By Rajah S. Rajasingham –
A university in Sri Lanka under the Universities Act of 1978 is governed by both internal and external members. The internal members are specified leaders in the university (such as the VC, Deans, Senate Reps, etc.). The UGC then nominates an equal number of external members, with one additional member to ensure probity in decision making. In practice however the government in power supplies this list to the UGC and the UGC rubber stamps these political appointments.
While some excellent appointments have been made at the other universities, Sinhalese governments have felt free to use the University of Jaffna purely for patronage and political control. Things took a turn for the worse at Jaffna when Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government appointed palm readers and uneducated temple priests to return personal favours without consideration for university welfare. After marking attendance to get the attendance stipend and reading palms, these appointed Council members would leave because they had no investment in the university and could not follow the proceedings in English. Even at that time care was taken to have some TNA nominees who were often lawyers, district judges and such like. Occasional good appointments also happened when there were vacancies when the government did not interfere and let the UGC do its job. Two such appointments attempting diversity were unfortunately thwarted – a Paraya caste principal who spoke up at Council meetings was murdered by the LTTE in tit-for-tat killing when the government murdered an LTTE-leaning principal; and a carpenter caste Director of Education was bullied by Tamils into not accepting his appointment.
Douglas Devananda: De Facto Vice Chancellor
Since 2005, Douglas Devananda who was clever enough to take cognizance of the importance of the Council, had all his nominees rubber stamped. While his slate was diverse in terms of caste, the university was still being run by those who did not know academic norms, like graduate teachers and trained teachers who had never been to university. The murdered principal was of leadership quality giving pride to his caste community but Douglas’ appointments of nobodies evoked greater ill-feelings and resentment for communities that needed upliftment. Council meetings being in English, they would rubber stamp anything presented to them. The VC, Vasanthi Arasaratnam, adjusts Council meetings to accommodate Douglas’ pre-Council dates. Douglas in turn would call pre-Council meetings where he would tell his Council members exactly how to vote and whom to appoint. Douglas Devananda thereby has become the de facto VC of Jaffna University.
The Fourth Council after Douglas: TNA Wakes-up
In the past Douglas nominated three councils, 2005-2008, 2008-2011, and 2011-2014. The last of Douglas’ councils expired recently and a new Council is to be appointed to run from 2014-2017. The TNA, who up until then had been unaware of how a university functions, was alerted by the same academics of the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) who recently vocalized the complaints against unlawful interference. Although the TNA is part of the opposition, its parliamentarians have some camaraderie with government MPs through working together over the decades. Alerted, this time the Minister for Higher Education examined the Douglas list and asked for some names, particularly trained teachers, to be taken off as they had no standing except as yes-men. The TNA too therefore gave the ministry a list of eminent Tamils who could contribute. Those left out have used their own channels to send another list through the Presidential Secretariat. For the first time after a long time, it is not just Douglas’ men being pushed for a seat – and with more nominees from the authorities than there are vacancies, the UGC, has a chance to truly exercise its powers under the Universities Act to appoint council members, although it has to be from these three lists.
Because of this tussle, Jaffna University has been functioning for some weeks now without a Council. The UGC has been debating what to do during their fortnightly meetings. The discussions show a new awareness that Douglas no longer has a voter-base in Jaffna, although they seem to think incorrectly that he has a following in Kayts and the islands. But the damage done to Tamil society by Douglas, Vice Chancellor Vasanthi Arasaratnam and the government seems irredeemable.
At the last meeting (Aug. 21) the UGC offered the decision to the Chairperson, asking her to send out the letter and saying they would endorse her choices at the next meeting. (This is an eye opener to Sri Lankan democracy: these boards are not to moderate decision-making, but to give the impression of democratic governance to one-person governance). The selected council members will be getting their letters soon.
University of Jaffna
At the university VC Vasanthi Arasaratnam, angered by the complaints reaching the Colombo press and the Colombo Telegraph, is going after those who do not bend to her will. The Science Teachers’ Association JUSTA has complained against her about her making politically motivated appointments, while the Head of Mathematics and Statistics has made complaints about her management skills. Based on the flaw-free English of these complaints, she has in her private conversations accused Emeritus Professor V. Tharmaratnam and Dr. Ratnarajan Hoole of authoring these. (Her thinking seems to suggest that only 2 people in all of Jaffna can write English, a sorry state of affairs if she is right). She has therefore recently turned her attention to Hoole. Hoole turned 65 in Dec. 2013. The UGC Circular Letter on retirement (07/2005 of 5 May 2005) reads:
[T]he date of retirement of a teacher shall be his 65th birthday or the immediately following 30th September: provided that when the Actual Academic Year of a Higher Educational Institution goes beyond 30th September, the last date of the Actual Academic Year should be taken in place of 30th September. The teacher concerned shall choose whether to retire on his 65th birthday or the end of the Academic Year.
The current academic year going on to April 2015, it is clear that Hoole can choose between Dec. 2013 and April 2015. A previous VC, Prof. S. Mohanadas who now sits on the UGC, had deliberately misunderstood the simple language here and tried to retire Mr. S. Yogarajah of the same department. Yogarajah challenged Mohanadas and prevailed in University Services Appeals Board judgement dated March 2006 (Application 677). Some of the prominent retirements since then are:
Despite the lost case and these precedents, the VC began to harass Hoole right after his birthday:
“you shall continue in your services [sic.] up to 30.09.2014 in terms of Commission Circular No. 7/2005 of 05.05.2005.”
