18 October, 2017

Fulbright Days And A Plea To Leadership

By H.L.Seneviratne

H.L. Seneviratne – Professor, Emeritus

Letters to our Presidents by Sri Lankan and US alumni of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission 1952-2012, commemorating 60 years of the Fulbright Programme. Edited by Tissa Jayatilaka. Published by the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, 2013.

This volume of 20 letters by former Fulbright scholars, half of them Sri Lankan and the other half American, addressed to their respective presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Barack Obama, constitutes part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Exchange Programme. All writers do a splendid job of what they were asked to do — to comment on how the experience enriched their personal and professional lives, and to urge the two presidents to continue to support the programme.

The Sri Lankan letters are distinguished by a third message, which we might consider the sub text of the volume, reminding President Rajapaksa of the need for good governance within which alone a sound system of education and a truly free intellectual life can flourish. It needs hardly to be stated that this message is irrelevant for the American writers, whose president needs no reminders about good governance, accountability, dissent and other ingredients of democracy.

The longest piece in the volume is the introduction by the editor Tissa Jayatilaka, the present Executive Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission (US-SLFC) in Colombo. Mr. Jayatilaka emphasises the unique nature of the Commission. As he informs us, the Commission was established in 1952 by an Agreement between the two countries for purposes of promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples through an exchange of scholars. While the Commission is managed by a board of directors appointed by the two governments, and receives “funds, policy guidance and counsel” from both governments, it is an agency of neither. This remarkable autonomy has enabled it to maintain its integrity throughout its six decade long history.

Jayatilaka points out how this autonomy has enabled the Commission to make awards solely on the basis of merit, conferring on the Commission a reputation for fairness. Awards are open to all Sri Lankan citizens who meet the eligibility criteria. Jayatilaka illustrates this by quoting one of the writers, Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who tells us how surprised he was to receive an award by nothing more than the stipulated application and an interview, when the common practice is for “such privileges [to be] afforded to people with influence, patronage and power”.

The 60 year period in which the programme has been functioning was a period of radical social transformation in the island, and the programme has adapted itself to these changes realistically and creatively. Paralleling the process of decolonisation signified by the electoral victory of the nationalist forces in 1956, the programme has opened its doors increasingly wider, as seen, for example, in the apparent devaluation of an excellent knowledge of English as an indispensable criterion for selection for an award, although the programme expects, as it must for obvious reasons, that successful candidates acquire, prior to their departure, a knowledge of English adequate for them to follow their studies in the US. This democratising trend reveals an imaginative understanding of the country’s social processes for which Tissa Jayatilaka deserves credit, for it was during his tenure as Executive Director that this wider openness was gradually woven into policy. One could notice a related adaptation in the shift in emphasis from the US to bi-nationality as the prime mover of the programme, reflected in turn in the change in the designation of the institution from “the US Educational Foundation” to “the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission”. It is important to note however that this democratisation, while paralleling the decolonisation process, is nevertheless qualitatively different from the latter with its component of re-feudalisation that since 1956 has been gaining greater dominance, culminating in the post-war state about which, as mentioned above, the Sri Lankan contributors have expressed dire concern.

One of the misunderstandings about the programme is the view that it is an elaborate design to brainwash the recipients of the award into becoming American agents spying to undermine the Sri Lanka state, and that its office is some sort of American outpost. One of the writers, Dr. Deepika Udagama, puts it mildly, “At first glance, it may appear that the programme is about indoctrinating foreign students about US interests and the American way of life”. (I have met educated, intelligent, affluent, “westernized” Sri Lankans who believe that Americans who learn Sinhala do so solely for imperialist purposes). If this view is rooted in xenobphobia, we have another derived from anglophilia. This is the view held in particular by some university intellectuals that the American MA and PhD degrees the Fulbright programme enables are no match to their counterparts conferred by British universities. This is part of a broader world view held by these individuals that American universities and their system of education are inferior to those in Britain. This naive understanding is fast disappearing, with some who held it revising it so convincingly that they have sought academic and other positions in the US.

