Colombo Telegraph

Electing A VC At Jaffna University: A Window Into Erosion Of Quality In Sri Lankan University System

Colombo Telegraph continues its exposure of corruption in Jaffna University which is ruinous for the development of the region and indeed the nation. By turning a blind eye to it, the Government and the education authorities, are by default, creating a climate where the entire system of education threatens to become toxic. In most universities where there is space for change, a change of vice chancellor is an opportunity to welcome new ideas, new academic culture and new administrative practices to the precincts of higher education. This does not mean that it is only an external candidate who can breathe fresh air into the university and the manner in which it functions; rather, the university and its decision making bodies should be open and willing to consider external candidates and act in a flexible manner so that decision on an application sent from a far away place like the USA is not solely based on whether or not the application sent by a candidate reached the university before the deadline.

One of the principal functions that determine this decision is the spirit and freedom in which a new vice chancellor is selected. Unfortunately, we do not see anything that could be considered encouraging and hospitable in the procedure followed in the election of the new Vice Chancellor of University of Jaffna. The agenda (click here to view the file) for the special meeting of the University Council scheduled for the 26th of February 2017 and the minutes of the previous meeting held in late January (click here and read section 14) shows that an external candidate with an excellent academic record in his field has not been included in the slate of candidates for the election on the grounds that his application reached the university a day or two late. Colombo Telegraph has addressed the issue in its report (click here to read the report) published on the 13th of February 2017. Not to leave any room for speculation, we give the reader official records of matters due for decision on 25th and 26th January 2017 at the Council.

Natural justice to both Prof. S. Thiagalingam (whose application posted early from the US arrived a day or two late), the university community and the region’s people requires overlooking the minor postal delay in the receipt of his application to the position of Jaffna Vice Chancellor (VC) sent from the USA and treat it with the spirit of openness. Importantly, Prof. V. Tharmaratnam (Chair), members Prof. S. Sivasegaram and Prof. R. Ravirajan who formed the Evaluation Committee, went through the applications painstakingly on Friday 27th January after opening them the same day. They saw no issue in the small delay in Prof. Thiagalingam’s application which had arrived ten days earlier. They found it an application eminently worthy of consideration and scheduled it along with the others (Click here to read the Report of the Evaluation Committee).

The advertisement for the post of vice chancellor on 25th November 2016 had an ambiguity (click here to view the advertisement). In one place the advertisement says to be sent to reach…before 3.00 PM on 16th January 2017. This was done by Prof. Thiagalingam. The last sentence says applications received after the closing date will not be considered. The advertisement also states that the application should be either hand delivered or sent by registered post. It is noteworthy here that Prof. Thiagalingam, unlike the internal candidates, did not have the option of hand delivering the application as he was based in Boston, USA.

At the Council meeting held on the 28th of January, a day after the Evaluation Committee scheduled Prof. Thiagalingam’s and five other applications for consideration, the Vice Chancellor highlighted merely the last sentence above. The Council was not informed about the report of the evaluation committee, a committee appointed by the council itself to ensure quality in choice. Nor were its members asked to explain their decision to include Thiagalingam – there was no discussion on his credentials at that meeting of the Council.

Dr. N. Jeyakumaran, a member of the University Council, said that the application should be accepted as it was posted in the USA on 27th December 2016. Prof. Tharmaratnam argued that since the application was posted in the USA on the 27th of December 2016, the applicant could not be very much faulted for this delay.

Then comes a tricky claim in the alleged minutes (click here to view the relevant section – read section 14), the kind of which is always suspect: “Most members emphasized that this application cannot be legally accepted since it has not reached the office on time.” There was neither a legal discussion nor a vote. As most members were not lawyers, what the Council in fact decided was to seek legal opinion (see below). What is worse, five deans who were applicants for the VC’s position were present for the discussion instead of recusing themselves over their conflict of interest, or being asked to leave by the Chairman. The one notable speech was by the Dean of Technology, himself a candidate, advising rejection. Little else of note was said. Some of these details have been excluded unintentionally or otherwise from the minutes.

It was then the Vice Chancellor put forward legal arguments for the rejection of Thiagalingam’s application.

  1. According to procurement procedure, bids received after the closing date and time will be rejected.
  2. The application was not forwarded through the head of his institution.
  3. The applicant has not mentioned his citizenship

This was neither a legal argument nor did it account for the special needs of a university that must be flexible to attract quality. Reason 1. above treats the university as a trading agency trying to stock its warehouse and the Vice Chancellor as a mere commodity. Reason 2. as is well-known only applies to applicants from the local public sector. Reason 3. does not apply as it was not asked for in the application form. At this point the Council decided to seek advice from the legal officer of the UGC on the three points above.

In this climate of uncertainty, Prof. Sivasegaram advised the Council to “take decisions since there are legally acceptable reasons to reject [Thiagalingam’s] application.” Although it is unclear what decisions Prof. Sivasegaram advised the Council to take, it should be noted that he signed the report prepared by the Evaluation Committee the previous day and granted his approval to include Prof. Thiagalingam in the list of candidates scheduled for consideration by the Council.

The VC then reported that an absent council member Miss. Abimannasingham PC communicated another bit of legal advice over the phone that the late application ‘cannot be accepted’ because the advertisement says that the application should reach the registrar’s office by a certain date and time. But most lawyers would tell you that the advertisement does not create a rigid law barring the institution from considering a late application as Miss. Abimannasingham apparently suggested. The VC then recorded that the other five applications be sent to council members. Thiagalingam was thus excluded by a sleight of hand without actually saying so. The council members are themselves vague about what had happened.

