IN SEARCH OF EXCELLENCE - A university in a phase of transition

Read more below

By Dipankar Dasgupta The author is former professor of economics, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta
  • Published 25.02.14

Now that the chancellor’s views are public, it is no longer a matter of conjecture that Malabika Sarkar’s days as the vice-chancellor of Presidency University stand numbered. The chancellor’s decision cannot be questioned, needless to say, since he is sticking to the rule book on the one hand and ensuring on the other that parity across universities remains undisturbed as far as special facilities granted to them are concerned.

Nor should the chief minister’s announcement on the second campus foundation stone-laying day that Sarkar’s tenure has been extended till October be over-criticized. The government had indeed made that recommendation. Protocol was violated perhaps, since the chancellor’s observations were not yet available, but there was no political motive whatsoever underlying the proclamation. Quite clearly, the chief minister was expressing the hopes shared by a large majority of individuals currently associated with the development of the university who have nothing other than academic excellence in mind.

Contrary opinions notwithstanding, Sarkar has not only shown remarkable vision in her effort to resurrect an ailing institution. Further, backed as she has been by the mentor group and with no politically motivated barriers posed by the government, she was able to demonstrate her noteworthy administrative skill in the academic running of the university. The Herculean task she has been entrusted with, though not comparable in size to the cleaning of the Augean stables, bears a resemblance to it. In her search for meritorious faculty, she had to embark on the unpleasant task of removing a few of the not so excellent people who had little other than political patronage in support of their prolonged association with the institution.

As it turned out, the difficulty of the task was double edged. Quite apart from ensuring a smooth transfer of a section of the existing faculty to destinations elsewhere in the West Bengal Education Service, she ended up generating displeasure in the minds of eminent academics elsewhere in the state, who believed that many of the new appointees did not fit the bill either. In spite of the total transparency she worked hard to ensure, feathers were ruffled and the media too did not lose an opportunity to berate her under every conceivable excuse. Much to her credit, though, she withstood the rebukes with stoic indifference.

This is not to suggest that each and every new faculty appointment stood up to the standards defined by the mentor group. Some probably didn’t, a phenomenon that is not unique for this university. Even the best universities in the world are known to make appointments which they undo later through the extant tenure system, an instrument that is practically not available in government universities in India and in many other parts of the world as well. This unavoidable damage can be rectified to some extent in the Indian case by taking recourse to a demanding promotional policy. Of course, militant unions often stand in the way and in this context, Presidency University enjoys an advantage in being delinked from the Educational Service. It is an independent organization and the mentor group along with the academic council will hopefully stand behind vice-chancellors to ensure that promotions are not automatic. Thus, even if questionable candidates were chosen in certain instances, it is not impossible to rectify errors.

Having said this, one needs to bear in mind yet another unavoidable problem. Although the mentor group wishes to impose international standards on Presidency University, it is highly unlikely that too many faculty members will be lured away from reputed universities to move in the direction of College Street. And this for two reasons. First, in most of the departments, the research environment still leaves a lot to be desired. Temporary visits by talented scholars have therefore been suggested to meet the shortfall. However, in the opinion of this columnist, visiting faculty cannot address the needs of a student community adequately through their irregular presence.

Secondly, even though the state government has arranged for lavish research funds for the faculty, total emoluments still fall drastically short of those prevailing elsewhere even within the country. Money unfortunately matters in attracting talent, but there is no way a cash strapped state government can join that race. It has several goals to achieve and Presidency University is only one of those. Given its limited means, it has done the best it could do. First, by arranging for the research funds and offering excellent medical facilities for the faculty and its families. Secondly, and this is more important, by scrupulously refraining from politically interfering in academic decisions.

The objective of turning the university into an international centre of excellence will therefore remain unfulfilled if one relies too much on bright young researchers to flock here from distant shores. Yet, does that mean that the dream should be dispensed with? Probably not. If excellence has to be achieved then it should happen from within than from without. Going back to the most glorious days of the erstwhile Presidency College, the teachers who brought it international acclaim were self-groomed within the institution. Clearly, they were bright scholars, but more importantly, they were people who were committed to the building of the institution. Research was probably not the hallmark of their contribution during those days, but they kept themselves well-informed about the progress of the subjects they taught. Besides they taught their students with unparalleled devotion. The result was that the college produced a steady stream of bright scholars who were motivated towards research and contributed significantly to their disciplines both at home and abroad following graduation.

If Presidency University has to prosper therefore, it is important to locate competent teachers and researchers with a commitment to spreading higher education in the state of West Bengal. Such scholars do exist and a section of them is even known internationally. However, commitment towards the state should receive priority over their international visibility. There will hardly be any noteworthy progress in the university until it manages to find a core faculty that considers the rejuvenation of the institution to be a goal that overrides its quest for salary packets and other benefits. The illustrious institution they wish to work in has to be built by themselves.

This is easier said than done of course. However, it is an important concern that applies to the choice of a vice-chancellor too. Short of a miracle, it is unlikely that the search committee consisting of the three eminent persons will be able to convince a recognized academician from a faraway continent to take charge of affairs at Presidency University in the capacity of a regular vice-chancellor and agree to spend most of the year in Calcutta. Not an impossible event, needless to say, but it is highly improbable.

The clamour surrounding the current incumbent’s tenure therefore is uncalled for. During the period of her successive contractual appointments, a lot of improvements have occurred in the university. Changes mostly for the better. In spite of the limited resources available with the university, students are being exposed to video-conferenced lectures by professors of repute from abroad. Classrooms are equipped with state-of-the- art facilities. Student elections are being held in a civilized climate. There is little doubt that there are more things on the anvil and one wishes that, given her demonstrated commitment, Sarkar be allowed to give a concrete shape to her plans, especially since her enthusiasm surrounding the Presidency exercise is adequately established.

The new vice-chancellor need not be unenthusiastic either. However, it will only be fair to the person if Sarkar completes the major tasks she has initiated before handing over charge. Most importantly, it will help the regular vice-chancellor to serve a complete term.

Right now though, one wonders if finding a correct long term replacement for Professor Sarkar will not amount to an absurd drama at best. We could well be waiting for Godot.