For most writers, the Fulbright enabled their first experience of travel abroad. In their separate ways, all letters tell us about the generosity of strangers, the thrill of discovering a new culture, having new experiences and making lasting friendships. These are not just between Americans and Sri Lankans but a large variety of people of other cultures these scholars met in the course of their studies in classrooms, libraries, archives, in the field, or simply on the streets. This in all probability is the kind of intercultural understanding through the exchange of scholars that the visionary politician Senator William Fulbright had in mind when he dreamed of the programme.

In the area of professional enrichment, the letters are even more eloquent. Many record with appreciation the unique flexibility and understanding that is the hallmark of the programme, coupled with the efficiency of the Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka and his small staff at the Commission’s office in Colombo. Equally important — and this is where the personal and the professional come together – writers are keen to appreciate the academic contacts facilitated by the programme taking a life of its own, and multiplying manifold as they gradually became part of an academic/professional community in their host country and beyond, making the Fulbright programme a world wide cultural institution. Among the achievements that all writers report are some outstanding successes, like that of Professor John Holt, who has published several internationally acclaimed scholarly books some of which are published in Sinhala translation and are being used in teaching in Sri Lankan universities.

There is no space here to mention all letters, each of which is a statement of unique interest. Instead, I would like to mention two, that of Bradman Weerakoon, the island’s most distinguished public servant who in 1952, the year the programme was established, was the first Sri Lankan ever to receive the award; and of Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, a world renowned anthropologist who held the Chair of Anthropology at Princeton, having previously held the Chair of Sociology at Peradeniya. I select the letters of these two distinguished citizens to illustrate the undercurrent of critical thought mentioned above, common to most if not all Sri Lankan letters; and their respectful request of President Rajapaksa to restore the democratic state that his stewardship has chosen to undermine.

Professor Obeyesekere’s letter, the most absorbing in the volume, harks back to the glorious days of Peradeniya, but this is no mere nostalgia. While urging President Rajapaksa to support the Fulbright programme, he speaks of “another challenge for a wise leader and that is to bring back the universities to its early glory by supporting them … because a world bereft of intellectual life will end up as a dreary world”. The infamous Higher Education Act of 1966 of the then minister of education I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla designed to abolish university autonomy politicised the universities which have since been in steady decline, and dragged down to new depths under the present regime. Since the politicisation of the universities is part and parcel of the style of the present regime’s governance, a call to restore to the universities their past eminence, is no less than a call to restore good governance in general.

Bradman Weerakoon’s letter recalls how he witnessed the functioning of democracy first hand while he was a student at the University of Michigan, and refers to two events as being of “a defining quality”. The first was the presidential election of 1952 when the republican Dwight Eisenhower won a majority over the democrat Adlai Stevenson. Mr Weerakoon found striking the transparency of the contest and the unanimous verdict of all analysts and observers that the result reflected the will of the people. As he puts it, “[t]here was a great deal here I could learn and did learn about the ways of elections to public office, transparency, the rule of law and due process, the accountability of public office-holders and so on”.

The second event Mr Weerakoon reports is the 1952 crisis in the state of Arkansas arising from the African-American minority’s attempt to desegregate schools and thereby gain equal rights. What impressed Mr Weerakoon was “that Eisenhower, elected by the majority of white voters, took decisive Presidential action to use Federal troops against the action of the State Governor to ensure that black children enjoyed the same rights as their white brothers and sisters”. Mr Weerakoon expresses his “grave disappointment and dismay” at the deterioration in both democracy and minority rights under the present regime, and makes a fervent appeal to President Rajapaksa to change course. Here is Mr Weerakoon, verbatim:

“All I can do is to hope and pray that during your historic term of office as President, you will summon the courage and strength necessary to correct the imperfections that now detract from the image of Sri Lanka as a functioning democracy at peace with itself.”

