institutions made of brick and mortar are abysmally short of space. Laboratories spill over with science students and tutorial rooms for students in other disciplines are non-existent. The maximum number of students in a classroom stretches beyond the permissible. Classrooms meant for 25 and 40 students now accommodate three times the number, at conservative estimates. This makes roll calling and teaching in the classroom challenging, and wastes an inordinate amount of teaching time. 

We are extremely short-staffed. Several thousand teaching and non-teaching posts remain vacant while the university administration maintains a studied silence on appointments. The sciences are in the third year of semesterisation and the humanities and commerce streams are in their second year. College teachers are disheartened and dispirited, threatened with salary cuts for striking work. The new academic plan, put in process in undue haste, promises to be both a logistic and an academic disaster. No overall review or corrective measures are part of the plan. 

For some reason, our vice-chancellor deems this unnecessary. Instead of inviting feedback and assessing the situation, he has decided to dump the semester programme. It seems to have been dumped in favour of a four-year undergraduate programme from July 2013. The only reason why teachers at Delhi University have this information is because the ‘free press’ reports the VC’s grand imperial gestures when he holds court with the media. 

The ground reality is that, at the end of November 2012, most teachers entrusted with undergraduate teaching remain ignorant of the pedagogy and philosophy surrounding this new academic roulette and are not privy to any information.  

The press informed us yet again that the VC has appointed a stealth force of 61 persons from the university to plan the finer details of the four-year programme. In a short span of four years, academic life has been subjected to wave after wave of severe seismic shock. This is no longer an argument about semester mode or annual mode. It is about the relevance of due process, academic integrity and a responsibility on behalf of those whom higher education is meant to empower. 

These are the core markers around which universities must structure themselves. 

It is one thing to open up the university to greater numbers. It is another thing altogether to dumb down syllabi and dilute academic standards as if the only ground rules for higher education were the speed at which new systems could be muscled in and discarded. Yes, the university did need reforms and checks, but not an unwarranted tearing down of its very edifice.  

The system is now being reset to make university education inaccessible to the many and unaffordable for the majority. For the record, ours is one of the few countries in the world where university education has been an accessible good. Replacing this by a market-driven system that will turn universities into self-financing institutions is a fundamental violation of collective aspirations. Ministers in power are incorrect in their appraisal of the university as some sort of placement institute for supplying the corporates with ‘trained personnel’.  

University education is not merely about providing jobs. It is about allowing ideas to grow, about developing understanding and conceptual clarity and specialisation in the physical and social sciences and contributing to the nation. It is about community-building and nurturing real learning and knowledge and allowing it to trickle down, illuminating the deepest recesses in our country. 

All this has been thrown to the winds. In its stead, two vice-chancellors have, in quick succession, turned the university’s accessible education system into a fashion pageant where the new hallmark of teaching and learning demands quick-change artists, who divest themselves of one set of garments and quickly put on  the next. This has come about because our emperors themselves have no clothes!  

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University.

 

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response to 'naked emperor' piece

thanks for the lucid,crystal hard-and-bright article. i wish all universities had persons like you. what about the faculty complicity in this plot to destroy an old institution?