23 October, 2020

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Collapse Of Institutions – Further Considerations

By Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka

Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka

Considering that the appointment of the Colombo University Vice Chancellor is still in the melting pot it may not be inappropriate to add a further comment to the discussion originally set in motion by Professor  Savitri Goonesekere about the ‘collapse of institutions’( CT Mar 17) . The interjection of Professor SRH Hoole (CT Mar 20, 26) tended to blur a serious and timely discussion about the politicisation of higher education in some irrelevant detail, trivia and diatribe that are of little interest. Professor Goonesekere’s own postgraduate qualifications are quite beside the point and it was unworthy of Professor Hoole ( himself an academic of considerable distinction ) to have made that a matter of public discussion. Nor is it significant whether or not there has been some grammatical inconsistency here and there in the various exchanges (CT Mar.26). And as for any mix up between Professor Hoole’s initials and that of his illustrious grandfather(CT Mar 26) I am sure my good friend would have the sense of humour to concede that the printers devil might have done much worse with his particular name than what he has complained about !.

The fact remains that whatever their track record ( and we do not need to go into all that ) two of the applicants for the post of VC ( according to Prof. Goonesekere and as alleged by her ) are seemingly grade two senior lecturers one of whom is reported to be 61. Assuming the veracity of this information, It is not for us to speculate why someone so close to the age of retirement should still be confined to a promotional grade that most academics who complete postgraduate training would normally occupy much earlier in life. There may be some simple explanation for this seeming contradiction. However with all due respect, on the face of it one requires a certain leap of imagination to see such applicants possessing the eminence and stature consistent with the exalted office of Vice Chancellor.

However my main purpose is to mention two important dimensions that seem to have been missed in the current discussion. Firstly, in civilised societies the governance of institutions, no less the governance of the country ought to be based on more than narrow conformity with what is strictly legal and may be allowed by the existing rules and regulations. After all there are such things as values, traditions, conventions and sensitivities that transcend what may be legally permissible. There are issues of propriety and decorum, what is done and not done, what is seemly and unseemly, appropriate and inappropriate. There is the justice that is not only done but appears to be done ; the family succession that one refrains from not because it amounts to nepotism but because it might just give the impression of nepotism ; the high public office for which one volountarily desists from applying because there is a better man for the job and you are honest enough to reccognise your own limitations. Such standards of moral integrity and intellectual authenticity are integral to those hallowed notions of ‘honour and decency’ – that seem to have all but disappeared from the vocabulary of Sri Lankan politicians and professionals nowadays. One might have hoped that the Universities and academic administration might constitute the last bastion where such pristine standards and values were considered sacrosanct.

Indeed by such standards there is something inherently unsavory about the spouse of a Vice Chancellor immediately succeeding him/her to that post. After 41 years in academe I could look back on many distinguished university professors who had they been Vice Chancellor would not have dreamed of their spouses following them into the same position even if they were eminently qualified to do so – not because it was illegal but simply because it would have violated their standards of propriety. In the present case the imperative for the former VCs spouse to volountarily desist from applying for the job should surely be even greater. For one thing he would not be competing on a level playing field. The former VC was appointed by the President to that office in 2008 – all VCs being appointed at the discretion of the President. In 2009 ( during her term in office ) both the President and his much feared sibling were given controversial honorary doctorates by the University of Colombo. In 2010 the official government news portal of Sri Lanka website reported that the then UGC Chairman and 10 Vice Chancellors had ( in a seemingly open display of political sycophancy ) given a press conference in their official capacity supporting one candidate and disparaging his opponent. Presumably the then Colombo VC was part of the group who were thereby seen to ingratiate themselves into presidential favour. Finally the former VC has now been made UGC Chairman – also a presidential appointment. Against this background of political esteem it is clear that the former incumbent’s spouse might conceivably enjoy a significant handicap over other contenders in applying for the same job and that surely is enough reason why ( by my somewhat old fashioned standards) it would have been more honourable if such an individual had refrained from throwing his hat into the ring.