When patriotic citizens of the eminence and integrity of Mr Weerakoon and Professor Obeyesekere make so earnest a plea, a wise leader has only one thing to say: “Thank you gentlemen. I will do as you say. Please give me specific advice”. And the rest of us can only say, Dear President Rajapaksa, please summon that wisdom, and ensure the country’s democracy and your place in history.

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    Thank you scholars.

    Attorney George Willy addressing the gathering in Houston, Texas –
    “You were trained as a lawyer, and in your early career you were a formidable defender of human rights. Now, you have the popularity; you have the power of a hero like Julius Caesar returning to Rome from his conquests. No one can deny you what you ask. Ask the parliament to pass some of the entrenched clauses you and I read in law school when we had to study the Soulbury Constitution. If you need my help, I will give it free as many in this audience would. The Tamil people are naked and hungry looking for you to assure them that there is a place for them. Make sure they have one. You killed one Prabhakaran, but do not let another one grow. You cannot prevent another one with swords and guns. You can only do that with your heart and wisdom. The compassion, truth, and justice you learned from the Buddha are the only weapons you will need.

    According to Dhammapada, Buddha said: “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an old rule.”

    Your Excellency, as you leave this fair city and return to Sri Lanka, promise me that the ten-year-old boy walking to school tomorrow in his white shirt will have no other red stain than from the Jambu fruit, the morning crow will not open anything other than the jack fruit, that there will be nothing else hanging from the margosa tree than the fruits I smelt. Your Excellency, return us to Paradise! Return us to Paradise!” http://oslotamils.blogspot.co.uk/2010_10_01_archive.html

    Speech of George Willy
    Video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei4cURPJdrY

    George R. Willys profile:
    http://www.georgerwillypc.com/firm-profile/george-r-willy-.html

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      Good attempt but why write to Presidents?

      Would it not have been better for these scholars to address the PUBLIC or various PUBLIC/s of Lanka and the US?

      After all Presidents come and go, but the need and work of educating the pub is a constant given..

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    George Willy’s words fell on Rajapaksa’s deaf ears and the twenty letters by these eminent and educated men will be in Rajapaksa’s bin unopened.

    You can make intelligent, educated and wise men to listen and act on wise advise given to them but Rajapaksa is a poorly educated, unintelligent and stupid but cunning man. There is no hope of this man changing the ways he is governing the country.

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      Piranha. I agree with you. At the cost of being called a pessimist, my view is that Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have the intellect to understand what this is all about. He will not read the letters, because he is no reader; he will not know anything even about this publication, nor will his half baked advisors tell him about it. Sri Lanka is the non-intellectual hub of the world.

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      exactly.!!!

      ” This volume of 20 letters by former Fulbright scholars to our Presidents ..”

      Do you guys think the SL president will read any of the reports. Reports even done his advisors. ? -:)

      I don’t understand how these could be scholars when they don’t have any clue of our president. -:)

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    Dr. Seneviratne,

    I heard persistent complaints that when it came to students who had just graduated in engineering with first class honors degrees from Peradeniya and Moratuwa applying for Fulbright award for post-graduate studies, highly qualified students from the North-East were not selected but some less-qualified students– Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims–from outside the North-East were. It was said that the Fulbright commission under Mr. Jayatilaka automatically assumed that students from the North-East wouldn’t return to the country but others would.

    Will Mr. Jayatilaka provide a public explanation of what the real policy has been on this issue? How many of those from outside the North-East did in fact return to the country? Let there be more transparency on this issue.

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      Agons, Dont ask this questions, as they want to break this as Sinhala is a biggest problemtic today being racist. They want to send a stupdds abroad for educated while inteligent left in lurge like MARA is a Lawyer but he dosnt know of the law.

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    Prof. H.L. Seneviratne writes about the sub text of the text under review which reminds President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the need for “good governance within which alone a sound system of education and a truly free intellectual life can flourish…………..It needs hardly to be stated that this message is irrelevant for the American writers, whose president needs no reminders about good governance, accountability, dissent and other ingredients of democracy.” Prof. Seneviratne notes that Mr. Tissa Jayatilaka the Executive Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Colombo, emphasizes that the commission remarkably has autonomy free of interference from both the US and Sri Lankan governments and that the awards are based purely on the basis of merit.

