A board that governs a political research centre at Ashoka University has dissolved itself, claiming that the director of the centre had been forced to quit.
The dissolution comes a month after two teachers quit over alleged curbs on academic freedom.
Academics and a former chief election commissioner who were members of the scientific board of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD), which says it produces data that “is a primary source for nearly all scholarship and commentary on Indian politics”, alleged in an open letter that centre director Gilles Verniers was forced to quit without the board being informed.
Authorities of Ashoka University in Haryana’s Sonipat, 50km north of New Delhi, told The Telegraph that political scientist Verniers “has now chosen to leave the university” due to him “not clearing the university’s stringent tenure process”.
The varsity said the TCPD, which he founded, would be merged with another centre on campus.
Verniers told The Telegraph: “The university’s statement does not address the main point of the scientific board that it was not consulted while the university knew that major changes were coming.”
Verniers added: “The university’s statement says they ‘communicated’ this to the board, but they did so two days ago, and 10 days after the board sent a first letter to seek clarification about the status of the centre and of the data. None of the international partners of TCPD, including collaborators in generating its data sets, were informed about plans regarding the centre, future use for the data, or plans for its leadership transition, both outgoing and incoming leadership. This is standard practice in academia.”
Asked about the circumstances of his departure, Verniers replied: “I did not want to leave and they took that decision for me, without going through the tenure process. My file was stopped before that. The question is why did they stop valuing the contributions TCPD has made after supporting it?”
Last month, assistant professor of economics at Ashoka, Sabyasachi Das, resigned after the university distanced itself from his unpublished paper and ordered an inquiry into it by a panel that included a non-academic member of its governing body. Economics professor Pulapre Balakrishnan quit in solidarity with Das after the latter’s resignation was accepted.
Verniers had tweeted in support of Das whose working paper alleged possible electoral manipulation by the incumbent party in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The open letter by the academics and the former chief election commissioner is attested by Christophe Jaffrelot, chair of the scientific board of the TCPD. He is also research director at the Centre de recherches internationales de Sciences Po in Paris and a professor at London’s King’s College.
It is attested by all the other members of the board, including University of Oslo professor Francesca Jensenius; director of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program, Milan Vaishnav; associate professor Mukulika Banerjee of the London School of Economics and Political Science; assistant professor Susan Ostermann of the University of Notre Dame in the US; India’s former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi; and Tariq Thachil, director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of India and Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India, University of Pennsylvania.
They said: “We now write to state our regret that the Centre’s founder and director was forced to leave, and that the university did not inform the Centre’s scientific board about decisions that affect not only the leadership of the Centre but also its future as an institution…. Currently, data made public through the TCPD website is a primary source for nearly all scholarship and commentary on Indian politics.”
The signatories added: “Given this track record of excellence, we were surprised and disappointed that we, as the scientific board, were not consulted before substantial changes were made governing how the Centre is run and situated within its home institution, in breach of academic norms.
“Under such circumstances, we, signatories of this letter, are dissolving TCPD’s scientific board. We commit to supporting Gilles Verniers’s and his partners’ efforts to maintain the future and the integrity of the data and of the work associated with it.”
None of the signatories replied to queries from this newspaper.
The varsity’s director for public relations and communications, Mani Lamba, said in an email to The Telegraph: “Ashoka University announced the creation of a Centre for Data Sciences and Analytics (CDSA) in June 2023…. It also aims to provide a repository of open access public data across interdisciplinary fields.
“It is proposed that some of the Centres and offices at Ashoka University be integrated with the new Centre in an effort to enhance its data-driven capabilities and fostering a readily accessible collection of data sets. The Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) is among them, and TCPD’s proposed integration with the new Centre has been communicated to the TCPD Scientific Board recently.
“Prof. Verniers’s departure from Ashoka University is due to him not clearing the University’s stringent tenure process, which in his case happened almost a year ago. Faculty who do not qualify for tenure exit the University within 3 semesters. Prof. Verniers has not been teaching at Ashoka for the last one year and has now chosen to leave the University.”