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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Ashoka University faculty sets two conditions before carrying forward teaching obligations

The faculty also asked the management to desist from interfering in academic work

Pheroze L. Vincent New Delhi Published 17.08.23, 05:41 AM
Two departments have supported the call to stop work if the demands are not met in a week.

Two departments have supported the call to stop work if the demands are not met in a week. File photo

The economics faculty of Ashoka University told the varsity’s governing body on Wednesday that they would be “unable to carry forward their teaching obligations” if a teacher — who quit under official glare on his work — is not offered a job again.

The faculty also asked the management to desist from interfering in academic
work.

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Two departments have supported the call to stop work if the demands are not met in a week, and several other teachers and students have expressed support for economists Sabyasachi Das and Pulapre Balakrishnan who have quit the varsity.

Das’s unpublished paper, “Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy”, uses mathematical tests to say that “the incumbent party in 2019 won a disproportionate share of closely contested elections” in India.

Disclaimers in the paper — presented at the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US last month — include that these wins would not have changed the overall result of the Lok Sabha polls, and that these tests were not proof of fraud.

However, after the paper became a topic of heated debate, especially between the Congress and the BJP, the varsity put out an unprecedented statement saying that “the paper in question has not yet completed a critical review process” and that social media activity or activism by Ashoka employees or students “does not reflect the stand of the University.”

On Monday night, vice-chancellor Somak Raychaudhury announced that Das’s resignation had been accepted. The next day, Das’s senior colleague Balakrishnan drew praise from academics on social media for also quitting in solidarity with Das. Neither the two economists nor Raychaudhury has responded to queries emailed by this newspaper.

The statement shared by the head of the economics department, Ashwini Deshpande, on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday revealed that an investigation had been conducted into Das’s paper, and hinted that its faculty had cooperated with the probe.

“Prof. Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice. Academic research is professionally evaluated through a process of peer review. The Governing Body’s interference in this process to investigate the merits of his recent study constitutes institutional harassment, curtails academic freedom, and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear. We condemn this in the strongest terms and refuse as a collective to cooperate in any future attempt to evaluate the research of individual economics faculty members by the Governing Body,” the statement said.

The two demands in the statement are: “Unconditionally offer Prof. Sabyasachi Das his position at Ashoka; Affirm that the Governing Body will play no role in evaluating faculty research through any Committee or any other structure.”

“Unless these questions regarding basic academic freedoms are resolved before the start of the Monsoon 2023 semester (on August 23), faculty members of the department will find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical enquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterise our classrooms.”

The English and Creative Writing departments — which share faculty — sent a separate email to governing body members saying that they also wouldn’t teach if these issues are not resolved.

A professor at the varsity expressed the suspicion that “the governing body wanted him (Das) out, but also wanted to do this by the book. So, they ordered an investigation. Colleagues are not expected to investigate each other’s work like this. That’s why he resigned. It is strange that senior economics faculty who participated in this probe have now issued this statement (the one issued by the economics faculty)”.

PhD students and the Ashoka Society of International Affairs have issued statements in support of Das and Balakrishnan. Faculty also met on Monday, and a meeting of the Student Government has been scheduled at night.

Students had gone on strike at the varsity for six days after political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta quit in 2021, saying that the founders of the varsity had made it clear to him that he is a “political liability”. The strike was called off after the founders of the varsity — Ashish Dhawan, Pramath Raj Sinha, Sanjeev Bikhchandani and Vineet Gupta — said they “will have no intervention in the academic functioning of the university”.

Dhawan, Sinha and Raychaudhury are on the governing body along with several others, including a Haryana government representative.

Several teachers demanded that all decisions on academic freedom be put on hold until a committee mandated by the varsity’s policy on academic freedom is set up. The signatories to the Letter on Academic Freedom, which was circulated on August 13, include Balakrishnan, English professor Saikat Majumdar and historian Nayanjot Lahiri.

It says: “Recent events around a paper published by Sabyasachi Das are a reminder that the crisis is an ongoing and deep one, with implications for every academic working in Ashoka University and, for that matter, in India. It is not a crisis that will go away by wishing that papers like Professor Das’s will not be written in future, because that is not a realistic possibility in a working institution.”

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