    While the call of distinguished academics like Prof. Obeyesekera to safeguard academic freedom in the universities made in this volume is laudable, we should remind ourselves that academic freedom is also threatened from within the ranks of the academia.

    In the context described by Prof. Seneviratne in his review, it is important to recall a recent incident that was given extensive publicity over the internet blogs and Facebook where a recent Fulbright scholarship awardee challenged a state sector university teacher in Sri Lanka via the internet to publicly explain why he declined to undertake the supervision the said student in postgraduate studies. This student who is a self-proclaimed member of a fringe political group which runs a website wrote several articles on that site challenging the said lecturer’s decision not to accept the student as his student for supervision in graduate work following an anonymous article published on the same website to which the lecturer responded. The lecturer who was compelled to give an explanation due to that the accusations were given wide coverage over the websites and face book pointed out that the student was misrepresenting facts and that the reasons why the said lecturer declined to be the student’s supervisor had to do with what the lecturer believed to be the ethical basis that should govern the relationship between a student and a teacher. But the said student accused the lecturer as using his power to deny the student the opportunity to be supervised by him. This student claimed that the student lost the opportunity to continue studies in the Sri Lankan university. This was while the university had assigned the student a supervisor and the student had even collected the relevant official document.

    The website of the political group of which this Fulbright scholarship awardee is a member carried anonymous comments calling the said lecturer and another academic, a professor and a dean of a south Asian university ‘fuckers,’ among many other fabricated allegations and abusive comments.

    It is interesting to note that prior to this student getting the Fulbright scholarship, the student wrote a couple of lengthy articles to a Sinhala weekly interviewing Prof. H.L. Seneviratne and had been on the staff of an NGO in Sri Lanka that conducts studies on ethnicity.

    It appears that the quality of Fulbright scholars are undergoing radical change perhaps due to social change of which the Fulbright commission should take note of.

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/University-Teachers-Sri-Lanka/325933394158653

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      It is a small in-group that makes decisions at the Fulbright Commission like in most places in the country with few exceptions like Dr. Muttukrishna for ethnic “diversity”..
      Also, giving folks who are marginalized a chance to go to the US also means that various other political criteria including proximity to the current regime, or being in with the in-group at the SL Fulbright Commission may be be criteria for scholarships.. seems Fulbrights should be awarded ON ACADEMIC MERIT only.

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      Sanath

      Dr H.L.Seneviratne has stated his case succinctly

      “Dear President Rajapaksa, please summon that wisdom, and ensure the country’s democracy and your place in history.”

      The word to note here is wisdom not education. Education which brings you wealth, status and element of power is greed driven.

      Only wisdom can bring you peace, harmony,shared values,caring….etc.

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        Native Vedda

        The statement which I have reproduced from the facebook page of University-Teachers-Sri-Lanka makes the following point:

        ” While the call of distinguished academics like Prof. Obeyesekera to safeguard academic freedom in the universities made in this volume is laudable, we should remind ourselves that academic freedom is also threatened from within the ranks of the academia.”

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    Over to you Mr Jayatilleke.

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    Before MR gets down to long-distance written advice from Fulbright Scholars, he would do well to:
    1 cleanse his own putrid education ministry of incompetence
    2 raise the investment in education
    3 raise the investment for development of the Sinhala language
    4 ensure that universities are run for teaching and learning and not for political escapades.

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    The writer says “All writers do a splendid job of what they were asked to do” and “The longest piece in the volume is the introduction by the editor Tissa Jayatilaka”.

    Say no more Mr Seneviratne. Don’t waste electricity.

    Sri Lanka knows about Tissa Jayatilake and his projects.

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    Is it possible to have the list of the 60 Sri Lankan Fulbright Scholars here please?
    Or any weblink to the list?