A subsequent letter to Hoole from the VC dated 1 Aug. 2014 took a very convoluted reading of the Circular Letter (which she called a Circular) that lay contrary to the judgement and practice since it was issued:
Since the actual academic year in which your 65th birthday falls was end [sic.] on 20.04.2014, you have been permitted to continue your service upto [sic.] 30.09.2014 in terms of the above said provision.
Having turned 65 in Dec. 2013, Hoole is due to retire in April 2015. She is in such a hurry to be rid of him that she deliberately misused the circular letter to force his retirement in September. So unbridled is her anger that she cannot wait 7 months till April 2015. She will not pause a moment to think of the students who will lose their teacher halfway through the courses Hoole is teaching. Hoole has appealed with strong endorsement from his Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Will Medusa’s anger based on mere suspicion abate? After all if the VC is found wrong in terminating Hoole prematurely, there is rarely any punishment, and by the time it is sorted out, April 2015 will be long past.
JUSTA’s Complaint: Ministry and UGC Cannot Find VC Guilty
In the meantime the JUSTA complaint on Arasaratnam’s prefixed job interviews appeared in The Island. The UGC Chairperson has publicly stated to The Island that she would inquire if directly complained to. In response to a query from the ministry, VC Jaffna has replied in atrocious English in almost every other sentence (like the university being in Hoole’s services as above). She has stated that the Senate authorized a marking scheme with 50% for Basic Degree, 30% for “Presentation Skill and Subject Knowledge” and 20% for “Vision, Creativity, Research Interest and overall performance at the Interview,” and that all selections conformed to this.
Senate members do not recall authorizing this and say it was perhaps sneaked in by tabling with other papers by the VC who is Senate Chairperson. It goes to show how democratic structures (just like the 6 UGC members agreeing to approve any Council appointment by the Chairman) are there to give a cloak of consensus to high handed behavior by the Chair. The Senate has too many intelligent people who realize that Subject Knowledge and Basic Degree overlap, and that Presentation Skill and Performance at the Interview overlap. It is a shameless scheme for manipulation and treating applicants differently. More importantly how does a Council with trained teachers evaluate the knowledge and performance of high performing academics during a 10 minute interview? And vision and creativity?
The VC has denied knowledge of Pre-Council meetings by Douglas. But those who have canvassed Douglas for Council decisions have carried messages to the VC asking for Council meetings to be postponed so that he can discuss the matter at his pre-Council meeting. And the VC has complied. She is untruthful. A proper inquiry can get truthful members to testify on this. Previous members who were dropped by Douglas for not coming to his memeetings are also ready to testify. Can a proper inquiry be held to bring out the truth?
VC Arasaratnam has in her reply cleverly put all the nonacademic appointments on the UGC and Ministry of Higher Education saying these are from lists from the ministry according to a UGC Circular, a circular of questionable provenance issued when one commission expired and a new one took over. The Minister and UGC need to explain how they can impose appointments to which all citizens cannot apply as equals. It being a clear fundamental rights violation to reserve jobs to party supporters and hangers-on, any inquiry by the Ministry or UGC into the JUSTA complaints will have to find the VC innocent unless they are willing to expose their own hand in this dirty game they play together.
Jaffna’s English Language Teaching Centre: The Bygone Era?
English in a University
The university’s ability to function in English is also at stake here. If university communications, such as those that issue from the VC, are not carefully composed then it not only reflects badly on the university but raises the possibility of legal disputes. More importantly, the quality of English has direct impact on the future offered to students by the university. It is essential that students have a firm grasp of the language by the time of their graduation in order to have full access to the professional world. This is why all science special, engineering and medicine courses are taught in English. Yet, at Jaffna University where only two people can write English (as judged by the VC’s position on Hoole and Tharmaratnam), the VC cannot get one sentence right, and teachers who do not speak English are on the Council, how are English language presentation skills appropriately marked at interviews by the VC and her Council members? Can they read the circulars governing appointments? Can the Council members read the selection committee reports that come to them for approval?
The University in National Setting
These various issues, spread out over the length and breadth of the university, highlight the underlying failings in our national institutions. Universities were once responsible to the future of the country: their actions in the present have a direct impact on the economy, the politics, and individual welfare of generations to come. The best ministers we remember were products of our university system. Universities exist with one foot in the present and one foot in the years to come. Yet now, important decisions that govern the university are being made by those who are simply unqualified to do so. Political interference privileges short-term thinking for personal benefit rather than building a strong foundation for education.
The best candidates, many who have rejected more gainful opportunities out of desire to serve at home, are deliberately rejected for less-qualified favourites. The few qualified academics the university is privileged to have are being pushed out for petty personal reasons. It is these men and women who speak up (like those in JUSTA) and are therefore not desired by those in authority, who can really teach university students to be useful and upright citizens of a future Sri Lanka.
At the University of Jaffna, alas, it is not progressive values of learning or social responsibility that are privileged, but a culture of silence, apprehension, and selfishness. What will this mean for the years to come?