The motto of the University of Calcutta reads, “Advancement of Learning”. At some point in its history, the university stopped paying even lip service to its own creed. It became a huge degree-awarding institution — perhaps the biggest in the world in terms of the number of students. With innumerable undergraduate colleges affiliated to it, Calcutta University, at one time India’s premier centre of learning, stopped pursuing excellence and sank to catering to the lowest common denominator. Standards became impossible to maintain in classrooms and research languished. To speed Calcutta University’s decline, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), during the long years that it ruled West Bengal, decided to run the university from its party headquarters in Alimuddin Street. Every academic appointment — from the vice- chancellor to faculty positions — was made at the behest of the CPI(M). Loyalty to the party became more important than academic merit for securing jobs. The infrastructure of the university crumbled and talent — at the levels of students and teachers — sought nourishment elsewhere. The University of Calcutta sank to the level of mediocrity: the jewel became a fake gem.
The governor of West Bengal, who is the ex officio chancellor of the University of Calcutta, cannot and should not be unaware of this history of the university of which he is the nominal head. Thus his claim that Calcutta University, like its neighbour, the newly formed Presidency University, should be declared a centre of excellence can only raise eyebrows. Will the mere declaration of Calcutta University as a centre of excellence make it a centre of excellence? Neither will such a declaration make Presidency University such an elevated centre of learning. The latter institution, however, has an advantage over Calcutta University in that under the guidance of its mentor group it has a chance of beginning anew, with new faculty who can be attracted by the rubric, centre of excellence. There is less to undo as Presidency makes the transition from college to university than there is in a behemoth like the University of Calcutta.
Excellence cannot be thrust upon an institution. It has to be acquired. The process of reaching excellence involves the recruitment of outstanding faculty, providing them with resources and facilities in terms of laboratories, libraries and research amenities. It also demands the creation of a proper academic ambience that will propel individuals towards the advancement of learning. Once acquired, excellence becomes internal to the working of an institution and then has to be nurtured. Calcutta University failed in the act of nurturing. It has now to retrieve its lost excellence. Once this is done no chancellor will need to claim it.