The name of St Stephens says it all. Many aspire to be associated with it in one form or another. Many view it in awe because of its achievements, heritage and its renowned alumni who have made their mark nationally and internationally and continue to do so in every field. Many call it to be an institution which moves beyond education and guides in the development of character and personality of its students as well as staff members in a comprehensive manner. In summary, St Stephens depicts a picture of an institution par excellence.
With excellence comes uniqueness, responsibilities, leadership and yes scrutiny and blame. If excellence is the virtue to be proud of, it also has to be upheld. If the recent news of controversies in which St Stephens college has found itself in like the High Court intervention in staying the suspension of the student by the Principal, sexual molestation case within its premises of its own student by one of its faculty, financial irregularities, reports of conversions been not enough, now the recent news of the approval of proposed amendments by the governing body which provides overriding power and authority to the Principal and the Church of North India (CNI) affects the repute of the institute even more in a negative way. The approval of the proposed amendments is seen as a major blow to secular and independent credentials of the institution. The question therefore is that is the maligned reputation also related to rise in mediocrity in the institution?
“I would not say that there is prevalence of mediocrity, in fact earlier only people from strong economic backgrounds used to take admissions in college now at least there is more accessibility, also an image of success should not be measured only through your visibility, look at the contribution of Bunker Roy,” mentioned Nandita Narain, faculty member and President of Delhi university.
Teachers Association. Reflecting upon her alumni days, she however disappointingly added, “What now seems to be compromised is a sense of independent character. For me a Stephanian was seen to be non conformist, argumentative and independent person but unfortunately there is somewhere a sense of subservience which has set into the minds of many and there is a loss of voice and when there is a loss of this kind, your moral character seems to get affected.”
Not mincing his words though was former MP Sandeep Dikshit, who was vehement in criticism of his alma mater. “The state of affairs by which the Principal and the church are trying to communalise the institution does not make me proud of being called a Stephanian.” Dikshit added, “first you want to create an elitism of a negative kind by setting a standard of high marks to get an admission and then there is a sense of segregation observed within the institution.” Citing the approval of the proposed amendments, Dikshit commented, “This is a ploy by the church and the Principal to deaffiliate themselves from Delhi University and have more financial powers.” On mediocrity, Dikshit added, “the institute with private partnership started the department of media studies, legal studies and language translations and it all failed.” This charge was confirmed from the sources, when asked.
Dikshit also said that there was a need to differentiate between minority and a communal institution.
The minority status of the institution has been in debate for long. The Supreme Court order in 1992 made it retain its minority status even despite it receiving its funds by the state, through University Grants Commission (UGC). Even though the college was established by a Christian mission from Westcott house, Cambridge in 1881, it mentions in its site of having all India and all denominations membership having teachers and students from all communities and all parts of India.
One of the teachers who requested anonymity said, “Your secular credentials are bound to be affected once you restrict freedom of thought. Imagine, St Stephens used to be a place where black flags were waived at Mrs Gandhi when she came to the campus after emergency.”
Historian Dilip Simeon said though his last direct association with St Stephens was 46 years back, the state of affairs in the college made him less optimistic. Simeon said, “The recent controversies were avoidable and undignified. It is sad state of affairs for the college authorities to engage in public polemic with students, teachers and researchers. In addition to the latest efforts by CNI to enhance its powers of intervention in college affairs and the powers of the principal over teachers, smack of authoritarianism. The behaviour of ecclesiastical authorities of the CNI with regard to St. Stephens may fulfil their ambition but has not been good for college and their public stature. Their conduct in recent times indicates lack of broad mindedness and vision.”
Justice Manmohan Sareen, who formerly was also was a part of the governing body but resigned in protest to the amendments in the 102 year old constitution, emphasised on independence and autonomy of the institution. “The domination of the CNI will have to be stopped to preserve the potential and the excellence of this institution, the amendments in constitution if required must be participative than authoritative,” said Delhi’s former Lok Ayukta.
Defending his college, a student who wished to be unnamed said, “When you have a renowned name and a name which has commanded respect over the years because of its contribution to the country, there will be people who would want to bring it down. I find this institution to be secular and meritocratic overall but yes I do feel the college has its challenges but so do others.”
When asked that was there an ascent of mediocrity in the institution, member of Parliament Mani Shankar Aiyar commented, “No I do not think St Stephens has become mediocre but I do wish that it keeps itself out of controversies.” On the recent proposed amendments, Aiyar said, “As regards to the proposed amendment to the college constitution, I understand the latest governing body did not have a proper quorum and was inadequately represented. I am therefore relieved that governing body is summoned to meet again after three months.” Aiyar also added that the time spent in St Stephens were among the best years of his life and he wished that the institution would continue to uphold secular values and not fall unduly under church influence.”
Even if there was an observation of support and dissent by its alumni, staff members and students of the institution, the fact is that the controversies today has made St Stephens even more divided and there seems to be a stalemate in trying to discuss and sort out issues, the result seems to be more controversies and more damage to the reputation.
“It is important for the authorities to realise that it is not the glory of past but the vibrancy of present that will steer you ahead and it would only emanate in the atmosphere of harmony and an environment that would encourage healthy debate where difference of opinion will be appreciated than being crushed” said one of the teachers.
Citing the example of her Principal Reverend Rajpal, Nandita Narain mentioned that earlier there was “an atmosphere of voicing out your dissent and also the courage to listen, this seems to be diminishing”.
The present may look, divided, tense and less glorifying for many in St Stephens, both inside and outside, but an optimistic statement by one of the Stephanian’s, does provide a hope for the institution and the students, “I am a proud Indian and a proud Stephanian and irrespective of the problems faced by my college and country, my love for it would always remain. I have to be strong and take initiative for its improvement in my own capacity and help in creating a better future.”
"What now seems to be compromised is a sense of independent character. For me a Stephanian was seen to be non conformist, argumentative and independent person but unfortunately there is somewhere a sense of subservience which has set into the minds of many and there is a loss of voice and when there is a loss of this kind, your moral character seems to get affected- Nandita Narain, Faculty member and an ex Stephanian.