Academic sources say that Prof. Tharmaratnam, when asked why he did not speak up, said that Miss. Abimannasingham was a lawyer while he was not, though he had argued his own case in the Supreme Court. He dismissed what allegedly came from Miss. Abimannasingham without being argued out, and written down, as not legal advice. He said there was nothing for him to say until he had consulted legal references and had thought about it. What the VC claims the Council has done is wrong – that was to drop Thiagalingam by stealth on such facetious grounds. If there were one good legal argument the VC had, why include duds 1, 2 and 3 above? Some members of the public questioned the role of the Vice Chancellor in the decision making process. They argue that as an outgoing Vice Chancellor, Prof. Vasanthy Arasaratnam should have recused herself from all discussions on the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor and allowed the rest of the Council to make a decision on Prof. Thiagalingam’s application. Given that there are serious allegations of irregularities in recruitment during her tenure some note that she may not like an independent candidate becoming the next VC as he or she may order probes into those allegations.

Why this charade?

To many, the desire to keep out Prof. Thiagalingam may look strange. The current VC has imposed her stamp on the University for six years. Candidates 1 – 4 (click here), have enjoyed her patronage or had served her. Candidate 2 is reported to have played a crucial role in 2011 by introducing her to the EPDP leader Mr. Douglas Devananda which was important in making her VC, but had for a time visibly cooled towards his protege. 1 and 4 had closely supported the rigging of the 2014 VC election with Mr. Devananda’s involvement (click here to view the story), Candidate 3 somewhat evasively. Candidate 4 had brought a dummy candidate from Oluvil as part of the plan executed by the EPDP. Some members of the academic staff say that Candidate 5 is the most independent, adding that even with Candidate 2 they could work, though Colombo Telegraph learns that several teams of the academic staff at the University are campaigning for the other three candidates as well.

Candidate 1 has most visibly enjoyed the VC’s patronage. She installed him as Dean of Graduate Studies, enabling his wife to step into the position of Dean, Agriculture. The wife was appointed as Chairman of the Search Committee by the Council on 12th November, along with Prof. R. Ravirajan and Prof (Fr.) Pilendran (click here to view the names of the members). Candidate 1’s wife no doubt knew that her husband would be an applicant (date of application 9 Jan. 2017) and should have recused herself. Over the two months it had, the committee was not able to persuade any external candidates to apply.

The other point not lost on academics is that Prof. Thiagalingam started his career in Biochemistry, the same field as the VC’s, obtained his PhD from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University on DNA repair mechanisms and is currently Associate Professor in the Biomedical Genetics Section, Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine.

How appointment of eminent academics is blocked here is evident in the cases of Dr. Siddharthan Maunaguru, also a PhD from Johns Hopkins University, on the facile premise that as a doctor of Anthropology, he was unfit to teach Sociology (click here to read the report). Prof. S.R.H. Hoole DSc Lond., FIEEE USA, to avoid delay in processing for professor, applied for senior lecturer I in Electrical Engineering and was found unsuitable by the Selection Committee. The Council emphatically rejected this supposed finding and in July 2016 asked for the selection board, which is chaired by the VC, to reconsider the matter. After unaccountable delays, the Council Minutes of the meeting on 21 Dec. 2016, produced verbatim, records as follows:

“The Council having considered the report of selection committee on the clarification made by the Council on the selection of Post of Lecturer Gr.I in Electrical and Electronic Engineering accepted (emphasis ours) that expertise of Mr. Hoole is not adequate to teach the existing under graduate programme in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.”

Also recorded in the minutes of the same meeting (21.12. 2016) for approval at the upcoming council meeting (25.2.2017) is, ‘the Council approved the following observations of the Selection Committee’, among which was included as reason for dismissing Prof. Hoole’s application: ‘he has not sent the application through the Head of the Institution, i.e. the Rector of Michigan State University’. It is the same fictitious legal advice adduced against Prof. Thiagalingam.

Why this has to change

If one has time, money, patience and energy to challenge the deceit practised by the universities in the courts, much of the self-serving legal advice they use would be thrown out. But then who cares?, not the universities, their deans or vice chancellors, not the UGC and not our political leaders. They had their way, they bought time and they have nothing to lose. Meanwhile our educational standards sink and the young are denied hope. They become as cynical as their mentors, and in time brutal and destructive. Do we want to condemn the young to such a fate?
As for Prof. Thiagalingam’s case it is almost pointless dabbling in legal arguments. Many of our institutions, including the Examinations Department go by the postal date and not the date of receipt of an application. We often take refuge in legal arguments and rules when we lack common sense and a proper measure of charity.

Prof. Thiagalingam had acted in good faith and with good intention and we would be destructive cynics to question that. Keeping these in mind, the Council should create good traditions of openness and hospitality by removing obstacles barring Prof. Thiagalingam’s candidacy. A straightforward way of doing it is for the Council to postpone the closing date. That would be unquestionably legal. University of Jaffna Teachers’ Association (UJTA), the union that represents the academic staff of the University and Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) have already appealed to the University Council to consider Prof. Thiagalingam’s candidacy (click here to view the letters – links to the letters given at the end of the story). There is still time for the Council to set things right and make University of Jaffna a place that welcomes talent from the outside. Let’s hope they will set a good example to the rest of the universities and other institutions in Sri Lanka.

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