The government seems to be heading for a yet another confrontation with university academics, this time over the highly controversial appointment of the Vice Chancellor (VC) of University of Colombo. It is reported that the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, under pressure within the family, is yet again considering appointing Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama, as the VC. According to the sources from the pro government SLFP university teachers’ union, academics of all the faculties of Colombo University will join in trade union action against what they consider a blatant political interference in universality autonomy by appointing a lesser qualified applicant for the post ignoring the most qualified person among the candidates. Moreover, academics have pointed out that Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama being the husband of Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama, the Chairperson, University Grants Commission (UGC), in the event of his appointment to the post, a serious conflict of interest will emerge given the UGC Chairperson’s ability to use her official authority to interfere in the running the affairs of the University of Colombo.
These facts have been revealed consequent to a dinner meeting hosted by the Minister of Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake at his residence in the evening of May 22nd. It is reported that the dinner had been organized under the President’s directive with the objective of reconciling the two warring pro-government sections within the University of Colombo which have fiercely lobbied the President to appoint the candidate of their choice, namely either Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama or Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa.
While Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama and her husband had represented their faction at the dinner, Prof. Premakumara de Silva, the President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party teachers’ union and the Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC), Student Affairs, University of Colombo had lead the pro- Mahanamahewa faction with a few more members of the SLFP teachers union in attendance. Reportedly, the two factions had traded serious accusations against each other, the arguments being tense and hostile at times. It is reported that the discussion ended without reaching a point of reconciliation. While Prof. Premakumara de Silva had threatened to resign from the post of DVC, members of the SLFP teachers’ union had pointed out that the above proposed appointment will lead to the strengthening of the position of FUTA yet again as the FUTA is bound to launch a trade union action over this appointment and that the SLFP Teachers’ Union would not stand in its way. It is this same SLFP teachers’ union that campaigned earlier to solicit the support of the Defense Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa to get Dr. Mahanamahewa appointed to the post in vain.
The feud between the Hirimburegama faction and the SLFP University Teachers’’ Union
According to our sources, Prof. Premakumara de Silva had been initially a loyalist of Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama when she was the Vice Chancellor, and both together were actively involved in undermining the FUTA strike. However, later Prof. Hirimburegama fell out with Prof. Premakumara de Silva and resisted the proposal of the Minister of Higher Education to appoint Prof. Premakumara de Silva as the DVC. However, the Minster’s authority finally prevailed upon and Prof. de Silva was appointed as the DVC by Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama on the eve of leaving the VC post to take up the post of Chairperson, UGC. With the SLFP university teachers’ union putting their full weight behind the candidacy of Dr. Mahanamahewa for the post of VC, the animosity between the Hirimburegama faction and the SLFP university teachers’ union got intensified and hence the effort on the part of the government to reconcile the two parties before appointing Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama as the VC. However this effort is said to have failed and now the SLFP university teachers’ union is said to be organizing itself to put their full weight behind the candidacy of Professor Lakshman Dissanayake for the post of VC and appeal to the President not to appoint Dr. Hirimburegama as it will lead to a situation where the academics will overwhelmingly rise up against that decision thus disrupting the life of the university.
Minister Dissanayake had revealed to the SLFP university teachers’ union that the President’s decision to appoint Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama is taken despite his objections to such a decision. The Minister had further added that while his first choice would be Senior Professor Lakshman Dissanayake, if the latter is to be sidelined he would still prefer Dr. Mahanamaheava to Dr. Hirimburegama.
Playing the card of FUTA bogey and misleading the President
It has also been revealed that in the effort to get Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama appointed for the post, capitalizing on the President’s well known antipathy to the FUTA, the President has been purposely mislead by an interested party through a well planned misinformation and disinformation campaign. The highlight of this has been portraying Professor Lakshman Dissanayake as a FUTA activist or a Fonseka loyalist. To this effect, fraudulently produced photographs using photo-shop technology, combining photos of Professor Lakshman Dissanayaka from other occasions with those from FUTA general activities and Sarath Fonseka’s election campaign are said to have been submitted to the President.
Academics point out that the President who was formerly a trade unionist himself and the Minister of Labour should not consider as if it is crime to be a member of FUTA, the largest Union of the university academics representing thousands of members many of whom have supported to bring the Rajapaksa regime to power on two occasions. With its very long history FUTA has been the sole representative of the entire university community in the country. Many members of the SLFP university teacher’s union themselves are members of FUTA affiliated sister unions. It is imperative that all self-respecting university academics should be members of FUTA and as such the FUTA is not an anti-government union.
Academics also point out that on the other hand Professor Lakshman Dissanayake is only a general member of FUTA affiliated sister union of the Faculty of Arts, like almost all of the academics at the Faculty including many senior academics. It has also been pointed out that Professor Lakshman Dissanayake was not even in the country during the campaign of Sarath Fonseka of which Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa was an active campaigner. Another fraudulent argument put forward by the Hirimburegama faction is that Professor Lakshman Dissanayake has time to serve only one term as the Vice Chancellor if he is appointed to the post and because of that he will play havoc as the Vice Chancellor. It is reported that this information regarding the remaining period of service is also totally false and has been fabricated to discredit the candidacy of Professor Lakshman Dissanayake. Academics are surprised that such blatant fabrication of lies have been carried out by persons who are holding high offices with a view to purposely mislead the President.
Our sources report that academics at the University of Colombo are closely watching the situation and they earnestly hope that the government would not embark on the war path with the university academics by going ahead with the appointment of a lesser qualified person to the post of Vice Chancellor of this leading university of the country or subjecting it to the family rule
On an earlier occasion Colombo Telegraph reported how the candidates for the post of VC fared at the voting by the Governing Council of the University of Colombo. Of the three candidates, Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama, reportedly a grade II senior lecturer got 13 votes as against the 15 votes earned by the candidate with the highest votes, namely, presently Senior Professor Lakshman Dissanayake