There is another dimension. It has to do with students who constitute the very soul of a university . Can we even imagine a university without students and does anyone care what they might think ?. Then it is time we considered what impact the unsavory criticisms and controversies surrounding the choice of senior academic administrators in our day and age must have on the thinking of university students. Whatever university students might be they are not stupid. What would students feel when they see the seemingly naked ambition and political sycophancy of too many teachers who crave the power prestige and petty perks of high administrative office in preference to the pure joys of teaching, research, and the ‘life of the mind’ which ought in themselves to be a sufficient basis for academic fulfillment ?. The strongest impression I am left with after 4 decades as an academic teacher is the wonderful opportunity such a career offered to make an impact on the thinking and character of so many young people who passed through my hands. I make that claim not without considerable regret for my own frequent failure to grasp such opportunities more fully than I did.

However ( given the manifold possibilities of the digital age ) I recall interspersing my lectures from time to time with pictures and stories of people both famous and not so famous, who were sterling examples of dedication to high ideals, courage, independence, integrity, and sacrifice – the intellectual authenticity of the Chinese surgeon who exposed the cover up of the SARS epidemic by the government, the social conscience of the white South African anti apartheid journalist banned for 5 years and having to flee the country, the resilience of the Somali girl born into the terrible deprivation of a desert nomadic family forced to endure ritual genital mutilation at 5 years – running away through the desert and yet finally making it as a world famous supermodel, the compassion of a Vietnamese girl devoted to helping other AIDS victims although infected herself by her drug addicted husband, the incredible simplicity and humility of a famous British doctor despite his monumental work and the many honours he received, the idealism of the jailed Chinese dissident awarded the Nobel prize for his struggle for human rights in that country, the defiance of a young woman of Afghanistan running an orphanage and health clinic and standing up to war lords and criminals despite death threats to her family – amidst other examples of inspiring role models.

I don’t know what effect ( if any ) such references might have had on student attitudes. However one can’t blame students for being cynical and unable to identify with such examples, when they look across the higher education establishment of their own country and see too many academics who are more attracted by the lure of administrative power ( like cheap politicians), than the pure pleasure of academic life, others who do much research and churn out many useless papers not out of a genuine search for ‘scientific truth’ but in order to secure a prestigious promotion, or those medical/dental teachers who have become like small businessmen in their enslavement to money, or a ruthless and unjust government whose only response to peaceful student demonstrations is to hammer them with water cannon while the same police smile benignly at marauding monks who attack churches and mosques. So it is time we gave a thought to how students might perceive all this jostling for power in higher education.

Finally. The issue of even senior lecturers nowadays ( seemingly two in the present instance) having the temerity to apply for the job of Vice Chancellor points to the progressively declining quality of academic administrators in both executive roles and governing bodies in recent time, where some may have had little more to recommend them than political patronage. Perhaps some were barely bilingual while many more might struggle to write an analytical memorandum on a policy issue – a basic managerial skill. In a bygone age it would have been unthinkable for senior lecturers to fancy themselves exercising academic and administrative leadership over academic institutions staffed by university professors !. That they do so today reflects their own low perception of the standard required, the low esteem in which professors are held by them, as well as the spineless character, political sycophancy and low standards of mediocre councils and commissions that tacitly recommend and forward such names taking the line of least resistance.

Universities are nothing except for the outstanding academic and intellectual stature, and brilliant quality of mind of the people who serve in such institutions. Whereas always people matter more than buildings, nothing exemplifies the great decline of universities in Sri Lanka as a comparison of the composition of University Councils past and present. Therefore it is instructive to recall the members of the Council of the University of Ceylon 60 years ago around 1954. They are listed below. Those who are familiar with that era will immediately recognise the lofty intellectual eminence and national stature of virtually every name in the list. Indeed it reads like a gallery of honour. Explaining who’s who in the list goes beyond the scope of this paper and should hardly be necessary. However the fact that many in this day and age might be so clueless as to need such a clarification tells its own story of a society that in many ways not only falls short of excellence but has even lost the ability to discriminate between excellence and mediocrity.

