By Ulagu Kudumban –
Rage among University Employees
At yesterday’s (06 Feb. 2015) meeting of the Jaffna University Teachers’ Association (JUTA), visibly angry members demanded that the Deans produce a secret memo to the UGC or resign. The widespread discontent was seen in the unusually high attendance and the absence from the meeting of isolated Vice Chancellor Vansanthi Arasaratnam’s usual supporters of whom one was seen eavesdropping from an adjacent room without attending. This was Dean Management Studies Prof. T. Velnamby who was the Chief Liaison between the VC and the EPDP for the last VC election where he brought his relatively unknown student from Eastern University as the dummy candidate who did impressively because of EPDP pressure.
The background building up to this furore is this: a) the series of memos and protest letters on flouted recruitment procedures from JUSTA, the JUSTA Science Teachers’ Association whose members belong to the larger JUTA. b) the Employees’ Union strike on Jan. 31 blockading the external Council members from attending the meeting usually held on the last Saturday of each month; c) the government reneging on promises to FUTA and d) Jaffna Deans seizing the moment to deny JUSTA’s allegations. We will go over these in time sequence.
Abuse of Power by VC and Jaffna Council
JUSTA has for over a year been highlighting abuse of power by VC Arasaratnam in making improper appointments. Their numerous complaints have received no response except for the UGC Chairman Prof. Kshanika Hrimburegama telling the Island when asked that if the complaint were sent to her she would inquire. So JUSTA did just that and was again totally ignored. It was unshakeable arrogance on her part, doing anything she wanted.
Solemn Promises by PM
The issue of wrongful appointments is not isolated to Jaffna, and other universities too had been complaining. After the presidential elections, on 27 January 2015 at a meeting between FUTA, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations in which both JUTA and JUSTA are constituents, many promises were made of which the relevant three here, indeed the first three in the minutes of the meeting, are:
- Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe stated that all UGC Commission members including the Chair will be requested to resign. Request letters will come through the Secretary to the President;
- Minister Kabeer Hashim (the cabinet Minister in charge of Higher Education) stated that he requests all Council members of universities to resign;
- If individual universities present allegations against VCs, these will be investigated. It was mentioned that Jaffna, Eastern, South Eastern, Colombo and Peradeniya have already submitted documents in this regard.
Elated by the new openness of our government and its willingness to listen, JUSTA presented the following to FUTA at the FUTA AGM on 30 Jan. 2015 to be pursued under promise 3 above, calling for the removal of the VC and Deans and their replacement by a Competent Authority:
“In a university that has a long history of administrative abuse, such as Jaffna, the gravity of measures needed to put things right should not be underestimated. When some malignancy has lasted long, long before the current VC came into office, we cannot see how any inquiry could be advanced without a competent authority. Over this long history the deans have learnt to cooperate and become part of the corruption. If they stand out they face isolation and victimisation while the other deans and external members remain silent.
If the Vice Chancellor and deans are left in authority, no inquiry could take place. They would remain in control of documents and would have enough opportunity to cover up. After all it is a system they had corrupted. They have also been able to order and intimidate people right down the line.
Those who come before the inquiry to receive justice should be assured that they could testify without any fear of reprisal. If a deserving person has been denied an appointment by those who have done everything and pulled every string to ensure that they are not exposed, can the victim expect restitution when the same persons remain in control?
Anyone instituting and inquiry should have complete control of documents and should be able to ensure that there is no interference and the victims are free to testify. Such a person must necessarily be a competent authority.”
Similarly on 31 January, the Employees’ Unions, driven by the expectations of change since the days of political control in everything that ended on 9 Jan. 2015, blockaded the Council meeting. That meeting could not take place.
Wijesingha: Throwing Cold Water
Imagine then the disappointment, consternation and even rage among the until-then appreciative academics and employees all over, when Prof. Rajiva Wijesingha the State Minister for Higher Education reneged on these solemn promises by Ranil Wickremesinghe. On 1 Feb. 2015 Wijesingha – Wickremesinghe’s first cousin who as State Minister is said to be charged with looking after the implementation of higher education policy) and was not present at the FUTA meeting – gave an interview to the Sunday Observer. Said he, gainsaying his Prime Minister, that:
“He will not sack the UGC Chairperson Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama but will address many mistakes done by her.”
