The reign of errorThe govt should use its majority to do good, not undermine academic autonomy
The vice-chancellor of Mahendra Sanskrit University (MSU) was detained from Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu and brought to the prime minister’s official residence to prevent him from boarding a plane to Canada where he was scheduled to chair a panel at the World Sanskrit Conference and make the closing remarks. He was told that the prime minister wanted to meet him; but after an hour’s detention, he was told that the prime minister was too busy to meet him. By then, his plane for Canada had left.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology later said that MSU VC Kul Prasad Koirala was leaving the country without getting permission from the Education Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office, his supervisory bodies. Koirala disputes the allegation, saying that he had informed them a week before, and that he had travelled abroad several times before without any problem.
This incident made me think about the status of universities in India and Nepal. I went to my first college and university in India and then taught in college for a few years in Nepal under Nepal’s flagship university. And, after graduate studies at state and private universities, several years of teaching at private colleges and universities in the United States, I have just completed the first year of chairing my department at my university. In all these years, I have closely observed the functioning of universities in both India and Nepal and the United States.
While it is not to fully lay out the workings comparatively here, I have never heard of such a thing as the Nepal government under KP Oli has done to the vice-chancellor of a respected university—humiliate him publicly and prevent him from attending a conference where he was chairing a panel and giving the closing remarks. It ought to have been a matter of pride to the country but for a government with more than a two-thirds majority, it became a matter of showing off its claws and fangs of draconian power and seek political vendetta.
Ever since KP Oli won a majority and now, with the help of a Madhesi party, super majority, I have refrained from directly criticising him and the government. Unlike others, I do believe that those who have won the overwhelming trust of the people for whatever reason ought to be given a chance to prove themselves worthy of the people’s trust in them. And, we all know, Nepal suffered from political instability for long because the governments were not strong enough.
But the recent doings of the KP Oli government seem to have thrown us into a catch-22 situation: without a strong majority government it can’t function well and when there is a strong majority, power goes to the head of the government and it starts to act crazy.
So, the Oli government, instead of focusing its attention on fulfilling the tall promises it has made to the people about railways, ships, gas pipelines to kitchens, it began by shrinking public space for criticism and now has forcibly prevented a vice-chancellor from attending an international conference.
In India, the university system is under attack from their rightwing government. In Nepal, university officials have become the kicking ball of our leftwing government. It doesn’t matter whether it’s left or right; it’s the state power that has blinded the power holders in both places.
Yet, if universities are to produce independent thinkers, responsible citizens, fearless, groundbreaking scholars, and unleash creativity among scientists and professionals, they must be autonomous in their governance. And even there, they must follow the protocols of shared, grounds-up, faculty governance. To be sure, even in the United States, state governors have from time to time in rare cases, interfered with the affairs of the state universities because they hold the purse strings of funding.
But whenever it has happened, the universities and their faculty have resisted vigorously and challenged the political bosses. And through the years, in my own journey from a graduate student to a faculty and now Chair of my department, I have witnessed the appointments of three presidents, a Dean, a Provost besides many faculty members, including my own two successful job searches as a junior faculty member. I have also sat on search committees of other departments, my own both as a member and a co-chair-and, now, as Chair of my department, we have just concluded a job search where I appointed the Search Committee of my department and external members.
In all my observations, I have found that a democratic practice dominates the process. Even if the Board of Trustees appoints the search committee that vets and finally recommends the suitable presidential candidates of a university, or a President gives charge to the search committee that appoints the Provost or the Chair nominates the search committee that the Dean gives charge, the process is always grounds up.
A Chair, the members of a search committee, the Provost and the President—all are appointed after a lengthy process of consultation, feedback and vetting from the stakeholders, namely, the faculty members and their representative bodies, such as the university senate.
The members of the search committee at all levels themselves are nominated keeping in mind diversity of gender, race and ethnicity and fairness of the process.
After several months of the process (usually from October to April), only then a job offered is made to the candidate-whether it is for the President, Provost, Dean or a junior faculty member.
This lengthy democratic process of consultation, feedback and vetting means that the final product would be more often than not sound. No individual member can just go out and handpick his president, or provost or dean or even a junior faculty member. Only a lengthy and widespread process that involves even students and their representatives on the search committees does the work.
Such a person once appointed is nobody’s pawn or victim, like the vice-chancellor of Nepal’s Mahendra Sanskrit University. Nor can anybody dare act the way Nepal’s prime minister or his education minister has done.
So, it’s very unfortunate that despite the strong, stable government, Nepal, instead of heading upward to establish better practices in institution building suitable for a democracy, is spiralling down to worse practices. It would definitely be interesting to watch where PM Oli and his government are heading.