Composition of the University of Ceylon Council ( Around 1954 )

(a)Members Ex-officio
Vice Chancellor – Sir Nicholas Attygala
The Director of Education ( Mr TD Jayasuriya)
Professor GP Malalasekera, Dean Faculty of Oriental Studies
Professor JLC Rodrigo, Dean Faculty of Arts
Professor CJ Eliezer, Dean Faculty of Science
Professor OER Abhayaratne, Dean Faculty of Medicine
Professor EOE Pereira, Dean Faculty of Engineering
Professor EA MacGaughey, Dean Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Science

(b)Other members:
Appointed by the Chancellor
Mr AMA Azeez
Dr Andreas Nell
Mr HV Perera QC
Mr AE Keuneman QC
Mr SWRD Bandaranaike

Elected by the Court
Rev.Fr Peter Pillai
The Hon Mr Justice EFN Gratien Q.C
Mr Dudley Senanayake

Elected by the Senate
Professor PB Fernando
Professor EFC Ludowyke

Elected by the Wardens of Halls of Residence
Professor OH de A Wijesekera

Any attempt to compare the above list of illustrious University Council members of the 1950s man for man with their counterparts in today’s University Councils or Commissions may only expose this writer to a charge of being rude and disparaging. It is sufficient to say that there is no comparison.

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Latest comments

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    Thank you Asoka for your comments. I agree with you that my comments might have sidetracked the important discussion on political interference. That is unfortunate. However, I had good reasons.

    If Prof. Goonesekere was raising important political issues, she should have been careful with her facts. Even her messing up my name characterizes her approach to work, as does her grammar. As Prof. G.H. Fowler famously wrote, wooly writing, wooly thinking.

    As I said, I had good reasons for saying what I said. Here was Prof. Goonesekere, an academic of some power and influence, uttering a falsehood in saying that the two applicants did not have the qualifications to be promoted to Senior lecturer I. (She denies this but her writing is a matter of public record).

    I know Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama as a good researcher who is popular with students. I am aware of his publications in distinguished journals indexed by ISI. He needed to be defended because in Sri Lanka few would speak up for him and thereby go against Prof. Goonesekere.

    Prof. Goonesekere having effectively called Dr. Hirimburegama academically irrelevant, it was very relevant to contrast his credentials with hers especially with regard to having a doctorate. She cannot incorrectly raise a person’s credentials and then maintain that hers are off limits.

    The point about grammar (which I normally would not raise) also became relevant to the accuracy of her claims. For, when she wrote that both applicants do not possess the qualifications to be promoted, was it grammatical ignorance or a sneaky way of conveying to the reader the impression that neither did, while allowing her to argue that she meant that perhaps only one did not?

    Jeevan

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      S.R.H. Hoole

      Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka’s writing shows his intellectual caliber and social grace. Perhaps you don’t deserve to be mentioned by him even in the negative light that he does. You use that as an opportunity to spew trifles. You say you agree your “comments might have sidetracked the important discussion on political interference.” But that is exactly what you do all over again in order to console your bruised ego. Is Prof. Savitri Goonesekere writing your name incorrectly as “R. S. Hoole” instead of “S. R. H. Hoole” such an important political issue. And how can that be a mix up with your great-grand father whose name was, according to you, R. A. Hoole. If you see such a big difference between R. S. and S. R. H., are you blind to the difference between R. S. and R. A. You just gloss over it to make it an occasion to boast your great-grand father was a “Modliar.” You wouldn’t have brought him into the scene if he was, say, just a peon. Then you would have seen the difference between
      R. S. and R. A.

      And you have the nerve to say such trivial mistakes in spelling and grammar characterize Prof. Goonesekere’s approach to work. You are the man who made the monumental factual error of asserting that Channel 4 people did their third documentary on Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields in consultation with Frances Harrison. Then when she objects you sheepishly admit your mistake: “If Frances Harrison says so, then my information was wrong. It seemed such a noncontroversial piece of information that I did not double check as I should have.” What lame excuse, what petty-mindedness? How can that be a “noncontroversial piece of information” when getting the initials of your name wrong was such a big deal to you?

      S. R. H. Hoole, I’m afraid I have to dismiss you as not possessing both character and grace.

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        Mr./Ms. Rambler,

        RE: “I’m afraid I have to dismiss you as not possessing both character and grace”

        You do seem to allow Prof. Hoole in your last sentence to have character or grace. You only say that he does not have both. I am sure that was not your intention.

        Prof. Savitri Goonesekere could not properly use the word “both”. Now you have joined her kind. It seems to prove Prof. Hoole’s point that grammar is important in conveying what we want to convey.

