Subverting autonomy from within
The recent history of Delhi University bears painful witness to the subversion of academic and administrative autonomy by individuals who were entrusted with the job of safeguarding it. Today, most teachers in this prestigious central university are afraid to speak their minds. A Code of Conduct that effectively threatens teachers with disciplinary action for any criticism of the University Administration has altered their service conditions radically. More insidiously, the 5,000-odd ad hoc teachers who precariously define the University’s future are told that their appointments and other prospects will depend on their ability to demonstrate their complete loyalty to the Vice Chancellor and his team of officials. The DUTA, an independent teachers’ union with an enviable history of successful movements, has been forced to wage a lonely and desperate struggle against an iniquitous and lop-sided undergraduate programme of studies (FYUP) and a draconian mode of governance which pits students against teachers, reduces intellectual pursuits to the accumulation of points and pushes all but a select clique of loyalists out of active decision-making.
Considering how such a situation came to be offers the occasion for an objective assessment of the current Vice Chancellor’s tenure in Delhi University, as well as the basis of understanding the popular demand for his removal.
Unlike his predecessors, Prof. Dinesh Singh shunned the elected bodies of teachers, students and non-teaching employees from the day he assumed office in 2011. He completed the introduction of the semester system in undergraduate courses by forcing departments to bifurcate the annual syllabi and getting these approved by his loyalists who constituted a majority in the Academic and Executive Councils of the University. In this, he was assisted by the reigning Congress group in the teachers’ body, the AAD.
The Vice Chancellor also began attacking the federal structure of the University and, through unrestrained use of Emergency Powers, introduced diverse changes in the day-to-day functioning of colleges, often overruling Principals, Staff Councils and Governing Bodies. Through regular raids on the pretext of curbing teachers’ absenteeism, he played a direct role in the humiliation of teachers. He forced principals to serve notices and memos even against those teachers who had taken leave from duty.
Through the University registrar, he issued threatening letters to college principals and heads of departments on various aspects of routine administrative functioning. To ensure the suppression of the resulting discontent, he promoted a huge coterie of sycophants to important administrative positions within the University and its directly administered colleges. But his biggest trump card was the ever-growing number of teaching vacancies in colleges and departments.
The extension of Reservations to the OBC category had increased the student-intake by one and a half times the earlier strength. Yet, a whole generation of teachers were in the process of retiring. At a time when the University needed a massive recruitment drive to sustain a healthy teacher-student ratio, he chose to arbitrarily freeze appointments. The gameplan was clear: to have large numbers of vulnerable teachers working in ad hoc and guest capacity would obviously break the back of the teachers’ movement and suppress active opposition. By early 2012, these numbers had grown to an alarming 4000 plus!
By this time, the Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor-led HRD ministry’s decision to back all his wrongdoings to the hilt was evident to everyone working in the University. The government wanted an overhauling of undergraduate studies to put it in sync with the structure followed by American universities that were beginning to take an interest in the higher education sector. Possibilities of tie-ups with these American universities also depended on a heavily centralised structure of command, a choice-based range of courses with commercial value, a lean workforce of teachers and the intensive use of low-cost information technology and online resources. The DU Vice Chancellor was clearly the chosen Confidence Man expected to accomplish all these goals within a limited time-frame.
But the government’s open support gave the VC wings made of wax. In a bid to prove indispensable, he made a mockery of statutory processes and reduced the highest councils of the University to rubber-stamps. In order to lay down the contours of the FYUP and enlist corporate support, he organised an Academic Congress in October 2012 without taking the Academic Council’s permission. In quick succession, he also constituted a Task Force to prepare the FYUP structure – yet again without getting the Academic Council’s sanction. This Task Force was made to place the structure for approval before the Academic Council on 24 December 2013 and the approval was secured on the very same day, without any proper discussion or debate.
This sequence of events raises vexing questions about the institutional autonomy of Delhi University. A university’s autonomy is primarily academic. The administration is granted autonomy to facilitate and ensure that an academic agenda independent of state or market interests may be kept intact. Statutory bodies like Committees of Courses, Academic and Executive Councils are vested with the responsibility of reviewing existing structures and practices and identifying improvements or deliberating over alternatives. In a vast University like DU, these tasks cannot be carried out in a span of a day, let alone a few hours. But this is precisely what was allowed to happen in the case of the FYUP. As a result, departments had very little clarity about the syllabi and papers they had to design for the new programme. Scandalous consequences were bound to follow.
The strongest opposition to the FYUP came, however, from students. The sham compulsory Foundation Courses robbed the students of the excitement of coming to college while those from economically insecure families felt that precious time and money was being wasted in these FCs. Even as numerous students groups began protesting, the VC ordered the police and even paramilitary forces like the RAF to descend on the campus and use aggression against these groups. A student sitting on hunger strike was forcibly dragged onto an ambulance while his friend was run over by the same ambulance. This ambulance belonged to the University. It was clear by now that the University administration would brook no dissent. In its numerous press releases, it churlishly mocked eminent academicians and public intellectuals who had raised doubts against the dubious merits of the FYUP. The last straw came when the DUSU office was closed down in order to suppress the ABVP protests against FYUP.
Despite widespread criticism, Delhi University was allowed to go ahead with the introduction of the FYUP in July 2013. Under tremendous pressure to reconsider, the MHRD took the plea of the University’s statutory autonomy to justify its own refusal to intervene. This bureaucratic sanctity given to the VC’s autonomy failed to convince.
Appeals for intervention through the Parliament or the Visitor became louder. Alongside, the DUTA also demanded the removal of the Vice Chancellor. While this was the first time in the history of this University that its elected body of teachers was asking the government to remove the VC, the government responded by recommending his name for a Padma Shree. It also allowed him to retain, against all propriety, two retired teachers as the Pro-Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Colleges. The subversion of the University’s autonomy was complete while the Government’s vested interest in protecting the VC lay publicly exposed.
Since then, things have only got worse. The University continues to wage a war against its students and teachers. After the change in government, the VC tried to quell fears of a roll back of the FYUP by putting the new HRD minister in a spot. His machination, however, came a cropper as the minister exposed it through a politic tweet laced with irony. This irony serves as the biggest reminder of the hollow, chest-beating claims for autonomy that the VC has been in the habit of making. He allowed confidential information about the minister’s academic records to be leaked from the School of Open Learning where she had been a student. But while the expected result did not fructify and the matter of the leak was feared to boomerang on him, he promptly announced the suspension of five unnamed officials who could be blamed for the leak.
The minister understood this tactic and tweeted back her public appeal to the VC to reinstate the five officials, reminding him about the University’s autonomy. Reports suggest that the FYUP may be rolled back. In case these reports are true, such a decision will bring smiles of relief on the faces of thousands of students and teachers. But the disconcerting fact that will remain is the loss of intellectual freedom and academic leadership in the University – in other words, its real autonomy.
This loss can only be compensated for by paving the way for a reconstituted administration which will allow for a free and fearless exchange of ideas to prevail in an atmosphere of liberal tolerance. For this to happen, the man who put a wager on the University’s future has to be compelled to go.
The author is an Executive Member of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA)