On academic freedom which lets students challenge a university’s policies without fear of reprisal
The Mumbai University. At great universities academic freedom means students can challenge a university’s policies without fear of reprisal. Photo: Hindustan Times
When Velukar turns on Hatekar it is useful to listen to Padgaonkar.
Let me explain.
The meaning of academic freedom is where a university is recognized as a public space, an avenue where students learn to open the mind, to ask questions, to challenge established views, to learn, to defy, to understand, and to develop critical thinking. It is also a space where academics are their allies, they help them develop the thoughts, ideas, and courage to do just that. That challenge is not only over the great issues of the day—what kind of India do we want it to be—but also how our lives are affected by those who make rules governing our lives. And that includes not just governments and bureaucrats, but also academic councils and vice-chancellors.
Restrict any of that, and you get a bunch of unthinking, unemployable, obedient zombies as students, or pliant teachers unwilling to think the unthinkable; students who dare not question, teachers who do not provoke, who accept conventional wisdom as given, where bowing to authority is a virtue. Where does that lead us? Listen to Mangesh Padgaonkar’s outstanding Marathi poem about the Emergency: Salaam. (Vinay Dharwadker’s English translation here).
At great universities academic freedom means students can challenge a university’s policies without fear of reprisal. At such universities, professors can join, even lead, student-led protest movements to bring about political change. In some instances, academics also challenge the university’s policies, by standing with the picket line, exposing the hollowness of the establishment’s arguments.
In the mid-1980s, the topic that energized students most on American campuses was divestment from apartheid-era South Africa. Like many well-endowed colleges in America, my alma mater had investments in South Africa. There were two strongly held views: that our college (Dartmouth) must sell stocks in companies which did business with South Africa, because as an academic institution it should not get contaminated by profits earned from an exploitative and discriminatory system. The other view was that the profits from the stocks and capital appreciation allowed the college to offer scholarships to students who would otherwise not be able to attend college, since they and their families lacked the means. It pitted feeling good against doing good. While the debate was spirited, at no stage did any student or professor feel threatened that he or she would get suspended for taking a political stance that opposed the views of the college’s governing council, or indeed that of the president.
Fast forward 30 years later, and at another American university (Georgetown), where the university did not extend student medical insurance to cover birth control. But its president went out of the way to defend one of his students after she was insulted by a right-wing talk show host, because she had testified before the Congress advocating that such coverage be included.
Here in the UK, students have openly challenged a recent university advisory that suggests that students should be segregated by sex when they attend lectures of certain external Muslim speakers, out of deference to their beliefs. The protesting students have received support from academics and alumni. None of the dissenters are threatened with suspension or dismissal threats for defying a specific policy. Then again, left-leaning academics, unions, and students have run a long campaign to boycott academic contact with Israeli universities and academics. None of the protestors have faced any action or threat, although what they are calling for opposes the government’s view (which is against such a boycott).
That is as it should be. But don’t expect Rajan Velukar, the vice-chancellor at Mumbai University, to stand up for academic freedom to dissent or speak freely in a debate. Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger foundMohammed Ahmedinejad’s views repugnant, but he did not interfere with the invitation to the Iranian president. Rather, he let him speak, but not before he gave a fiery speech expressing his abhorrence over the Iranian’s views.
Nor should we expect Velukar to listen carefully to criticism of his ways and make amends where necessary, as countless university administrations have gracefully done in the past. (British universities have withdrawn the controversial guideline that permitted sexual segregation among audiences after a public uproar that began on campus). After all, this is the vice-chancellor who had promptly acquiesced when Aditya Thackeray, grandson of the late Bal Thackeray, had gone to him to complain against the English department syllabus recommending that students read Rohinton Mistry’s Booker Prize-nominated novel, Such A Long Journey. The young Thackeray was upset because one of the characters in the novel expressed his frank opinions about Indian politics, in which he described the Shiv Sena in a manner he did not like. Later Congress too found parts of the novel objectionable. (You can read the controversial passages here). Tough those words may be, but Mistry’s characters’ language was gentler than the terms his grandfather often used in public speeches in describing those he opposed.
But rather than entering into a meaningful discussion about any of that, Velukar complied.
And now he has turned his ire on Neeraj Hatekar, a widely-respected and popular academic, who has been challenging the university internally, and now in the open, about administrative and academic matters. Hatekar’s is the case of the classic whistle-blower—he raised his concerns internally first, giving ample opportunity for the administration to react and respond. He concealed nothing. He has expressed his points peacefully. He has sought answers; he has challenged the status quo. By suspending him and attempting to silence him, Velukar has once again shown that he understands neither academic freedom, nor freedom of expression. It is time for the Maharashtra governor, as the chancellor, to decide whether such an individual should remain in charge of the destiny of a great university.
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