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Presi VC on trying times & triumphs

Malabika Sarkar opened up to Metro on her last working day as Presidency University vice-chancellor, talking about the only occasion she felt like quitting and why she chose to carry on, her brush with a snail-paced state administration and the hurdles she had to negotiate in her two-and-a-half years at the helm.

Her alma mater, according to Sarkar, is on the threshold of becoming “a great university” and wished that her successor would accomplish what she has left “unfinished”.

Most testing time

Frankly, the most testing time was the uncalled for debate on my tenure. The debate surfaced barely seven days before the convocation last August. It’s a legally supported fact that for the person with the designation of ‘first vice-chancellor (interim vice-chancellor)’, appointed under Section 55 of the Presidency University Act, 2010, age is not a factor. A distinguished lawyer I had consulted also gave me this opinion. Still, citing the age bar of 65 years, I was asked to leave office a week before the convocation.

I am saying this was the most testing time because the unnecessary debate had cropped up at a time Presidency was set to conduct its first convocation. For any university, the convocation is a crucial moment. I had meticulously planned for the first convocation. And doing that was difficult when I was uncertain whether the convocation could at all be held or whether I would be in office during the convocation.

It was the most testing time as I kept wondering what the eminent personalities who had been invited to receive honours on the occasion would feel (in the event of her stepping down). The mentor group, too, had been kept in the dark about the move.

I felt like quitting but did not because of two reasons: one, my stay in office had legal backing and, two, my entire faculty had appealed to the chancellor and the chief minister in writing to let me continue as VC. To know that the entire faculty is behind you is a huge measure of comfort and strength.

Thereafter, the chancellor gave me an extension. That phase was my lone testing time at Presidency.

Biggest achievement

My biggest achievement has been setting up a team of outstanding teachers, outstanding officials and exceptional students. There’s a team spirit in Presidency. It’s our collective wish that we have to surge ahead. Everybody is aware of his/her responsibility and is working in close co-operation.

We have been able to create a fund — the vice-chancellor’s fund — through private contributions and raise as much as Rs 3 crore that is being used to offer scholarship to students.

We have been able to create a WiFi-enabled campus.

One thing she couldn’t do

Not one, there are several things that remain unfinished. I hope my successor would complete them. I wanted to draw up a primary vision document for the second campus in New Town but did not get time. I was waiting for the foundation stone of the campus to be laid (in February) before starting work on the document.

But after that there were so many important developments — the chief minister announced that I would stay in office till October, the chancellor extended my tenure till May and the search committee started the process of selecting my successor — that I did not get time to start work on the project.

I also could not finish drafting the entire university ordinance and its regulations. Had I been in office till October, these tasks would have been completed. Since the task of the first VC included drafting the ordinance and regulations, I was keen on completing the job.

I had also plans of creating an international guesthouse for the visiting faculty and students with the ground floor as the faculty club in a wing of the Hindu hostel now lying unused. By now the document (containing the detailed project report) is ready, but I am yet to submit it to the state government.

The task of having a memorabilia store has not started.

The handicaps

The greatest handicap essentially was finance. The state government is short of funds.

The other one is the sluggish functioning of the state administration. Academically, we can think in terms of global standards, but administratively we are 60 years behind. Government rules are such that we suffer from procedural delay.

Just to purchase a lab equipment or start repairing work, say in the Baker Building, you have to first constitute a committee, then submit projects to the education department. Then the files will be despatched to the finance and will remain pending for months. This delay is frustrating. All the higher education institutes suffer as they have to depend on government funds.

Unlike the established universities like CU and JU we don’t have an independent coffer from where we can meet these expenses. Since Presidency is a fledgling university, such procedural delays cost us dearly.

The administration must have a corporate-like approach and has to be more efficient. There should not be any disconnect between the benchmarks for teachers faculty and no global bench mark for the administration. Proposals sent for approval must be fast-tracked.

Great resources

Presidency has three great resources. One, exceptional heritage, which is really motivating. Two, having a pool of outstanding teachers. Three, a fascinating team of students and teachers.

Pride in Presidency

To me there is no difference between my alma mater (Presidency College, from where she graduated in xxxx) and the university that I ran (from jjjjjjjj to jjjjj). Presidency as an institution began in 1817 and is nearing 200 years. Cambridge is 800 years old. In any great institution, the history and contemporary merge and the past and the present are not at conflict. So I am proud of the college and the university.

Transition from the great college to a good university

I would say Presidency is on the threshold of becoming a great university. Many initiatives have begun and we have to go forward.

Message to Anuradha Lohia

She is welcome. It’s a great institution and I have every confidence that she will successfully work.