Colombo Telegraph

Scandalous State Of Sri Lanka’s University System Sans Collegiality

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Collegiality is central to the culture of universities. It means that we are all equal as colleagues and it is our function and duty to voice opinions freely and demand corrective measures when we see something going wrong. Heads, Deans, Vice Chancellors and the UGC Chairman have administrative functions, but are otherwise equal to the most junior academic. Academics have a right to be heard and a right of reply within a reasonable time to the representations they make. Our problems begin when these officials start mistaking their office for a crown on their head. The system becomes authoritarian and repressive all the way down. The right to reply guaranteed by the Establishments Code has become a dead letter.

The end of collegiality means the end of checks on authority, leaving the system open to unlimited abuse. The UGC evades responsibility for well-documented abuses by politically appointed vice chancellors, whom it had recommended, by claiming that their hands are tied by university autonomy, which has already been killed by political fiat. In reality what such vice chancellors do is to use their power to control deans, heads, and control leave, promotions and appointments of heads, to isolate and harass all who question them, never daring to reason out why. That is the funeral of every vestige of academic virtue.

Even as people have become inured to symptoms of rot and the stench of systemic decay, Jaffna was shocked by a recent explosion in the University that lifted the veil on deep-seated abuse, revealing the shocking vulnerability of young women, staff and students, while administrators had treated signs of the malaise with the casualness of business as usual.

The Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) has been active in trying to curb abuses at their very fount – blatant favouritism and disregard for rules in academic recruitment. This is what over time corrupts and degrades a university. JUSTA’s reports, largely based on council minutes, have been widely circulated. In two instances candidates who led the merit list for the post of probationary lecturer wrote to the previous Council, which had many of the present deans and the present vice chancellor as chairman. None of these had the courtesy of a reply. The previous UGC Chairman promised an inquiry; the current Chairman promised last June to place our reports before the UGC Council, but nothing has been heard since.

After several attempts to take the matter up at the University Council, the reports were placed before a newly created Grievance Committee after unpromising hiccups about terms of reference calculated to exclude our complaints. In the face of the Vice Chancellor’s hostility and the scale of the problem which calls for considerable motivation, time and energy from an ad hoc committee, the issue seems foredoomed to a slow death in the Council. Those who read our reports cannot but feel that something is very rotten in the state of the University.

An Explosion Waiting to Happen

After the Vice Chancellor had rudely turned down all requests, including from the Council, to discuss JUSTA’s reports, one incident for which she cannot totally disown responsibility, forced her to call a special council meeting on 14th October 2015; and a decision was taken to discontinue H, the Head of Music, in the Department of Fine Arts.

Stories linking H to exploitation of women have followed him since he joined the Department of Fine Arts, as they have several other seniors at the University. The claim by young women graduates in another faculty that having to be fair and pretty is important for being absorbed into the staff, whatever the substance, reflects the culture and atmosphere in significant sections of the University. The corrupting legacy of war has exacerbated the vulnerability of women and children to sexual predators and the University is far from setting a good example.

Given the licence, anyone like H who should have been disciplined long ago was allowed to advance in his career to become extremely reckless. A letter to the Vice Chancellor dated 22nd September 2015 signed by nearly 250 students accused the Head of Music H of indecent speech, using his hand phone to pass indecent messages and accused him of making lascivious advances to first year female students. They in addition provided a recording of an advance to a first year with explicit reference to the sexual act using a simile from cookery. The students gave the Vice Chancellor two weeks’ to act.

The Vice Chancellor’s memo to the Council dated 13th October 2015 acknowledges that complaints relating to the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts were placed before the Council in June 2011 in the form of anonymous letters and CDs, shortly after she assumed office (there was probably little hope under her predecessors) and a committee of inquiry was appointed. A member of the previous Council confirmed that H’s name featured early in the complaints, but they had no hard evidence. A preliminary inquiry commissioned on 23rd March 2013 dragged on, and before its completion, on 9th June 2013, the Council decided to interdict Mr. Arudsegaram, between whom and H there was no love lost. According to the former councillor, many of them opposed this move as they found no essential fault with Arudsegaram and they forced the withdrawal of the interdiction twenty days later. On 28th December 2013, the preliminary investigation was transferred to Dr. Mangaleswaran who reported within five months.

It was on Mangaleswaran’s report that H’s name was allowed unfavourable mention at the Council on 31st May 2014 and he was given a relatively gentle reprimand for ‘unacceptable activities’. Notably, Mangaleswaran’s report exonerated Mr. Arudsegaram. This was an indication that justice had been deliberately misdirected. There was more.

