"Given that economic growth is so eagerly sought by all nations, too few questions have been posed, in India as in the U.S., about the direction of education, and, with it, of democratic society. With the rush to profitability in the global market, values precious for the future of democracy, especially in an era of religious anxiety, are in danger of getting lost."
----- Martha C. Nussbaum (2007) Education for Profit, education for freedom. Lecture delivered at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.
"It almost seems that the university’s motto, “seek wisdom”, has transformed into “seek money” and writing book doesn’t qualify authors as significant contributors to this latter endeavour."
----- Victoria Burbank (2011). Writing a book at the University of Western Australia. Lecture delivered in the International Conference of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences at UWA, Perth.
As one of the senior and founding teachers of Vidyasagar University, I was shocked and dismayed by the way you met with the teachers of the university being flanked by the two Deans on 5th June 2013 at the Radhakrishnan Hall.
First, let me frankly admit that I decided to write this open letter to you to remain transparent to the university community and also outside the boundaries of the university because I believe that your deliberations along with the lecture by the Dean, Faculty of Science have wider global significance related to the academic and social roles of University teachers in this era of globalization. I think the two epigraphs quoted above give a hint to how I view the trajectory of university education.
Your meeting started with a college-level power point presentation of how to write a research proposal by the Dean Science which seemed to me too shallow for the university teachers. Moreover, it contained some basic mistakes. Just to give one example, in one slide the Dean Science had shown that international funding agencies judge projects on the basis of objective criteria while the Indian funding agencies judge the same by subjective evaluation through peer-review! I wonder from which source he got this kind of funny idea. He should know that both Indian and foreign funding agencies have peer-review/expert-review processes and both have their objective and subjective criteria. The Dean Science, however, did not explain what he meant by “subjective” and “objective” in his lecture. He also did not discuss the issue of how to deal with ethical issues in different kinds of subjects in writing research proposals, which is one of the most vital aspects of a research proposal. Even an otherwise excellent proposal may be rejected on ethical grounds. His whole lecture lacked concrete examples from real research proposals, his own experiences, and also the experiences of both successes and failures supposed to be pooled from his the colleagues of his own faculty.
On the whole two things emerged from his presentation: (1) lack of preparation and homework and (2) complete disengagement with the faculty colleagues while preparing his lecture. I hope next time he will be more prepared to make his lectures useful.
In the meeting, you have started with bringing research projects with an exclusive emphasis for earning money by the university and you never mentioned that the chief aim of research at universities is to produce new knowledge and novel thinking and above all to publish books and articles reaching international standards. This emphasis of earning money through research projects and simultaneous de-emphasis on the production of new knowledge was the theme which ran all-through your speech. And that dismayed me.
At a more specific level you pointed out that you have not observed any kind of team work and spirit among the teachers of the Department of Anthropology. I agree to differ. Because, you know that the Department of Anthropology is still the lone Department which has been able to start a lecture series publication. Our first book has already been published and the second will come out soon containing chapters by scholars of India and abroad having international reputation.(1) These books are being jointly edited by the teachers of our Department. We have also published a valuable book on Rural Development jointly edited containing chapters written (among outside authors) by faculties of the different departments of our university. Our present Dean Science has written a chapter in the said book.
We have also collaborated in research projects and training and supervision with reputed national and international scholars including Veena Majumdar, Walter Fernandes, Ajit Banerjee, Alan Rew, Rene Veron and Slawomir Koziel. I hope you know that the last UGC visiting team has specially mentioned that the research works done by the Department of Anthropology as “commendable” in their report. If you look carefully at the list of publications of our faculties you will find many articles written jointly by the faculties and research scholars. Our department also received UGC Infrastructure development grant and RFSMS scholarships for students successively for two sessions. During your tenure we have organized six UGC Merged Scheme lectures, including two lectures by Alasdair Roberts and Rene Veron, a seminar on films in collaboration with the Anthropological Survey of India and an workshop on UG curriculum development which were planned and executed by the faculties of the department. We also invited you to deliver a special lecture on environmental history at our department in which all the faculties of the department were present and interacted with you.
On a more mundane level, our department has been awarded two certificates from the Controller’s section for early publication of PG results, we always send the academic achievements of our department for the annual reports at early dates and arrive at unanimous resolutions in the departmental committee meetings.
All these joint and painstaking research and administrative works could not have been done without team work. We are ready for the NAAC(National Accredidation and Assessment Council) visit to show our team spirit as we have done successfully during the tenure of the earlier Vice-Chancellors.
I am not complacent about our success and we will do more. We have not been able to apply for UGC SAP, for the lack of team spirit but for the sheer lack of specified number of full-time faculties to become eligible for the submission of the application to UGC.(2). We should not forget that despite our repeated requisitions to all the Vice-Chancellors our department has not yet been given a Laboratory Assistant and a full-time group D staff.(3).
In your speech you have made a hierarchic distinction between Science and Arts Departments in terms of academic outputs and work ethic based on your occasional visits to the departments. I think in a public courtesy meeting of the Vice-Chancellor and the teachers, pointing out of this kind of distinctions can be counter-productive instead of sensitization.
I understand that you had all the good wishes for our success and that is why you singled out the department of Anthropology and the Arts departments for constructive criticism because you know that we have the potential to achieve more, but pointing out weaknesses and that too not based on concrete facts and figures have created a feeling of disappointment in my mind. Maybe, I expected more from you than the Vice-Chancellors who preceded you in the office.
I should not take your valuable time anymore. In your talk, which you labeled as informal, you made a statement thrice, which scared me. You said that you are the Vice-Chancellor of this University and you will run this university for the next four years. So, whatever criticism or allegations we have about the university, we should submit those to you and not to any outsider. This has really surprised me because the statement goes against the basic spirit of any democratic country. I think you know better than me that a citizen of India has the right to complain against any public official to the superior authorities and the chain of complaints can move up to the President of India.
Secondly, a university is run not by a single person, viz. the Vice-Chancellor but by the teachers, students, officers and the non-teaching employees of the institution.
Last but not the least, let me say that I liked the last part of your lecture very much when you said that the best task for a teacher of a university is teaching. It filled my heart with joy and hope for the future of our university.
I am however, still anxious about how you would balance your vision and mission which I honestly believe is being pulled by the opposing forces of making money and seeking wisdom.
I hope you would read my letter in a good and friendly spirit and if you think it is important you may reply, otherwise just ignore it as one among the many letters I have written to you on Vidyasagar University.
7th June 2013 Abhijit Guha
Notes for updates:
(1) The book edited by three professor has been published.The interested reader may visit through the following weblink.
(2) The department of Anthropology has been selected by the University Grants Commission in June 2015 to get a good funding for research for the next five years under its Special Assistance Programme(SAP).
(3) The Department is yet to get one Laboratory Assistant from the University.