Both Nilani and Ravivathani above complained immediately by letter to all the council members. These appear to have been totally ignored. Better standards were expected from the new council of 2015. Prof. Hoole, having been rejected by Jaffna several times with scant courtesy, eventually applied around July 2015 for senior lecturer grade I in engineering in Jaffna, although he had been senior professor in engineering at Peradeniya. Jaffna delayed the interview for a year and the selection panel decided unanimously to drop him.
The Council reacted strongly to the absence of reasons. One councillor observed that a professor from the university ranked 47th in the world (Michigan) was not good enough for the one ranked 7000th. Sivasegaram, who had a strong conflict of interest in the matter, stood on the unanimity of the panel. At Peradeniya he had made several complaints against Hoole, such as for including human rights in his Computer Engineering course, from which committees of inquiry exonerated Hoole. The Council asked the Panel to re-examine its decision.
The selection panel replied five months later in December 2016 splitting hairs about his chair at Michigan and his not having applied through his head at Michigan and stated categorically that his expertise was inadequate to teach undergraduate electrical engineering in Jaffna. The Council should have, given their severity five months earlier, torn into the selection panel, several of whom had just signed to please their peers. But alas, the Council was distracted and let it pass.
With loads of superfluous paper to be gone through in a day, councils are bound to slip up on several matters unless an interested council member is alert. Then the right thing to do is to admit the slip and take the matter up again. This they refuse to do. The person affected has to spend time and money rushing off to the superior courts in Colombo and stomach years of delay without knowing that the system goes by the immunity of vice-chancellors. This was the fate of Ravivathani. The lack of expeditious access to justice is a reason why universities are so corrupt.
Justice within the University System
The USAB was generally considered an adequate forum for grievances until the new trend marked by CJ Sarath Silva’s action against Attorney Elmore Perera in 2006. Thereafter, established laws and norms could be discarded with impunity. When the Judiciary is at sixes and sevens on the fundamental question of presidential immunity, this state of affairs is to be expected.
In the case of a well-qualified academic with overseas exposure, a perusal of degrees awarded, professional accreditations, positions held and lists of publications, would immediately decide a person’s suitability for a position. Nitpicking a widely known academic’s application for professor for three years, avoiding any real contact with him at a face-to-face interview and deciding on his unsuitability without any real reasons, or some perfunctory reason that the application was incomplete because some incidental certificate was missing, and not informing him, is symbolic of a closed system that wants to exclude talent and new ideas.
It would appear that referees for key academic positions appointed from across the university system do not function independently. The vice chancellor cracks the whip, and the network goes into action. Very few academics stand up for what is right. This is roughly the fate of Prof. Hoole. Peradeniya University vacating him in 2008 appears to be part of the system hitting back at CIMOGG. During the JVP insurgency in the latter 1980s, the university system was generous towards academics having to take refuge overseas for reasons of security. There was less sympathy in the South towards Tamil academics in a similar plight.
Election and After: Dealing on Equal Terms
The VC election was due in 2017. Many felt that the candidacy of Prof. Sam Thiagalingam from Boston University was the kind of break the University badly needed. He was a well-established academic with a vision for a secular university and for using his contacts to participate in and raise standards in Jaffna. It evidently raised alarm in some quarters, particularly among those who wanted a closed, sectarian university.
Vice Chancellor Arasaratnam led the rejection of Thiagalingam’s candidature on the grounds that his application arrived by post about a day after the closing date. Again, making up her own rules, she compared it with tender bids for procurement. Further, she said that Thiagalingam had not applied through his head of department and had not mentioned his citizenship.
The postal rule was well established in this country by Chief Justice Basnayake’s ruling in 1957. It says proof of putting a letter into a post box, amounts to delivery. Time of delivery is the time of dispatch. This was known to persons in the university administration, but neither the law faculty in Jaffna, nor other lawyers from whom the University sought legal advice disclosed this. They could have easily found out. It took the persistence of two non-lawyers in the Council to search for it and declare it to the Council. Nevertheless, the Council decided to have the election without Thiyagalingam. This owes partly to the mendacity or incompetence of the UGC.
