The health of an academic institution calls for norms and restraints to be observed in social behavior, checks to be enforced and a readiness to be accountable when well-founded complaints of impropriety are made. In this spirit, when a Vice Chancellor is to be elected, the university community has a right to know the strengths of the contestants and expects the electors – the Council – to listen to them and to vote for the most qualified candidate in the best interests of the University.
Sadly, what we saw in Jaffna University recently, was leading members of the Council working through a government-aligned political party to abuse the Vice-Chancellor’s office to coerce voters. One of the tactics used was to put forward a mostly unknown dummy candidate who obtained the second highest vote. The result speaks for itself. The level of desperation to forestall any change in the university administration is a pointer to a need for radical overhaul.
The contestants at the election were the incumbent Vice-Chancellor Prof. Vasanthy Arasaratnam (VC), Prof. Vigneswaran and Dr. Alvapillai, from the University; Dr. S. Gunapalan, Head of Management and Commerce at South Eastern University and Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Michigan State University, who had previously stood for election in 2010. Arasaratnam and Vigneswaran, as candidates, were barred from voting as members of the University Council of 27 persons, leaving 25 council members entitled to cast a vote each for a maximum of three candidates of their choice. Names of the three receiving the highest votes were to be sent to the President, who made his choice from among the three.
The Council had 14 external members who were appointed by the President and 13 internal members, including the deans and senate representatives – only 11 of the latter were entitled to vote after VC Arasaratnam and Vigneswaran were recused. Since 2007, the appointment of external members to the University Council of Jaffna University became a matter of EPDP patronage. The EPDP is a northern regional party and member of the current government. The EPDP has maintained a tight grip on the external members, who before each monthly council session are required to attend a pre-council meeting, chaired by the EPDP. At one or more pre-council meetings before each election of a Vice-Chancellor, the EPDP has made recommendations on how the external members, who comprise the numerical majority of the Council, should vote. A Vice-Chancellor is unlikely to have a second term if he or she loses EPDP patronage. During the 2010 election the EPDP shifted its patronage to Vasanthy Arasaratnam resulting in her predecessor losing office.
Following the Council meeting in February 2014, it was rumoured that current VC, Vasanthy Arasaratnam had lost the patronage of the EPDP and that she had subsequently made renewed pledges to the EPDP Leader, Minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprise Development, Douglas Devananda. This was confirmed by the EPDP leader himself in remarks made at the pre-council meeting, the day before the election was held, on 7th March 2014.
The rapprochement between the VC and the EPDP leader reported above had further ramifications for the politicization of the University. Faculty were told by council members and senior academics that two internal council members (and perhaps others) met Minister Devananda and pleaded with him to support VC Arasaratnam.
Ratnajeevan Hoole appears to have been a threat to VC Arasaratnam. He had contested in 2010 and as one of the top three vote-getters, had been selected to be Vice-Chancellor by the President. Under the advice of Minister Devananda, however, the President changed his mind and named Vasanthy Arasaratnam Vice-Chancellor instead. According to council members and senior academics, one of the deans was tasked by the VC to find a dummy candidate, whose coming among the first three would not be a threat to Arasaratnam but would exclude Hoole. This resulted in the successful dummy candidacy of Dr. Gunapalan, who would indeed score the second largest number of votes.
Friday 7th March 2014: The Pre-council meeting and after
In a pre-Council meeting on March 7th, Minister Devananda addressed the 14 external members, and gave a history of how various candidates had approached him. He said that VC Arasaratnam had met him and emotionally appealed for his support, confirming earlier rumours of his second thoughts about her. Hoole, he said, had written to him to put behind their personal differences but had failed to publish an article under his name declaring his support for Minister Devananda and the Government. According to Minister Devananda, Vigneswaran had approached him through an intermediary a week earlier, and he had said it was too late to support him at the election, but on a subsequent contact, Minister Devananda had promised to do something. This resulted in a change of plan.
The Minister’s initial plan was reportedly to ask the 14 external members to cast their three votes, one each to VC Arasaratnam, Gunapalan and Alvapillai. In the changed plan VC Arasaratnam, the dummy candidate and Vigneswaran were each to receive a vote from all the external members. The Minister wished to exclude Hoole, but had evidently not shown overt preference for VC Arasaratnam, who became alarmed by the change of plan. Other sources contend that two council members, whose names are known, had been tasked to give one vote each to VC Arasaratnam and Alvapillai and withhold the third vote.
Having announced the new plan, Devananda addressed a question to the two senior council members whom he suspected would act independently, “So what do you think?” One of them answered, “Since you were the one that appointed me to the Council, I have to do as you say. But I have one reservation. I do not know this person Gunapalan at all. How can I vote for him?” Devananda answered that he need not, and asked him to give one vote each to VC Arasaratnam and Vigneswaran.
The other senior member whose obedience was in doubt had from time to time, privately voiced strong criticism of irregularities on selection boards and had kept off some of them, saying that he would, if he participated, become party to cheating and corruption at the University. To the Minister’s probing question, he said that he would vote only for those who had been in Jaffna throughout.
