Colombo Telegraph now has access to a letter sent by the Trustees of Jaffna College Funds based in Boston, USA which states that the Trustees have decided to reduce the funds allocated to both Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai and Uduvil Girls’ College for the first quarter of the year 2017 by 20%.
This letter, signed by The Rev Richard H. Huleatt, the President of the Trustees of Jaffna College Funds, was emailed on the 5th of January to the Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India The Rt. Rev. Dr. Daniel Thiagarajah, the Chairperson of the Boards of Directors of Jaffna College and Uduvil Girls’ College.
Failure on the part of the two schools to submit the audited financial statements for 2015, violence unleashed on the students who were protesting against the appointment of the new Principal at Uduvil Girls’ College last year, the administrators’ failure to hold those who were involved in the violence accountable, threats of physical harm and punitive measures, recruitment of under-qualified teachers to both schools in the recent past, abuse and misuse of power and the funds sent by the Trustees , intimidation and manipulation of the teachers and the board members placing their personal interests above the welfare of the students and the school are among the reasons cited in the letter for the reduction of funds to these two educational institutions in Northern Sri Lanka.
The Trustees in their letter copied to 19 individuals including the Chief Minister of the Northern Province Justice C. V. Wigneswaran, the Education Minister of the Province Mr. T. Gurukularajah, the Principals of the schools and members of the alumni all over the world insist that 9 major reforms ensuring transparency and fairness in the areas of administration, financial reporting, and recruitment of teachers and officers be implemented before the 30th of June 2017. These reforms include independent audits of the funds utilized by the schools and internal controls, prudent and open nominations for persons to serve as directors, appointment of qualified officers and teachers, disclosure of related party transactions, avoidance of cronyism and nepotism, and regular meetings of Boards and Committees, followed by public reports of deliberations and decisions. The letter notes that the changes that they require are “consistent with governance and reporting standards that are accepted and implemented by well-run organizations worldwide, including educational institutes”. The Rev. Huleatt also observes that for the Trustees “to act responsibly as fiduciary, [their] beneficiaries should provide [them] with transparent financial reporting, demonstrate responsible governance practices, communicate cooperatively with [them]”.
Irregularities in Governance and Administration
The Trustees have requested the two Boards to send them the audited financial statements for the year 2015 and a letter detailing the steps taken by the Boards to implement the reforms proposed by the Trustees by the 15th of March 2017 and noted that failure to do so would result in the reduction of the payment for the second quarter of the year 2017 as well.
The letter also states that the Trustees arrived at the decision to reduce the funds allocated to the two schools based on credible reports about serious irregularities in the governing bodies and administration of the schools that they received from various constituents of the school community and discussions they had in October 2016 with the alumni associations of the schools, parents and teachers of Uduvil Girls’ College, senior church officials of several Christian denominations, the Governor of the Northern Province and the Minister of Education of the Province.
On the 15th of January 2017, Sunday Times reported that the Chairperson of the Boards The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thiagarajah had called the letter “a very high handed act”[i]. Even in his Charge for the 64th Session of the Jaffna Diocesan Council of the Church of South India in November 2016, the Bishop alleged that the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) Global Ministries and Jaffna College Trustees “cling blindly to their need for privilege and status in their dealings with [them]”[ii]. Quoting the Bishop, the news report that appeared in Sunday Times says that lawyers are in the process of preparing a response to the letter. The Bishop also alleged that someone with vested interest was behind the letter and that the Boards’ lawyers were drawing up a defamation case. The newspaper also notes that among the counsel is Attorney-at-Law and Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran.
Almost all the members of the two Boards except Mrs. Savithri Sumanthiran (Methodist Church), wife the TNA MP M.A Sumanthiran and Ms. Vijula Arulanantham (Anglican Church), a close legal associate of Mr. Sumanthiran are members of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India. Among those who represent the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, some belong to the same family or are closely related to one another. For instance, Bishop Thiagarajah (Chairperson) and his wife Dr. (Mrs.) Thayalini Thiagarajah and his brother Rev. Dr. Gunalan Thiagarajah are on the Board of Directors of Jaffna College. While Bishop Thiagarajah is the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College, his wife Dr. (Mrs.) Thiagarajah is the Manager of the School. Both The Rev. Dr. D. S. Solomon, Principal of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai and his brother-in-law Mr. R. M. Ratnarajah serve on the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College. Mrs. Sujani Rajathevan who serves on the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College is a close relative of Dr. (Mrs.) Thiagarajah. Bishop Thiagarajah is also the Manager of Jaffna College.
