Colombo Telegraph

UGC Chairmanship And The Law

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

We have just had the rule of law severely weakened in the purported appointment of a CJ. The Bishop of Colombo, The Rt. Revd. Dhiloraj Canagasabey, called it “a complete collapse of democracy.”

There is an old saying that “He that Steals an Egg will Steal and Ox.” We have had a big theft by the President in purporting to sack the CJ and replacing her with Mohan Peiris, a man against whom there are many charges of impropriety auguring ill for prospects of the law being upheld from Hulftsdorp. 

There have been many examples of eggs being stolen by this administration long before the Ox was stolen in Hulftsdorp. For instance appointments and non-appointments affecting the quality of freedoms in national life in violation of the Constitutional Council established under the Seventeenth Amendment. The administration was testing the waters and when it became obvious that we would take no personal risks by protesting, stole the entire legal apparatus which guarantees all our fundamental freedoms.

The UGC Chairmanship

Now to one of the stolen eggs. The UGC runs our universities and is one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring quality education. Thus the Chairman of the UGC at least has always been a person of strong academic accomplishments even though political trust also has been a consideration.

However, the appointment of Gamini Samaranayake as Chairman in March 2006 came as a jolt because he was still an Associate Professor and had great shortcomings which we need not dwell on. His main qualification for the apex office in the university system was that he had vigorously campaigned for the President in Nov. 2005 and, it is said, authored the President’s “Chintanaya” – his “Thoughts” or Manifesto. We academics kept quiet because if we commented we could not go to him for favours and he as UGC Chairman had the power to stunt our careers. How he, once Chairman, put himself through two promotions, first to Professor and then to Senior Professor, and how new UGC Circulars helped in those promotions is history (The Sunday Leader, 8 May 20011).

UGC Chairmanship Renewal in 2011

Samaranayake’s five year term of office (03/2006-03/2011) was lack-lustre. It is widely known that many like the Minister for Higher Education, S.B. Dissanayake, were very unhappy and had asked for his removal but the President was loyal to Samaranayake and wanted him to serve out his term. During this period many of the UGC’s functions were usurped by the Ministry as Samaranayake kept a low profile but obeyed the President beyond the call of duty and even in violation of the law.

A classic example is in facilitating Nalin de Silva’s unlawful appointment at Kelaniya. de Silva being a leader of the Tamil-bashing coalition supporting Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa and de Silva needed each other. So de Silva of Sri Jayawardenepura moved to Kelaniya and became Dean there on Samaranayake’s watch well after he had passed his mandatory retirement age of 65 under the Universities Act.

de Silva, previously fired from University of Colombo on disciplinary grounds, has been described by Kelaniya academics as “an arch-Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist who rejects modern science although he is the Dean of Science Faculty of the university.” My own exchange with de Silva was when I was the UGC’s point man on revising the Circular for professorial promotions and de Silva came to the UGC representing FUTA and made self-serving nationalist arguments. For example his position was that the UGC was wallowing in colonial servility by giving higher value in promotion exercises to indexed foreign journal articles and books published by prestigious publishers like Oxford University Press and John Wiley, than to locally and self-published material on which he had built his career.

Reappointment of Samaranayake and FUTA Strike

The Samaranayake UGC’s term expired in March 2011. Samaranayake was seeking a second term while Minister S.B. Dissanayake had been promised a change and others including H. Abeyagunawardena (presently Member, UGC) were lobbying hard for the job. It seemed at the time that Abeyagunawardena had been promised the post. But the President who runs on favoured boot-lickers who would do anything for him did not have the heart to tell Samaranayake. Characteristically of him, the President took no action, enjoying all the lobbying and sucking up from various aspirants, at the expense of the university system running rudderless without anyone at the helm; no Chairman and none of the other 6 members either.

Then in April the university system ground to a halt with, one, a FUTA Strike which crippled the universities when Department Heads resigned their posts and no one was available for administrative work, and, two, legal issues involving the SL Medical Council over the conduct of exams for ranking medical graduates from various universities for placement in internships.  Samaranayake who was still coming to the UGC pretending to be the Chairman, was asked now officially to take administrative actions on these two problems, actions having no standing in law. So without a UGC meeting he issued a UGC decision as contained in Circular 956 requiring three months’ notice for a Head to resign. Other UGC directives also were issued and agreements made with the SLMC.

At this point if a person other than Samaranayake was appointed UGC Chairman, all these shenanigans with his signature would come undone. So to rectify and legalise these purported actions a UGC with Samaranayake as Chairman was appointed with backdated letters.

Pacifying Aspirants

Others who were hoping to be Chairman were assuaged saying it was a temporary stop-gap measure until Samaranayake turned 65. Even at that time, for this lawless regime the law meant nothing. For, the law holds in the Universities Act   5 (1): “Every member of the Commission, including the Chairman and the Vice-Chairman, shall, unless he vacates office earlier, hold office for a term of five years reckoned from the date of his appointment, and shall, unless removed from office, be eligible for reappointment.”

Thus Samaranayake can leave his post only under four conditions: he finishes his 5 year term, he quits, he is removed by the President or he dies or is otherwise indisposed.

As a result we simply assumed that Samaranayake being on a short term appointment was mere spin simply to put off and not offend hangers-on vying for his job.

Samaranayake Retires; The Law in a Coffin

However, now Samaranayake is really retiring from the UGC under a misapplication of Section 73 of the Act: “The holder of a post of teacher […] shall continue in that post until he has completed his sixty-fifth year.” This applies only to his substantive post of teacher from which he was released to be UGC Chairman and not to his 5-year term as UGC Chairman.

According to reports he has already returned to Peradeniya preparatory to retirement. Having misapplied this provision to Samaranayake as UGC Chairman, even Abeyagunawardene cannot now be appointed. Or do these niceties matter?

Being a loyal stooge, Samaranayake will not grumble. Yet we mourn his premature end of term against the provisions of the Universities Act because with him the rule of law, already in a coffin, gets yet another nail.

Post Script: The appointment of Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama as the new UGC Chairman has just been announced with effect from the end of the month. She is presently the VC of University of Colombo which post she would need to relinquish as a result of the appointment.

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