By 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 )
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
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.