After the meeting of 28th January, the Council was servile in calling for the UGC’s advice on Thiagalingam’s candidacy. UGC Secretary Dr. Priyantha Premakumara merely said that the University was not legally bound to accept applications that came after the closing date. This was contrary to the law of the land as set out by CJ Basnayake. The Vice Chancellor and Prof. Sivasegaram, went beyond Premakumara and did their scaremongering among council members who were very subservient to the UGC; they claimed that Thiagalingam’s candidacy was ‘illegal.’ The conspiracy succeeded.
The Hindu Faculty
Just before the VC election, in January 2017, the Council accepted plans for extending the current Department of Hindu Civilization to a Faculty of Hindu Studies. It was an identity project without real demand. The UGC’s Quality Assurance Review of 2010 said of the Department of Hindu Civilization at Jaffna University, “The quality of students… is unimpressive…The students who obtain high grades in Hindu Civilization and Hinduism at the G.C.E. A.L. Examination are not opting to study these subjects at the University.”
The project sought an expansion of academic cadre from 11 to 30 and student enrolment from the current 87 to 320 in five years. It also hoped to offer a Diploma in Astrology.
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Vavuniya Campus
By October 2017 the Council had approved a plan for introducing a Faculty of Humanities in Vavuniya, as part of the plan to make the campus a university. In the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, from nil at present, the proposal aims for six senior lecturers and two professors by 2022.
The latter will be in addition to the five lecturers, including two recent doctorates, in Sociology and Anthropology; and six, including three with doctorates for History or Archaeology, in Jaffna. The department hopes to accommodate 142 students in four years by 2022.
One knows from practice that once the cadre positions are made available, they are likely to be filled in the usual way: take any favourite, give him or her an M. Phil from Jaffna, Vavuniya or any university that is not too fussy, and make permanent. As to what it would give the students, none other than, ironically, Prof. Balasundarampillai, delivered a severe indictment at a seminar in Jaffna during 2011, which was quoted widely in the press: “not a single candidate out of the 269 graduates who sat for the competitive examinations held recently for recruitment to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) passed. The puzzle is that unemployed and under-employed youths of Jaffna (particularly graduates) are seeking jobs in the public sector that are beyond their capability.”
A Trojan Horse
A senior professor on the Council remarked, “They think that by making Vavuniya into a University, on the existing poor base, they could become professors and vice chancellors, but they are mistaken. They would quickly lose control.”
Vavuniya is in a region where we have grave unresolved problems related to militarisation and colonisation. We must deal with the Sinhalese and have them as partners in our institutions. But it should be on equal terms. By the way we have run Jaffna University, zealously keeping out merit and preventing the coming of people that would make us cosmopolitan in outlook, open to new ideas and ways, we have thrown away the opportunity to face the world as equals and with dignity. We can have a Hindu University to which there will be little resistance from our own politicians, the Government or the UGC, but it will be as a university that drives away merit, the kind of university never wanted by Hindus who must live here, many of whom long knew the value of a good education. That is the true significance of the Pyrrhic victory won by our establishment in getting rid of Prof. Thiagalingam for VC.
It is here that we have the most promising means to uplift the University. That is removing existing barriers against the significant number who have done well academically overseas and are looking for openings to help.
The late Dr. Rajani Thiranagama stood for a Jaffna University that upholds the highest academic and ethical standards, is open to the world, would lend a hand to those in distress and would stand with dignity before all. Ironically, a dominant section of the University has fought a battle against her memory, and a vice chancellor in 2014 stopped the commemoration of her 25th anniversary in the University. It signifies the legacy we are up against.
*The three parts of this article are based on the paper submitted by the authors for the seminar on “Problems of Higher Education in Sri Lanka” held under the auspices of the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Development (EISD), Colombo, on 18th and 19th November 2017.