        That last sentence of yours and the tone of your writing raise a bigger fault about you than whether you yourself lack character and grace — it is whether you can think. After all, the proper use of the word “both” invokes a simple matter of simple logic that children can understand.

        My own reading is the Prof. Hoole has been very graceful in his reply to Prof. Asoka and more so with Ms. Frances Harrison. He clearly had information that Ms. Harrison collaborated on the Channel 4 production but when she denied it, he did not contest it.

        Prof. Hoole does often write with a bite but he reserves his bite for communalists and nationalists and for people who are absolutely nasty or thick-skulled. I have no problems with that.

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          Musthafa

          You seem to have toiled very hard to come up with your marvelous discovery. But I’m sorry I have to disappoint you. It would have been evident to any intelligent person who followed the exchange between Prof. Savitri Goonesekere and Prof. S. R. H. Hoole that the last sentence of my comment, “S. R. H. Hoole, I’m afraid I have to dismiss you as not possessing both character and grace,” was a joke and would have caught it. They would have perceived the usage of the word “both” in that “improper” sense was intentional – to mock the pettiness of Prof. Hoole. And they would have relished the humour. After all Prof. Hoole’s silly rebuttal of Prof. Goonesekere’s serious concerns about the “collapse of institutions” was pivoted on the purported wrong usage of the word “both.” And now you Musthafa, by prolonging that childish behaviour you are making the irony obscenely unbearable.

          The fact that you didn’t catch the joke and I have to explain it to you raises the question whether your thinking is limited to the mechanical sort and is not imbued with ingenuity and discernment, the qualities of a truly educated and cultured person capable of grasping the nuances and niceties of language – not just its mechanics.

          You say Prof. Hoole was graceful in his reply to Prof. Asoka N.I. Ekanayaka. How can that be when Prof. Hoole keeps talking about Prof. Goonesekere’s grammar even after Prof. Ekanayaka points out “the interjection of Professor SRH Hoole (CT Mar 20, 26) tended to blur a serious and timely discussion about the politicization of higher education in some irrelevant detail, trivia and diatribe that are of little interest.”

          With regard to Ms. Frances Harrison, Prof. Hoole himself admits:
          “It seemed such a noncontroversial piece of information that I did not double check as I should have.” This is totally unacceptable. With the raging controversy over the role of Channel 4 in the attempt to bring war crime charges against Sri Lanka that piece of information is anything but “noncontroversial.” Your silly defence only makes matters worse.

          Anyway I appreciate your advice that I shouldn’t have left any room for misinterpretation and should have stated clearly that Prof. Hoole has neither character nor grace.

          Finally, your predilection for trivialization, small-mindedness and vindictiveness seems mysteriously so familiar.

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          musthafa

          Mr.Hoole does not have both character and grace.
          Mr.Hoole is both a bad apple and a bully.
          That means Mr.Hoole is a character.
          Mr.Rambler is wrong.

          Mr.Hoole and Mr.Musthafa both do not have both mental agility and a sense of humour.
          Mr.Hoole and Mr.Musthafa are both slow-witted and jump the gun.
          That means both of them are quick to jump to conclusions and become jokers.
          Mr.Rambler is wrong again.

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    The VC position is an administrative one. Many non-academics have been university presidents in the US.

    Al Gore was under consideration for the presidency of Harvard University, though ultimately he was not selected. Senator Bob Kerrey became President of the New School of Social Sciences in New York, the same school where Sri Lanka’s Ralph Buultjens used to teach. Senator David Boren became president of the University of Oklahoma.

    Stephen Trachtenberg, the widely known former president of George Washington University, was a law professor with a JD before going into administration.

    Fundraising skills, being diplomatic, the ability to manage big egos, including that of academics and politicians–these things are perhaps more important for the VC position than some obscure research published in journals.

    Many professors these days use graduate students to do the bulk of the research and write the papers, make some cosmetic, trivial suggestions, and put their name on the paper and then pad their resumes with such papers. Hardly a sign of brilliance.

    So it is time for Sri Lanka’s academics to let go of their fixation with the past, degrees, etc., and get on with the task of promoting actual scholarship and innovations that can help the country progress.