It was the Vice Chancellor who appointed H Acting Head/ Music in late 2012 and Head/Music from 1st November 2013. One who was then member of the Council said that several of them objected, but a former vice chancellor on the Council who ensconced himself in influence by being a trouble shooter for the powerful, forcefully asserted the Vice Chancellor’s sole right to appoint heads. The former Dean of Arts had tried to exercise some check on H but stood no chance in a Council tightly controlled by the Vice Chancellor and the Government Minister who held pre-council meetings.

Two members of the Music Department staff wrote to the Grievance Committee on 30th June 2015. Among their main demands was to take up the Mangaleswaran report (of May 2014) for discussion at the Council. The Grievance Committee which met on 25th July passed the ball on to the Council. Notably, the Mangaleswaran report was not given to the Council when it met on 14th October 2015 at the special meeting called on this issue.

We observe that the matter of H is just the thin end of the wedge of long tolerated impunity threatening the University’s future. A woman would seldom come out because of the stigma involved. She may give into a teacher promising favours such as a lecturer’s appointment, or in the extreme commit suicide. Defiance is the most difficult option in her situation. Here it happened because H’s recklessness mobilised the students. Where the ethics of a university had been corrupted, anything goes: as examinations conducted after very negligent teaching and wrong and incompetent persons assigned teaching duties. When the culture of a university plummets hopelessly and careers are made by political favours to those in authority, it becomes easy to collect fat salaries and fob off students with paper certificates.

To make matters worse, H whom the Vice Chancellor had been trying to protect and promote is the son-in-law of her beauty consultant. The University of Jaffna is not meant to be just one individual. We have dealt with two separate councils on our complaints of abuse to no result. The deans were hostile. After the 8th January presidential election when the Vice Chancellor got the jitters, all but one of the deans rallied and sent a servile letter to the State Minister for Higher Education dismissing our reports as ‘rumours’.

Against the indulgence she lavished on her beautician’s delinquent son-in-law, the Vice Chancellor trespassed on the authority of Dean/Arts to deny the use of Kailasapathy Auditorium to commemorate her late colleague Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. In April, she got the President of the University Teachers’ Association (UTA) to write requesting her to stop the discussion in the University of a book dealing with Rajani’s legacy, but was checked by the UGC Chairman. The incentive for the UTA President to comply with such petty vindictiveness was the VC’s promise to reappointment him as head of department (her nomination was refused by the new Council).

That tells us how a small group could take control of a university and perpetuate abuse. Control of heads means control of deans elected from among them. Control of deans means control of the Council. Although 14 of the 27 council members are supposedly independent external members the UGC appointed, if an issue is put to the vote, carrying it in defiance of the Vice Chancellor is very dicey. The decision to interdict H went through, because it happened suddenly and no one in the Council came forward to defend him. The roots of the abuse are old and deep.

Nursing Petty Grudges and Favouring the Incompetent

Jaffna is an example of the long term damage done by politically appointed and protected executives who do not understand university traditions. After many years of favouritism which renders the academic base very fragile, the power and patronage exercised by the vice chancellor and her acolytes has brought the university to its knees. Power is dispensed to cow down academics.

JUSTA has appealed to two UGC Chairmen and gave a detailed account of the blatant abuse at the Vice Chancellor’s election in March 2014. Sadly, our experience is that the UGC will do little to rectify status quo, however outrageous it is. For example, the former UGC Chairman backed the Vice Chancellor when she tried to retire a JUSTA member before his time in blatant disregard for the rules. When a Minister put her right, the UGC turned turtle and reversed its uncompromising stand.

A secretary of JUSTA was denied overseas study leave to upgrade his MSc to a PhD in the same Canadian university, based on an anomaly in a circular that on study leave discriminates against persons who have done their MSc abroad. A lecturer who had returned with his PhD from the US had to wait more than 15 months for his promotion.

The Sociology Department which teaches Sociology and Anthropology suppressed an applicant with a degree in Sociology and a PhD from Johns Hopkins University on the grounds that his doctorate was in Anthropology. The University in 2012 rejected four first class applicants in Computer Science for the post of Probationary Lecturer as having ‘poor subject knowledge’ and, in 2013, sneaked into this position meant for young graduates showing promise, someone who obtained a second upper twelve years earlier with only a recently obtained MSc to show. In Zoology the least eligible on merit among eleven interviewed was selected.