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    Dear Professor Senevrathna,

    Can you please let me know, how to get this book through on-line or hard copy version.

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    HL says-
    “Dear President Rajapaksa, please summon that wisdom”
    A scholarly article ends up with a poor recommendation. By all means Prof. Obeysekera is eminently competent to advise the President. But Mr. Weerakone, who was the chief adviser to Ranil during the disastrous Peace should not be touched with a barge pole.
    What advise can he offer the President to restore democracy and minority rights under the present regime. It will be useful if he can give some advise to his former Boss Ranil on democracy.

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    Why write to Sri Lankan president? You another kiss ass who sill support any uneducated, illeterate, rogue, dictator whohas destroyed democracy in sri lanka. You another sri lankan who does not have any intelligence who is blinded by wantring rogue money and rogue power beucase ytou support family nepotism and you dont stand against the violent criminal acts done by rajapassas and the family by sending letters to accept him as our leder. GO TO HELL!

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    Sri Lanka is the non-intellectual hub of the world.
    VERT TURE. AND ALSO THERE IS NO LAW. ALL LEGAL DEOMCRAQTIC SYSTEMS AD DESTROYED BY RAJAVASASAS.
    THANKS YOU.,

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    This group of people who has criticised Fulbright selection do not know how Fulbright awards are given. They should visit http://www.fulbrightsrilanka.com and first find out selection criteria before they write mad responses. All those who apply for awards are first interviewed by a group made up of former Fulbright scholars, other academics and prominent intellectuals.It is only after they clear that hurdle that the Fulbright Commission Board of Directors made up of 3 Sri Lankans appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka and 3 Americans appointed by the US Government assisted by the Fulbright executive director interview all those who are first picked by the independent panel described above. So merit, as pointed out by most of the contributors to LETTERS TO OUR PRESIDENTS, is the sole criterion for the receipt of a Fulbright award. Nobody gets selected because he or she knows somebody powerful. That is nonsense.

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      That will be the official line Prasad, no doubt.

      This being Sri Lanka contacts matter and the old boys clubs work, in this case it is the left-liberal politics mainly. There are known cases of former Fulbright scholars encouraging people known to them to apply and then they write recommendations. There are known cases of undergrads claiming they will get a Fulbright even before they complete the degree. How come some graduates who have been average performers in the university get selected among the few awardees? There is a kind of a liberal caucus which promote their own supporters within the applicants via former Fulbright scholars. So, if you have written to the media following the left-liberal line, if you have worked with and promoted the political line of former Fulbright scholars then they see that you get the opportunity. This of course is done with the noble intention of promoting left-liberal values in Sri Lanka. But then it is not merit that becomes the criteria of selection. That is the issue. No one would claim that all the awardees come under this categorisation. But this happens. Can you pl. let us know the members of the interview panels both former Fulbright scholars and Fulbright Commission Board of Directors for the last couple of years? We should in fact get the list of awardees with their affiliated institutions – full and partial scholarships for all programs – for the last ten years and do an analysis.

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      University-Teachers-Sri-Lanka wrote ” It is interesting to note that prior to this student getting the Fulbright scholarship, the student wrote a couple of lengthy articles to a Sinhala weekly interviewing Prof. H.L. Seneviratne…”

      Is Prof. H.L. Seneviratne a former Fulbright scholar? How much weight a recommendation by (someone like) him would have in selecting an awardee?

      In selecting the awardees how much weightage is given to their scholarly potential as opposed to their political views? How is their scholarly potential evaluated? Does the commission look at their publications? How are such publications evaluated?

      What about their ability to competently carry our academic work in English that befits a Fulbright scholar? How is this evaluated? Are Fulbright scholarships awarded to improve one’s English language abilities before embarking on academic studies? If yes, what is the basis for offering such scholarships?

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    Dear Prof Obeysekere
    EPC opposes affiliation of Trinco campus with universities in South, 16 October 2013, https://www.colombotelegraph.com

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