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    In 1951,all entrants were interviewed by Sir Ivor Jennings,Prof. Nicholas Attygalle & Prof.A.W.Mylvaganam.
    These three also formed the Board of Residence and Discipline.
    There was complete discipline among students – mild rags were unofficially allowed.Any infractions were dealt with severely.
    The rot commenced when politicians were allowed the power to choose Chancellors & Vice Chancellors.

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    Politicization and the mediocrity, envy, jealousy and fear of people who are better qualified and ethical that pervades the university system of Sri Lanka today has destroyed it. These are two sides of the same coin – politicization by the regime and the awful politics of envy and jealousy among the staff. The university is under siege from within and without!
    Today universities are over politicized and lacking in ethics. The quality of mind of the people who remain in the system, with a few notable exceptions, is abysmal and reflected in the dearth of quality research and knowledge production. I’d bet that some of the students would have more principles and ethics than their teachers.
    The Rajapasssa notion of development and knowledge is building facades because they are totally uneducated and have no notion of talent and human resource development or the “quality of mind”.

    The public university today is beyond redemption because of the petty, small minded folk who are on the faculty, administration and who fear people who are better qualified and dance to the tunes of rotten, corrupt and criminal politicians like Mahinda Rajapakse and his uneducated brothers and their cronies – all who fear refined and ethical people.

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    I find all these Academics and Professionals have at one time or the other, guilty of pandering the Politicians of SLFP coalition govts for position and power, in preference to the Educated Honest in the early UNP govts, before the UNP was overrun by the corrupt and the violent. These Academics are reaping now what they sowed then.

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    If Prof. Jeevan Hoole is as concerned as he appears to be about Prof. Savitri Goonesekere’s grammar( or the lack thereof), he will be in for the rudest of shocks if he listens to Dr.Hirumburegama! The latter seems entirely innocent of the laws of the English language when he speaks impromptu! The other day I happened to switch on my car radio on the way back home from work and there was this Vice Chancellor aspirant Dr.Hirumburegama himself, a Biologist as he described himself to be, holding forth on national radio( FM 97.4), a favourite radio station of local mediocrities such as Rajpal Abeynayake who go on and on each morning ad nauseum, bad mouthing anyone who holds a point of view different from the one he holds on any given subject. Dr. Hirumburegama was being interviewed by Mr. Nihal Bharetti, a veteran broadcaster.

    Dr. Hirumburegama has no idea of how to connect subject to predicate or object. Even in faulty English, one can communicate meaningfully if a speaker is basically intelligent. I found Dr. Hirumburegama to be colossally ignorant of general knowledge which even an aspiring undergraduate should possess leave alone an aspiring Vice Chancellor. For example, in the course of his interview( before I switched the radio off in panic) he told us listeners that there is deep confusion in Sri Lanka about rights and responsibilities and that the majority of us are ignorant on this score. In his enlightened view, we all have responsibilities and when we citizens fulfill them, we automatically achieve our rights. The poor Vice Chancellor-to-be seems more confused than he should be. And he went on to expostulate that such an outlook( where rights are automatically achieved when we take care of our responsibilities) is ‘ a part of our culture’ whatever that may mean. He was obviously struggling to imply, as most purblind Sri Lankans do, that human rights and other international humanitarian interventions are irrelevant as they are western constructs and hence anti-eastern. Quite obviously this Biologist does not understand the basics of Buddhist philosophy or our history. Perhaps he does have the qualifications to be a University Vice Chancellor of the Sri Lanka of today? May the noble triple gem help and protect our younger generation of scholars at the University of Colombo!

    And all these astounding impressions of his were conveyed to us via radio with not a thought spared for English grammar. I can only surmise that Dr.Hiruburegama’s publications in distinguished journals indexed by ISI, if they are not published in faulty English, could not have been authored by himself, if his recent performance on our national radio is a criterion to go by. If Dr. Hirumburegama has indeed authored them, he surely must have benefited from considerable help in basic English that he would have received from some of his well-wishers ( like Prof. Hoole?) or colleagues more certain of their English grammar or from the editors of the journals that Prof. Hoole refers to.