In March 2013 the Management Faculty while rejecting two first class applicants for probationary lecturer, selected a second upper who had taught in the tutory with which the dean was associated. In another department of the faculty, two good first classes were dropped in favour of one who got a 2nd Upper fourteen years earlier with little to show afterwards.

Behind a Façade of Patriotism and Piety

Postwar there has been an aggressive assault on the secular ethos of the University, both ceremonially and in appearance. In the name of culture there was even an abortive attempt to impose a dress code on women. Pongu Thamil (Tamils Arise) is a movement pioneered in Jaffna University in 2001, whose worldwide meetings whipped up enthusiasm for Tamil Nationalism as symbolised by the LTTE. Shortly ahead of Pongu Thamil celebrations in the University, on 6th September 2005, the movement’s founder and humanities don P was produced in court and remanded. He was charged with sexual assault on a 16-year-old girl from the Vanni who had been raped at home for the past three years. Finally when she insisted on breaking it off, as she testified to a woman counsellor and investigators, she was abused in obscene language and was admitted to hospital when she attempted suicide by swallowing Tippex.

While the LTTE did not show its hand openly, P had two high-powered TNA lawyer parliamentarians appearing for him. As a comment on the times, Child Protection Officer Stephen Sundararaj defied fear arising from the don’s powerful connections and was at the forefront of the case. His subsequent work, as he told US Ambassador Robert Blake in March 2007, implicated parties close to the State in child trafficking and prostitution rings. He disappeared after being abducted by uniformed men in Colombo in May 2009.

The case was finally taken up for trial in 2010 and passed under two high court judges and P was acquitted. We reliably learn that the prosecuting counsel had reported to his superiors that the witness’ testimony had been tampered with in the court and differed from the stenographer’s original notes – a matter of ‘double proceeding’.

When the case had come up in 2005, the courts received letters from university women in support of action against P; sixteen male academics were named for sexually abusive practices, including at least two professors whose reputations have passed into university lore. A married woman and mother who gave her details confidentially for verification said that she was importuned to spend a night with a lecturer to secure a pass in political science. One of those named in 2005 has a case against him meandering before the Council presently. An eyewitness’ complaint against a professor named, which went before the Council, was deliberately hushed up. An ombudsman with teeth who could receive complaints and guarantee confidentiality could have a huge deterrent effect against abusers. Post-terror Jaffna has a huge trust deficit.

P is back in business as a senior union official leading a signature campaign in the University for an International Inquiry into war crimes. Certainly, the victims need every help to secure justice that is thorough and credible, but their cause is not served by persons such as P backed by a nationalist movement that undermined justice locally to a helpless child who suffered three years of rape. The recent case of H is the tip of an iceberg. In a university teeming with abuse, abusers flock to the support of the Administration to protect status quo. Woe to the trapped students.

The Road to Redemption

There is no reason for Jaffna University to be in its present abysmal state. There are many outsiders willing to help and several good applicants with highly prized overseas exposure who could make the University a better place have been systematically kept out.

For a start the Council must initiate discussion of JUSTA’s reports at a series of special meetings as was called for H’s issue. The new University Services Appeals Board appears determined to dispose of cases quickly without delaying for months. The Council should do the same with JUSTA’s reports from evidence in documents held by the University and calling witnesses where necessary. The only way of preventing abuse is to deliver justice to the victims quickly and restore to them what was rightfully theirs.

The UGC needs to play a proactive role to see that justice is done if they are serious about the future of Jaffna University and ultimately of all universities. As we read the intention of Circulars 721 and 935, strict merit (allowing selection boards some leeway in assessing candidates from different universities) is the criterion for selection to probationary lecturer. Circular 935 says at the outset that it is ONLY meant to ‘relax’ the mandatory one year’s experience in C 721 by a presentation (a short lecture). It is clear that merit remains the selection criterion. However, anomalous interpretations of C 935 (b) have been used to undermine merit by making presentation the main criterion and introduce selection schemes that make a mockery of merit. This is an open licence to favouritism as has happened in Jaffna. Is it their reluctance to uphold merit that has led the UGC to play hide and seek with our reports? They need to clarify their position publicly. No one here wears a crown. If the UGC are mainly worried about new buildings and landscaping of universities, they are not doing their job. New departments and faculties without a core endowed with moral and scholarly merit are doomed to disaster.

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