By Ameer Ali –
“Political success but academic failure“, was how a local Muslim scholar described to me the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka (SEUSL) in 1998, when I visited that place. I thought he was too quick to pass judgement on the academic side because that institution was established only in 1995 and one could not expect academic miracles to happen within such a short period. However, he was dead right on the political side and it is that politics that still bedevils the academic development of that university.
SEUSL was the joint product of LTTE’s suicidal militant Tamil nationalism on the one hand and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress’ (SLMC) battle cry for Muslim sub-nationalism on the other. President Chandrika Kumaratunga played the role of a midwife in delivering the SEUSL baby. It was a baby born with a birth defect and that defect was its sustained link with SLMC politics. Sri Lankan universities in general have become recruiting grounds for political parties and SEUSL in no exception to this phenomenon. Politics has ruined academic performance and administrative standards in all universities.
Because SEUSL was SLMC’s baby there is a misconception prevailing among that party’s stalwarts and supporters that it is a Muslim University. It is in fact a national university situated in a Muslim populated area. Therefore, there is no hard and fast rule that a Muslim has to be the vice-chancellor of SEUSL. For that matter, a competent Muslim scholar with impeccable academic achievements is eligible to be appointed as vice-chancellor in any of the universities in the country. Why should a Muslim academic of respectable stature confine his/her aspiration to become a vice-chancellor only in SEUSL? If the government allows meritocracy and not political affiliation decide appointments to top level positions not only universities but every other prestigious institution in the country will function without breakdowns and scandals.
In the case of SEUSL one has to be a SLMC stooge to become the vice-chancellor or a member of the university senate or a member of the University Council. Herein lies the fundamental problem of that university, which, with endless scandals, has virtually descended to the level of a glorified Maha Vidyalaya. Nepotism in appointments, misappropriation of funds, misconduct of academics and indiscipline among non-academic staff are symptoms of a disease born with the university’s attachment to SLMC politics.
With these general observations let us turn to the latest scandal of the President’s reappointment of the SEUSL vice-chancellor who on several grounds lost the confidence of the Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs. “By virtue of the power vested in me by section 20 (4) (b) of the Universities Act No. 16 of 1978, I Dr. Wijedasa Rajapakshe, Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs on being satisfied that the administration of the affairs of the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka has been seriously dislocated and that the authorities of the said University have failed to restore normal conditions do by this order appoint Uma Coomaraswamy to be the Competent Authority with effect June 18, 2018 for the purpose of exercising, performing and discharging in lieu of Vice Chancellor of the South Eastern University any power, duty or function which has been conferred or imposed upon or assigned to the said Vice Chancellor under the said Act or any Order, Ordinance, Statute, By-law, Regulation or Rule made thereunder.”
This Gazette Extraordinary, no. 2076/13, declares in no uncertain terms the minister’s no confidence on the Vice Chancellor; and in the light of the allegations brought against that person, which are still under investigation, his reappointment by the President for another term of three years is not only scandalous but also a gross insult to Sri Lanka’s academic community and educationists. It is a reward for academic mediocrity and administrative incompetency and exhibits political considerations overtaking intellectual integrity and administrative decency. Above all, it is also a slap on Minister Rajapaksa’s face. It is a recipe for the continuation of unrest and demoralization within the university community. No wonder both TASEU and FUSA are up in arms.
The fact that the allegations against the vice-chancellor have not proven yet is a different matter. However, until that person’s name is cleared after proper investigation he should be deemed ineligible to be reappointed. At the same time, once he is cleared of all allegations he should be entitled to apply and compete for the same position whenever a vacancy arises in the future.
In a way this scandalous situation reflects the parlous state of Sri Lankan democracy, governance and rule of law. If defeated candidates at General Elections could enter Parliament and become ministers and deputies through the backdoor, if criminals convicted and sentenced by courts are allowed to hobnob with politicians, and if politicians are allowed with impunity to entertain and court friendship with known underworld mafia chiefs what hope can one have in cleaning up the academic institutions?