Motivation and Reluctance
There is a lot being said about how VCs and diplomats were being appointed under the previous regime. My experience is relevant to understanding how it was done. I will share that although I am reluctant to publish this personal information which will be twisted for devious ends. I will nonetheless share my experience because it is instructive for guarding against a repetition.
A nationalist friend who has not been in touch with me for a while asked me “Who appointed you VC in Jaffna?” He had swallowed the propaganda that I was brought from nowhere by the backdoor and made VC by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2006. I told him what was true then: that every VC is appointed by the President by the normal process – public advertisement by the then relatively apolitical council, election to the slate of three by the Council and final selection by the president from the three names forwarded by the Council.
That appointment by the President is something that selectively bugs some people as if no independent Tamil person should wish to serve as a VC to avoid appointment by the President. It is a position that only expatriate Tamils who have no stake in Sri Lanka can afford to take. By that reasoning, the VC post should be left to stooges and Tamil students abandoned to the care of those without any skills.
I felt I had a vision and skills to offer University of Jaffna and applied for the post of VC In 2006. The Jaffna Council voted for me and, having the most experience and qualifications, I was appointed. The LTTE opposed my appointment. My family and I were threatened with death. However after operating from Colombo and the US my appointment was terminated as the government felt the university was suffering as a result of my absence.
In 2011 also I applied and this time I was actively opposed by Douglas Devananda who now controlled the Council. Nonetheless enough of his appointees broke ranks and I got into the Council’s short list of three. Again I had the best case in terms of credentials. President Rajapaksa called me up and, as is the custom, after verifying that I would accept, instructed his secretary Lalith Weeratunga in my presence to send me the letter of appointment the next morning. That letter never came. I was told by Sinhalese friends that it had been signed but was still at the President’s office. It was never transmitted because Douglas Devananda, as he himself had told Tamil pressmen, had informed the President that if I am appointed against his wishes he would quit politics.
The matter then dragged on with no appointment. At this point the government was having problems in London over Tamil political activism and was looking for a Tamil who as High Commissioner would state that there is no discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Secretary for Higher Education, Dr. Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne, contacted me and asked if I would, instead of the VC position, accept a high commissionership. He said the request came from the President.
I replied that I am trained well to be a good Vice Chancellor but have no idea of how to be a good ambassador. I added that as a teetotaler I did not even know how to propose a toast at a diplomatic function. I declined. Subsequently Chris Nonis was appointed to the Court of St. James and Douglas Devandanda’s nominee was made VC Jaffna.
Eastern University of Sri Lanka – EUSL
Subsequently while I was still in Jaffna, I suppose there was some residual sense of obligation in the regime over my appointment as VC not having been made. As a result the then UGC Chairman Prof. Gamini Samaranayake informed me that there had been problems at Eastern University, and Prof. N.R. Arthenayake who had been sent as Competent Authority, wanted to be relieved of his duties and had recommended that I should be appointed.
The Chairman said they would advertise the post of VC and I should apply. I respectfully declined saying I did not know the people at Eastern University and would stand no chance of getting elected. I was aghast when he responded, “You do not worry. You apply and we will make sure you are elected.” The game played in Jaffna by Douglas Devananda was being extended to Eastern University. I declined saying that commanding council members how to vote would not be ethical.
The post was advertised after my return to the US. A large group of senior academics at EUSL implored me to apply. I declined. In thanking the group, this is what I wrote:
“The President called me up to seek my consent before the VC/Jaffna appointment and promised me the letter the next day. But that is all history now. I do not want to be up for any consideration before him after that. … I certainly [do] not want any manipulation of the vote as Douglas did to me in Jaffna.”
I trust that this information is for the public good.