One of the Deans in conversation with other faculty members, and not knowing of Minister Devananda’s change of plan, referred to the initial plan and said that Vigneswaran may not get any votes, and ‘if he gets one, it would definitely be mine’.
Evidently, someone impressed upon Minister Devananda the need to call up the internal members and instruct them on how to vote. VC Arasaratnam had in fact called at Devananda’s office after the pre-Council meeting and left at about 7.30 PM. Devananda’s calls to internal members went on into Saturday morning, the day of the voting. Some reported that these were courteous. Others got curt instructions not to vote for Hoole.” But Devananda did not seem inclined to openly exclude Vigneswaran.
Arasaratnam was confronted with a situation where the internal preferences might enable Vigneswaran to poll more votes than her. She resorted to calling some of the internal members at about 8.00 to 8.30 PM, shortly after leaving the EPDP office. Asking someone to vote for her was perfectly legitimate, but as a candidate, she took the questionable step of telling persons to vote against Vigneswaran on personal grounds. She called one Dean and asked if he would vote for Hoole. The Dean replied that he would give one vote to her and one to Vigneswaran. Taken aback, she asked whether another prominent Dean had not called him and told him about the latter plan to vote for her alone?
When the voting took place the next day, VC Arasaratnam obtained 24 votes. Only one among all the voters had not voted for her. Gunapalan obtained 16. It is likely that he obtained 11 from the external members and five from internal members. In the end the dummy candidate had creditably done well enough to be appointed Vice-Chancellor. Vigneswaran obtained 13 votes. The facts above suggest 12 from external members as directed by Minister Devananda, and just one from an internal member. Hoole and Alvapillai got two votes each.
Consequences of the Election
Sections of the university community have until now challenged the Administration on corrupt practices in academic appointments. Among them are the cases of Surenthini Sithamparanathan who was rejected for the post of Probationary Lecturer in Sports Science, and Miss. Nilani Kanesharatnam for Probationary Lecturer in Zoology. The Vice-Chancellor cancelled the appointment of the candidate chosen for Sports Science after Miss. Sithamparanathan pointed out irregularities that were blatantly problematic in a letter to administration. The candidates were re-interviewed at the end of the year. Both Miss. Sithamparanathan and the previously selected candidate, together with the rest, were rejected on the grounds that their subject knowledge was inadequate. How a candidate previously selected as suitable for the job could a short time later be found unsuitable by almost the same selection committee is a mystery. The abuse involved in selection boards, sometimes having no representatives with any subject knowledge, passing judgment on well-qualified candidates as having poor subject knowledge has been raised.
In place of Miss. Kanesharatnam who had a first class and a gold medal from this university, a candidate far inferior was selected. Letters of protest to the Council, from the candidate herself in December 2013, and subsequently by the JUSTA have been ignored. Both the Vice Chancellor and one of the Deans involved in vote-engineering have been leading members of all selection committees above. This leads to a grave question.
Integrity of Appointments and Elections
One sees practically no dissent in our selection committees. Take the Vice Chancellor’s election, where the voting was fixed. Calls to internal members by Minister Devananda, and the Vice Chancellor herself, had a strong hint of unpleasant consequences. The fears of those they called are very real. The voting was on single-sheet ballots where electors selected up to three names. These ballots are held by an administration whose top officials have regular commerce with the EPDP office. The EPDP knows how the external members voted. The voting of at least four commonly-known servile deans would also enable the EPDP to make inferences about how the remaining half a dozen internal members voted.
The matter has been especially troubling in recent years when the Council and university selection committees approved political appointees for the non-academic staff positions who fared miserably when tested and interviewed by the University community. The level of coercion in the system is most obvious among the non-academic staff. There has been intimidation of members of the non-academic staff union who protested against abuses in selections. Once the EPDP obtained a virtual monopoly of staff appointments, new appointees who did not join the new EPDP set-up union have been threatened with transfers to Vavuniya or Killinochchi. These threats will eventually be enforced through the Administration.
Most scandalous is the fact that forces that have no real interest in our education, the future of the society, or the University, will even more have a monopoly over the administration and appointments to the University. This is all done cynically. Cynicism about the persons they appoint to high office is readily seen from the manner of the Vice-Chancellor’s election. Under the present dispensation, we could expect the Council to blatantly ignore all protest against abuse. We could expect a disastrous escalation of bad candidates smuggled into academic positions with total impunity. The University’s future is indeed bleak.
The role of the academic and non-academic staff who have been smuggled in can be seen in their hostility to the unions, their unquestioning advocacy of those in power, and their reliance on political patronage for career advancement. Once we show the politicians that we are corrupt, there is no reason why they should not take over all appointments, as they have done for non-academic staff and the running of the Council itself. After the recent election, we should have no illusions. The public spends two lakhs of rupees on each student in a year. Can our increasingly corrupt and politicized universities give them their money’s worth? Or have we become frauds taking the public’s money to spread corruption into the body politic while giving paper degrees of little worth?