The letter sent by the Trustees states that the two “Boards of Directors are over-populated by members of the same inner circle rather than representatives of key constituencies such as parents, faculty and alumni”. The letter also notes that “the joint occupancy of several official positions at each college by the same person(s) leads to an unhealthy concentration of power that unchecked can undermine the educational mission”.
In explaining to the media in September about the process followed during the selection of the new Principal for Uduvil Girls’ College last year, the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College Bishop Thiagarajah described Mrs. Savithri Sumanthiran and Ms. Vijula Arulanantham as two ladies who have contributed a lot to the area of education in their respective Churches (between 6.17 – 7.00 mins in the video).[iii] Aware of TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran’s involvement as legal advisor in the legal disputes that the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India has been facing for several years, especially after a major split in the Church over the consecration of The Rt. Rev. Dr. D.S. Thiagarajah as the fourth Bishop of the Diocese in Chennai, India in 2006, some parents and alumni of Uduvil Girls’ College wondered if Mrs. Sumanthiran’s membership on the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College was tantamount to conflicts of interest.
The parents and alumni also wanted to find out if Mrs. Sumanthiran and Ms. Arulanantham were appointed to the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College based on recommendations by the Methodist and Anglican Churches respectively. Since the Bishop invoked the Methodist and Anglican Churches in his communication with the media, they argue that it is important that the two Churches clarify whether or not they had any involvement in the appointment of the duo to the Board of Directors of Uduvil Girls’ College. The minutes of the Uduvil Girls’ College Board dated 6 February 2016 states that Mrs. Sumanthiran and Ms. Arulanantham would serve on the “Search Committee” for the appointment of the new Principal in their capacity as members of the College Board who represent “the wider Christian community” in the country. Ms. Arulanantham also serves the Board of Directors of Jaffna College as its Vice Chairperson. The Bishop and his wife ardently campaigned for the electoral victory of Mr. Sumanthiran in the parliamentary elections held in August 2015 on social media.
The Trustees of Jaffna College Funds in their letter to the Chairperson of the Board of Directors insist that the Boards of Directors of Jaffna College and Uduvil Girls’ College adopt a conflict of interest policy for the Board with required annual reports by each director. They have also required annual disclosure of related party transactions for each member of the Board. The letter delineates a related party transaction as “one in which a director derives a financial or other personal benefit from the college that could result in divided loyalty between service to college and his/her own personal interest”.
Corruption in the Church
In the meantime, the National Company Law Tribunal in India, in November 2016, removed all the office bearers and directors of the Church of South India Trust Association (CSITA) on alleged charges of misappropriation and appointed a retired judge of the High Court to look into the affairs of the organization. Bharani Vaitheesvaran reports in The Economic Times that the Church of South India Trust Association, a Chennai-headquartered charity organization that runs schools, hospitals, and earns predominantly through rental income from lands has been facing charges of alleged fraud and misappropriation of funds for about a decade now.[iv] Citing the CSI synod website, Global Christian News states that the CSITA has obtained a stay order passed by the National Company Law Tribunal.[v] The Church of South India is the second largest Christian church in India, after the Roman Catholic Church, with 24 dioceses across the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, including one in Jaffna Sri Lanka. Well-wishers of Jaffna College and Uduvil Girls’ College in Jaffna note that all required steps should be taken to protect the schools from the corruption that the Church of South India is mired in.
While Uduvil Girls’ College is a Church school, Jaffna College was envisioned as a non-denominational Christian institute by its founders. Schedule B in the 1894 Founding Ordinance of the College unambiguously states that the institution “shall be conducted as a Christian College, whose directors and instructors shall be members of any denomination of Protestant Christians”. However, all members of the current Board of Directors of Jaffna College except two (one of them is the representative of the alumni who does not have to be Protestant Christian as per the constitution) are members of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India. The constitution of the Board of Directors of Jaffna College approved at the Semi-Annual Meeting of 12-08-1989 states that the Jaffna Diocesan Council of the Church of South India shall elect six members of the Board of Directors, of whom one shall be the Bishop of the JDCSI (Article VI.2). The constitution does not state that the rest or the majority of the Protestant Christian members of the Board should also be members of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church.
