New Delhi: In many parts of the country, universities and their administrations are caught in the middle of what is essentially a political tussle between the NDA-led government and non-NDA-led state governments.
In the conflict between these state governments and centrally appointed governors, the selection of university vice-chancellors became a major flashpoint.
Grievances and allegations such as politically influenced appointments, bias, and disregard for excellence have also caused a stir on some campuses, turning them into a political battleground.
At the Center, the President is the honorary head of most institutions. The president appoints the head of the central institution from the panel proposed by the central ministry. But at the state level, the governor is the chancellor of a public university.
In some states, the governor directly appoints the vice-chancellor or head of the institution, while in others he chooses from the panel proposed by the state government.
University fraternity experts fear the fight could escalate further due to greater political polarization that is sure to impact VC appointments and institutional autonomy.
“There is an ongoing power struggle between the state governments and the governor. There has been no consultation and no feedback is being gathered from the state government or prior to the appointments.
“This (the VC nominations) have become political nominations, the struggle is getting deeper,” said Abha Dev Habib, a professor at Miranda House and a former member of DU’s Academic Council.
“The governors are all BJP people sitting in the states. They only appoint as VC their relatives,” she alleged.
Habib said appointments should be made respecting a university’s cultural space, but this is not done.
“If the central government continues to marginalize the states, there will be unrest and this struggle will intensify,” she added.
According to a senior official at the Center for Policy Research, similar problems have also persisted in the past and academic institutions should be free from political interference.
The fight is not new. It has been there also under previous regimes. The need of the hour is to find a third way that appeases all stakeholders and improves academic integrity in India.
“If we want academic institutions to be known for their academic excellence around the world, we need to think beyond CMs and governors as chancellors,” he said.
JNU Professor Ayesha Kidwai believes that the debate is not about whether the state or the governor should have control, but about the autonomy of universities.
“The real stakeholders – the academics associated with the university – should have the power to make educational decisions.
“Throughout India, the most threatened thing is the autonomy of universities. I think there should be academic freedom. The state (government) which has been elected by the people should be the author of the policies,” she said.
Here is a brief overview of some of the incidents of political arm wrestling between state governments and governors of academic institutions:
West Bengal, June 2022: The appointment of a new Rabindra Bharati University Vice-Chancellor has led to a confrontation between Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government in West Bengal.
The two have been at odds on a range of issues since Dhankhar took office as governor in July 2019. Shankar has tried to establish that as chancellor of public universities he has more say in the management of universities than the titular role of the state. expected him to play.
Less than a month after the West Bengal Assembly passed a bill on June 13 to replace the Governor with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as Chancellor of the 31 state universities, Dhankhar tweeted on June 30 about his decision to nominate one of the three names shortlisted by a search. committee as the new vice-chancellor of the public Rabindra Bharati University.
The issue once again pitted him against the government of the state he nominally leads.
Even though Dhankhar maintained that he had followed the rules in selecting the first of the three names, the Trinamool Congress insisted that he had acted unilaterally without consulting the chief minister or the education minister. before going public, especially as a bill passed by the assembly replacing him as chancellor with the CM awaits his nod.
Before that, on December 21, 2021, Dhankhar had another clash with the TMC government when the state government appointed the vice chancellor of 24 universities without his approval.
Kerala, December 2021: Expressing his dissatisfaction with the political interference in the appointment of vice-chancellors of state universities, Governor of Kerala, Arif Mohammed Khan, who is also the chancellor of universities, had sent a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urging him to change the laws of universities. to enable him to assume the post of chancellor.
Vijayan heads a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the southern state.
In the strongly worded letter, Khan had said he was ready to sign immediately if the chief minister brought in an order amending the laws empowering the chief minister to become the chancellor of universities.
Reacting to this, the Chief Minister had said that his government had no intention of taking over the post of Chancellor of State Universities and Governor Khan should continue in the post.
Clarifying his government’s position following allegations of political interference by the governor in the appointment of vice-chancellors of state universities, Vijayan said that neither the current administration nor the previous administration of the LDF had attempted illegally interfere in the functioning of universities.
Khan later said he never wanted to write the letter in the first place and had to resort to the option because he “failed” to speak to the chief minister by phone.
Tamil Nadu, April 2022: The DMK government, which has crossed swords with state governor RN Ravi on a number of issues including NEET, had introduced an Assembly bill empowering the state government to appoint VCs at the various universities, with the apparent aim of clipping the governor’s wings on the issue.
Chief Minister MK Stalin then recalled that the Punchhi Commission on Center-State Relations had, while dealing with the subject of the appointment of VCs, said: “There will be a conflict of functions and powers” if the authority to choose the best academician struggles with the governor.
“A popularly elected government unable to appoint the vice-chancellor of a university headed by him creates a lot of problems in the overall university administration. It is contrary to democratic principles,” Stalin said.
He further said that the Punchhi Commission recommended against appointing a VC by the Governor, believing that such power would lead to controversy and criticism.
Rajasthan, February 2022: The Rajasthan governor’s order to halt two university management meetings had sparked political controversy, with university officials alleging interference by Raj Bhavan and the opposition BJP warning that the institute becomes the “JNU of Jaipur”.
Haridev Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication Vice-Chancellor Om Thanvi said Governor Kalraj Mishra’s decision to halt scheduled meetings of the institute’s Board of Management (BoM) and Committee advisory was “arbitrary”.
Others aligned with the Congress government led by Ashok Gehlot echoed his views.
BJP leaders, however, had objected to the meetings, alleging that due process was not being followed and that anti-national elements were present at the university.
Chhattisgarh, February 2022: The Chhattisgarh Governor and the state’s Congress government were on a collision course over the appointment of Indira Gandhi’s Vice Chancellor Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV), based in Raipur.
Governor Anusuiya Uikey had questioned whether only people from one community should be considered for the job in a state where 32% of the population is tribal, 14% belong to scheduled caste communities and there are also people other backward classes.
Replying, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had said the governor “should stop playing politics” on the issue and said the demand of the people should be heeded.
Odisha, 2020-22: The BJD government of Odisha reportedly attempted to take over the universities by passing the Odisha Universities (Amendment) Act 2020 through which the state government had sought to control appointment to important academic positions and administrative in state universities, including the recruitment of teaching staff.
The law was first challenged in the High Court of Orissa, which allowed the state to move forward with its legislation. However, the UGC and retired JNU professor Ajit Kumar Mohanty appealed to the Supreme Court to challenge the High Court’s decision.
An apex division bench in May this year suspended the law for the next three months after hearing a petition from UGC and Professor Mohanty. The court requested a response from the Odisha government and set a date for the next hearing on the matter after two months.
Maharashtra, 2020: The Department of Higher and Technical Education in Maharashtra had set up a 14-member committee headed by Sukhadeo Thorat to study the Public Universities Act of Maharashtra and suggest amendments to the law as well as the incorporation of national policy of education.
One of the suggestions recommended by the committee was the introduction of the office of pro-chancellor in state universities.
Through this recommendation, we are trying to create a balance of power between the governor and the state government, unlike other states where the power to appoint the VC rests solely with the state government, Thorat said, also former Chairman of the University Grants Commission. .
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