Colombo Telegraph has published two reports (Report 1 and Report 2) on the developments in the election of the new Vice Chancellor at the University of Jaffna. After many bitter years of stagnation, many people have come to see the University as the obstacle to openness and progressive change. This is evident in the fear of the mere the candidacy for VC of Prof. Sam Thiagalingam, who has had a successful academic career in the USA.
Apart from the fear of an outsider (who in fact graduated from the University of Jaffna), there is anxiety that he might champion reform that all know is necessary.
Adding to the palpable excitement over the council meeting tomorrow (25th) that would decide the fate of Thiagalingam’s application, the University Students’ Union (USU) and the Employees’ Union (EU) have joined forces with the University of Jaffna Teachers’ Association (UJTA) and the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) to demand the acceptance of Prof. Thiagalingam’s candidacy for the VC’s position.
How dire the situation is could be seen in the University’s inability to reform even when an opportunity presents itself. For the 2014 VC election the present VC and the EPDP that earlier controlled Jaffna paced the border of intimidation to dictate how each councillor should cast his three votes. Thanks to the regime change in 2015, this time there has been no intimidation by political parties and the election has descended to the market place. Reckless promises are being made to canvas votes as though the new vice chancellor would own the University. With the Chancellor reportedly not in the best of health, his office has been thrown for auction into the market place. Candidates have been known to promise university positions not only to those who would lobby for them, but also to their spouses.
These manipulations show the extent to which recruitment to university positions has become corrupted. As the Employees’ Union points out in its statement of yesterday, there was a promise of reform with the change of government in 2015, reports of abuses were submitted to the Council, the UGC and to state functionaries, and had inquiries proceeded as promised, we would be in a different position today.
The Students’ Union, deferring to the current reality in the University, instead of confronting the Administration head-on, ask in its statement for a re-evaluation of Thiagalingam’s application for the position of vice chancellor and to take due steps to erase the ‘disgrace’ into which the University has fallen. The fear among student leaders to take up this issue was quite visible, for the fear of victimisation.
The University Employees’ Union which represents the non-academic staff of the University of Jaffna has, in its statement, expressed its displeasure over the moves to reject a well-qualified candidat[e] on the grounds that [his] application reached the University a day after the deadline. Concurring with the statements issued by the University of Jaffna Teachers’ Association (UJTA) and Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA), the Employees’ Union notes that it would like to be informed about the procedure followed and the tasks carried out by the Search Committee appointed by the Council for the appointment of the new Vice Chancellor. The Union also requests the Council to give adequate time to Prof. Sam Thiagalingam (without mentioning his name) to present his vision for the University [to the University community] if his application is accepted.
In the first half of the statement, the Employees’ Union notes that since the mid-1990s, politicians who have held power have appointed self-seeking individuals who had no qualms about acting as the former’s puppets as Vice Chancellors of the University. Giving a detailed account of the last VC election held in 2014, the statement reports that at a pre-Council meeting held at the office of a political party prior to the election, instructions were given to the Council members as to whom they should vote for.
The statement notes that although new external members were appointed to the Council in 2015, irregularities in recruitment continue even today and questions prepared for recruitment exams are leaked to known persons. The statement adds that students continue to face vengeance and that there is no safety for female students in the University at present. In such a context, the statement cautions the Council members to decide carefully as to whether they should vote for their second and third preferential candidates. The Union makes this cautious remark as its members are of the view that some candidates for this year’s VC’s election, if elected, may take the University back to the 2008-2014 period when the administration of the University was heavily politicized.
In the meantime, Colombo Telegraph learns that three VC candidates. namely Prof. Mikunthan, Prof. Vigneswaran and Dr. Raviraj, have informed the Council in writing that they have no objection to have Prof. Thiagalingam as a fellow candidate in the VC’s election though the latter’s application posted from the USA reached the University two days after the deadline. The University Council meets tomorrow, the 25th of February when it is expected that a decision on Prof. Thiagalingam’s application will be made.
Well-wishers of the University and the larger public are closely watching this crucial election which will decide whether the University will get a new leadership that will be supportive of the efforts taken by a section of the academic and non-academic staff over the past six years to fight corruption and protect academic freedom in the university.