Changes to the Jaffna College Board Constitution
A document titled The CONSTITUTION of the Board of Directors of Jaffna College (as approved at the Meeting of the Board of Directors on February 26th, 2015), which is now doing the rounds online, states that the Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India shall be the Chairperson of the Board by virtue of office in a clause (Article IV – b) that according to many may weaken the non-denominational character of the school. The constitution approved in 1989 which did not have any such clause makes it clear that the Chairman of the Board is elected annually from the Board of Directors (Article XII). A by-law in the 1989 constitution that required the Principal to preside over the Prize Day of the school has also been changed. Article XI in the other document where the duties of the Principal are mentioned does not say that chairing the Prize Day is the Principal’s duty.
In what many describe as an unprecedented move, the Chairperson of the Board of Directors presided over the Prize Day held in June 2015 and the Principal’s duty was limited to presenting the school’s annual report. In another unprecedented move, the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors Ms. Vijula Arulanantham made comments on the report presented by the Principal. The Alumni who were observing the Prize Day were astounded by these events hitherto unheard of in the College’s history. Many members of the staff in what was interpreted as a sign of protest against these changes did not turn up at the Prize Day dinner.
We reliably learn that later at a meeting with the teachers of Jaffna College, the Vice Chairperson of the Board Ms. Vijula Arulanantham had told the audience there was nothing wrong in the Chairperson of the Board chairing the Prize Day as similar practices exist in CMS schools in Sri Lanka associated with the Anglican Church. The alumni and a section of the teachers found the justification given by the Vice Chairperson outrageous. They claimed it was wrong to unilaterally impose customs followed at other institutes on an independent Christian institute with its own traditions. Though some observe a connection between the content of constitution reportedly adopted in February 2016 and the Bishop chairing the Prize Day in June 2016, as there was no alumni representative present at the meeting held on the 26th of February 2015, it still remains a mystery to the alumni and the larger public if a new constitution was approved on that day. Silence has so far been the response to the requests made to the Principal by the Alumni for a copy of the new Constitution.
In a recent letter sent to the Board of Directors dated 25 November 2016, the Alumni Representative has expressed his surprise over the appointment of a Deputy Principal to the School on the 9th of November 2016. He also notes that no mention was made about this appointment at a meeting of the Board of Directors held nearly month before this appointment was announced. The letter also says that as per the 1989 constitution, there is no constitutional provision to appoint a Deputy Principal to the school, although the document purported to be the constitution adopted in February 2015 says that that Board of Directors “shall have powers of appointment and/or removal of the Principal, Deputy Principal(s) and/or Vice Principal(s) and other members of staff including instructors and officers” (Article V – b). The letter further says that Dr. (Ms.) C. V. Selliah and Mrs. Suganthy Vairasinghe who serve on the Board of Directors of Jaffna College informed the alumni at the Annual General Meeting of the Jaffna College Alumni Association in Colombo that no amendment to the previous constitution had been made.
The newly elected alumni representative to the Board of Directors in this letter has made an official request for the constitution that is currently in effect but is yet to receive one from the Board. The letter sent by the Trustees also requires the Board of Directors to send copies of bylaws and governing documents that are currently in effect and to make the minutes of all meetings of the Board public. The alumni hope that this requirement will also resolve the mystery surrounding the current constitution of the Board of Directors of Jaffna College. They also insist releasing the governing documents lead to transparency in matters related to the movable and immovable properties belonging to the school including lands.
Harassment of Uduvil Girls’ College Students
Kalaikathir, a Jaffna-based daily reported on Monday that no disciplinary action was taken on those who used violence against the students who launched a protest in September. The account also notes that that some of the teachers involved continue to act in a vengeful manner towards the children. Many note that the Trustees’ intervention happened mainly due to the bravery of the student protestors at Uduvil Girls’ College and their parents in September 2016. The students and parents brought to light some of the deep-rooted administrative problems that have been plaguing the institution for many years.
Commentators and old students of the schools also say that sustained efforts taken by the alumni across the world and activists in Jaffna in their quest for transparency and accountability in the administration of the two schools, the publicity given to the protests in September by sections of the media including Thinakkural and Colombo Telegraph and several social media platforms contributed to this welcome change in the Trustees’ approach to the Boards of Directors. That this constructive intervention on the part of the Trustees should lead to healthy changes in the schools is the expectation uppermost in the minds of many of the alumni and well-wishers of these two illustrious institutions all over the world.
A Tamil translation of the letter sent by the Trustees of Jaffna College Funds could be viewed here. Note: This translation was not sent by the Trustees of Jaffna College Funds.
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