Ten years onIt was on June 2, 2007 that a senior Human Resources Development Ministry official handed me an appointment letter on behalf of the President of India and the Gazette notification simultaneously mentioning ‘there can’t be a University without the Vice Chancellor and there can’t be a VC without the University’.
It was on June 2, 2007 that a senior Human Resources Development Ministry official handed me an appointment letter on behalf of the President of India and the Gazette notification simultaneously mentioning ‘there can’t be a University without the Vice Chancellor and there can’t be a VC without the University’. Since then, we have never looked back, forging ahead to set up the 23rd National University in Sikkim. More than five years later, in mid October 2012, when we gathered for a tearful yet joyous farewell, Sikkim University (SU) had already started emerging as an institution with global orientation and strong local ethos. This month, on Sikkim University’s 10th anniversary, revisiting the story of its decade-long journey is both invigorating and nostalgic.
Beginnings of learning
All members of the teaching and management staff who joined SU had a clear vision, unflinching commitment and unparalleled dedication to make the university the best institution and Sikkim a new destination for higher learning. Students were prolific and inspiring. The entire SU team worked day and night to configure the destiny of the infant university. Such dedication was wonderful to see. The offices of the Indian president and prime minister, various ministries, the University Grants Commission (UGC), national and international institutions, the state government and the people of Sikkim all supported this initiative. Within five years, more than one thousand visitors came to visit SU from all over the world. This was the very first round of initiatives to globalise SU.
When the father of the Green Revolution and Chancellor of SU, MS Swaminathan, said, “there is no parallel to what SU did in two years,” the citizens in Sikkim were enthralled. SU was both innovative and creative. For example, logos that were submitted by artists from all over India were displayed in various districts and the public voted for the best. Highly innovative academic programmes and governance practices inspired the UGC to sanction more than 200 faculty positions and over 55 non-teaching positions. This was unheard of for such a new institution.
By 2012, SU had over 30 admission centres all over India as well as in Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Students were drawn from all over the country and teachers came from some of the best institutions from India and other countries. The Executive Council, Academic Council and Finance Committee consisted of some of the most skilled experts, administrators and professionals.
Besides the 31 inter-disciplinary programmes, professional courses and research and policy studies, SU also introduced a series of innovative schools and departments. These are very relevant in mountain areas across South and South East Asia. Non-conventional programmes like Schools of Indigenous and Folk Studies; Sustainable Development & Livelihood Management; Peace, Conflict and Human Security Studies; Global Studies; Planning and Policy Studies; Disaster Management and Border Studies; Ethno-botany and Social Medicines and Horticulture Floriculture Management; and Chinese Language and China Studies became instant trend setters.
Aspiring for progress
The cream of academia and institutions gathered at SU to develop curriculum. A semester and credit based grading system and term paper presentation by each student and practice of a zero semester were introduced. Semester results were declared within 20 days of the last day of examination of the spring and monsoon semesters. Graduation certificates were printed in the security press in Nasik with irreplicable watermarks and SU was given the ISO 9001-2008 certificate.
The best management practices were introduced, varying from biometrics attendance to quarterly internal audit to fortnightly staff meetings and self appraisals to health insurance for students.
Community linked semi-academic programmes were launched. The Winter Sojourn Programme, Oral History Project, Ethno and Bio-diversity Museum and Archives Project, Community Radio Project, Taking Laboratories to the Communities, Sharing of Experience Initiative, Genius Among Us and Book Discussion and SPIC-MACAY bound the students and teachers together and oriented them to work on issues within different communities. The amount of knowledge, wisdom and experimentations these initiatives generated outside the labs and the classroom was amazing.
SU devised the most transparent, competitive, and inclusive recruitment process. Selection committee consisted of nationally and internationally renowned experts, professionals, bureaucrats and academics. Among eight point briefings before each selection committee, the first point the VC emphatically mentioned was that the “VC has no specific candidate as his choice”.
SU organised many special lectures, conferences, workshops and trainings. Guha Science Congress brought top scientists to SU. Speeches by visiting heads of Nottingham University and Sheffield Hallam University from the UK impressed one and all. For the first global lecture Sakiko Fukuda Parr, the author of the Global Human Development Report, came all the way from New York. While participating in the first convocation of SU, the then president of India, Pratibha Patil, was so impressed by the rhythmic composition and rich contents of the SU anthem that she later asked for a recording and translation of the same.
There were deeply insightful moments too. SU did not have a campus, and teaching and administrative buildings lay scattered around the highway, symbolically called ‘SU Highway’. While it struggled to get internet connection, it provided free tea and coffee to students. Labs and libraries had large collections and state-of-the-art technology.
When a large number of college students failed in the very first semester, there were protests with slogans of “discrimination”, etc. But when SU offered to display their answer scripts and open it to public evaluation, the protestors all backed out. After this incident, class attendance and performance steadily improved. Children in the hills are extraordinarily talented, creative and fast learners. They only lacked a competitive atmosphere that encouraged them to develop reading habits and work hard consistently.
There were a number of complaints, some fuelled by visibly ill-willed motivations. Once three persons came and demanded that the locals be given employment. We readily showed them a long list of Sikkimese working with us. They frowned and said that for them the local meant people from around the University, that is Ranipool and Sixth Mile. This is how we created a new term ‘critically local’.
Knowing that a majority of the diseases originated from poor sanitation, SU provided basic toilets. In order to respect gender sensitivity, SU wrote ‘she’ before ‘he’. For the dignity of labour, even at the lowest level, it institutionalised the term ‘support staff’. All its buildings had names that were consciously tied to local and national symbols. Every ‘up’ made SU climb peak to peak and every ‘down’ resulted in the best solutions.
Lama is the founding Vice Chancellor of Sikkim University