Pushback by Dr. Atputharajah and Deans
Emboldened by Prof. Wijesingha’s betrayal, Dr. A. Atputharajah, a relatively junior academic from Peradeniya who is illegally the Acting Dean of Jaffna’s Engineering Faculty decided to move. He does not wish to give up his position at the more stable University of Peradeniya where he is too junior to be Dean but wants to be Dean at Jaffna and has been trying hard. He has been known to bad mouth the VC and Prof. K. Kandasamy who after the previous Coordinator took over planning of the new engineering faculty and kept Atputharajah out from all meetings. Atputharajah at one time was cursing Arasaratnam and Kandasamy to friends in private even as he forced himself into meetings without invitation and was ingratiating himself in the their presence.
In this system the trick to getting loyalty is in making illegal favour-based appointments of the unqualified. The law requires the Dean to be elected by the Faculty Board from the Heads of Department. Now that there is an Engineering Faculty and there are heads in place at the new faculty there is no justification for an Acting Dean. Indeed the normal procedure when no election can be held before the formation of a faculty is to have a Coordinator as Jaffna once had until elections can be held. Atputharajah got around the VC with Kandasamy falling out after he objected to appointments from Douglas Devananda’s EPDP lists.
Now the ever grateful Acting Dean was prepared to return the favour. He got the Deans to sign a memo to the higher authorities denying all of JUSTA’s allegations. On 3 or 4 February Atputharajah, Prof. Velnamby and two others then went stealthily to the home of Dean of Arts, Prof. V.P. Sivanathan, to get his signature. Prof. Sivanathan had consistently voted against the appointment of EPDP nominees from then Minister Douglas Devananda’s list and therefore had little to fear from an inquiry. Not having his hands dirty in making these unlawful appointments, he asked for the letter to be left with him overnight to study. Then, fearing that Sivanathan would leak the contents, Atputharajah and party went off without even letting Sivanathan read the letter. Atputharajah is believed to have sent the memo to the authorities using contacts he had earned as Acting Dean.
That is the background to the JUTA meeting yesterday, the 6 Feb. 2015. JUTA till then had not endorsed JUSTA’s positions. Now they were ready. They demanded two things, there being no sign from the government to keep its promises to FUTA. The first was to know whether the Deans had indeed written against the attempts to clean up the university and demanded to be shown the letter. Failing that, it was decided to ask every Dean to resign.
Second, they decided to join FUTA’s work stoppage scheduled for 12 Feb. 2015 in support of the demand for the UGC Chairperson’s removal, and in addition to call for the resignation of all external Jaffna council members. To call the public’s attention to the problem they would blockade the university entrance from 11:00 AM to noon that day.
There was push from members not to go to Prof. Wijesingha again as they felt there would be no point.
The month of January 2015 has been a time of elation for all, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. The bad government is gone. All communities are expectantly looking to the future. A sign of the times is that Tamil mainstream politicians attended and celebrated Independence Day for the first time after 1972. Things looked good for all of us Sri Lankans.
And what of February 2015? At a time when the call is to build on this amity, the government is pulling the rug from under all of us. Horrible ministers of the previous regime are now in our government. Censorship seems to be still on. Rajiva Wijesingha wants to correct wrong-doers rather than remove them – that is, he is offering impunity. The list is growing by the day.
The government by its disregard for its promises has re-interjected politics into straightforward governance through administrative corrections and the sacking of the errant. JUTA therefore towards the end of the meeting suddenly added a third paragraph to its resolution that repoliticized the university after just one month of being free of the EPDP.
This additional third item condemned the two unnamed TNA members (who all know to be Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran and Mr. R. Sampanthan) who had attended the sixty seventh Independence Day celebrations in Colombo.
After some people pointed out how inimical this would be to the teachers’ demands for a clean university, it was added in parenthesis after this third demand that this would be kept away from the press in the interests of safeguarding the unity of Tamil Nationhood. Alas, it mysteriously appeared in the Thinakkural of 7 Feb. 2015.
In further politicization a stranger at the meeting was asking members to join the new party supposedly being formed by former editor of both Uthayan and Sudaroli, Mr. Nadesapillai Vithyatharan.
It would appear that by breaking a solemn promise to FUTA the government has halted positive changes among Tamils and begun to repoliticise the University of Jaffna.
The government must keep all promises on which it was elected. The people wish the government well and hope that good sense will prevail – indeed, return. We Sri Lsnksns cannot afford a return to extremism.