    Nethra Goonewardena

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    It is mere politics in Srilanka. At the end of the day it is The President who select vice- chancellors. Can you emagine that he would select a strong UNP man for this position. He would try to use this opportunity to get more support to his party . It is a norm in Srilanka.Every institution is under poltical hegemony . What would you expect? I could tell stories after stories of discrimination in promotion in our universties. How many less talented students are awarded class while talented are left out? Bias, descrimnation based on race , caste, and colour still in practise in Srilanka? Do not
    Expect perfection from these people.

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    Dear Prof Ekanayake,
    Thank you for this article.I have known you as a man who has principles and worked hard to uplift the quality of universities in Sri Lanka.
    When the ruling governments appoint vice chancellors without considering their calibre what can you expect from those institutions.
    Our universities are full of mediocre academics and cronies who have hardly any interest in teaching or genuine research.
    Interviews are all organised to appoint the desired person. They advertise the post in such a manner that the best academics cannot even apply.Some academics do not even have a second class in the bachelor’s degree.
    If a qualified man had to be appointed ( despite numerous attempts to block the appointment) many obstacles will be placed in front of them to prevent progress.
    It is now better to be just a lecturer than be a professor.It appears that almost every lecturer can become a professor. No need to be a distinguished academic. The system of promotions is a joke.One has to collect points and the cronies know very well to accumulate them easily.No need for even publications in internationally peer reviewed journals.You scratch my back and I will scratch yours is the game.
    Our universities have become pits of snakes. This is my personal experience.
    Mediocrity and jeolousy have destroyed our institutions.

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    Dear Asoka

    Your reactions to break the ‘silence’ among the members of the academic community will be highly valued by all academics interested in sustaining the academic culture and freedom in SriLanka

    jayawick

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    Sir Nicholas Attygallewas not a reasonable academic at all! I say this because he victimized nine of us in 1969 because he has a personal grudge with Professor Cock! What happened was all nine of us, including Professor Cock’s daughter Ann Cock, had sufficient marks to enter the medical college (please look at the hanzard reports in 1969) although all nine of us had failed in the organic chemistry practical examination. In spite this, some of is had credit passes in ‘medical chemistry’, which was introduced for the first time in that year! We were all kept out of the medical, dental and veterinary faculties and put into the AGRICULTURE faculty! Before this saga, when students has sufficient marks to enter the medical faculty but failed in the chemistry practical the norm was to channel them to the science faculty for six months to refresh their chemistry and take them into the medical faculty! This practiced was done away with by the great Sir Nicholas because of the grudge he has with professor Cock! Some great academics we has then!

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    The only thing worse than a liar is a liar that’s also a hypocrite! -This is my feeling on the article and the comments.
    Those members of the Council of the University of Ceylon in the bygone era are no saints -but lets not dig the graves.
    No wonder the sri lankan accidents are high with many fatalities on the road to the selfish drivers who deviates their concentration when on the wheel -this is beside the whole argument but highlight where priories should be.
    ‘Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.
    Buddha’

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    Sri Lankan Universities hell of Mafia with very very low quality professors. More than 90% of them no Phds and those who have PhDs they get from very low level Countries no one go for education: Thailand, India, Malaysia, UK technical Colleges.They do not have 15 publications in high end journals. Colombo University Economics Dept see a full family tree.

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      My Eelam would have got rid of you all lazy Bookworms.I bet none of you can drive a nail without hitting your head rather than the nail.You speak and write a bit of ENGLIIS and think you know it all.You and the Lawyers are the Blood Suckers like leeches.We poor worker from the North worked hard to feed you and pay for your education.When i return Do not I say Do not remain run for away.

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    Prof.R.Hoole, his family, his church and many of his relatives opposed the formation of University of Jaffna because S.J.V Selvanayagam opposed the same He was a member of the same church Hoole family belongs!

    Many so called rotten heads in the Jaffna university never mention the name of Sri Mavo Banadaranyake who founded the University. When she came to Jaffna to open the University all these Tamil mongrels were with Black flags.

    Then these profs of mud heads hung around with LTTE goons and helped to kill many students and Prof. Rajini. Recently a foolish section of students tried to celebrate to remember the dead LTTE criminals in the same University.

    But Hoole tried to become the VC of the same University many years later. Did not he or his family or his church realise it in 1975?

    Do we need this kind of institutions at public expense in Jaffna?

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