Colombo Telegraph

VC Election In Jaffna: Will The North’s Wilted Intellectual Life Bloom Once More?

Colombo Telegraph reliably learns of moves to suppress the application of Prof. Sam Thiagalingam, the sole external candidate for the post of Vice Chancellor at the University of Jaffna. Prof. Thiagalingam, whose application was posted in the US on 27th December and received on 17th January, a day after the deadline, is an eminent scholar in Biomedical Sciences. An alumnus of the University of Jaffna, he is currently teaching in the School of Medicine in Boston University, USA. Our inquiries reveal that the present administration of the University of Jaffna and one or more internal members of the University Council, who are also running for the post of Vice Chancellor, were behind moves to scuttle his application.

Prof. Sam Thiagalingam

In separate letters sent to the Vice Chancellor and officers of the University and members of the Council, the University of Jaffna Teachers’ Association (UJTA) and Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) note that there were strong indications that Prof. Thiagalingam’s application could be rejected on spurious reasons as the fortuitous postal delay. The two university teachers’ associations have also requested the Council to declare itself on Prof. Thiagalingam’s application without prolonging the uncertainty.

The two unions point out that the appointment of a vice chancellor is so important that the University appointed a Search Committee of senior academics to caste its net worldwide to find candidates with high academic attainment for the position. Academics have also pointed to the Search Committee as part of the web of malfeasance, given that its search failed to turn up any distinguished candidate and, besides, it was chaired by a dean whose husband is an internal candidate for the position. It was, the teachers’ unions point out, simply ‘our good fortune’ that Prof. Thiagalingam came to know of this need. Further, the Council, when it met on 28th January, was misled from the chair by legal advice, reportedly solicited by phone ex parte, that Prof. Thiagalingam’s application should be rejected on account of the delay in its receipt. Further uncertainty over Prof. Thiagalingam’s candidacy will be seen by the larger community as a conspiracy to withhold the quality it expects from the Institution.

The UJTA’s letter ends with an appeal to the Council to consider the application of Prof. Thiagalingam so that that University community can assure the people of the North repeatedly deprived of the services of persons of high moral and intellectual standing that the future of higher education in the region is in safer and better hands.

In the 1990s, the University became in effect a fiefdom wedged between the conflicting demands of parties to the war. Academics learnt to live in their own small world, scarred by its stifling internal power politics. This transmuted into a form of xenophobia and systematic exclusion of talent from outside who would challenge atrophied local norms. The war ended and with it one form of patronage. But the leaders of the fiefdom were inventive enough to secure new patrons in the EPDP and, with it, the existing hierarchy with a new populist line advancing a huge dose of religion. The concomitant attack on secularism results in unwritten rules for exclusion in hiring of academics. Both the authorities in Colombo and the Tamils’ elected leaders acted as though they were bent on keeping the moribund norms intact, regardless of their cost to quality.

As Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association (JUSTA) indicates, the norms were seen in the 2014 VC election, where internal power brokers backing a second term for the Vice Chancellor, worked intimately with political bosses in the EPDP who exercised the whip, and with near total success determined how the three votes of each council member were cast. The current VC got 96 percent approval instead of the expected 100. The Dean of Arts who was suspected to have broken ranks was given a torrid time.

Four of the five deans contesting now were patronized by the outgoing VC and three of them were active power brokers in fixing the 2014 election. This time they have to undercut one another, but are united with the VC’s backing in keeping the strong outside candidate out. Given their past record, they would stoop however low, the teachers say, to keep Prof. Thiagalingam out. The Vice Chancellor had supported them, sowing confusion with pretended legal advice.

JUSTA’s letter to the Council is significant given its struggle with the University administration since 2014 against rank favoritism and abuse in recruitment that has lowered standards. It demanded fair and transparent processes and practices in the recruitment of academic and non-academic staff to the University of Jaffna. JUSTA investigated a number of detailed cases of alleged discrimination against well-qualified candidates who applied for academic positions at the University of Jaffna and submitted its findings to the public via the media and the relevant authorities including the University Grants Commission and elected regional representatives, and the new Council members who were appointed following the regime change in 2015.

JUSTA notes that although there was a change of regime in the country, there was none in the University. It also states that the old regime by showering its patronage, and punishing those who did not toe its line, was successfully reasserting itself and that the unions and academic staff were cowed by the vindictiveness of this disposition.

Both unions in their advocacy have given vent to protest that was long stifled. Several academics who shun power games allege that some of the deans well placed in the contest have connived at shaping the corrupt system and have acted with considerable impunity. They complain of deans who keep accomplished senior applicants out, have doctored marks to keep down promising students and have used junior staff for domestic and menial labour at their homes.

Highlighting the importance of finding early remedies to the deterioration the University has been facing over the past several years, JUSTA’s letter ends with the remark “[t]hree years more of the present would find us in an irremediable situation”. With the election for the University’s new Vice Chancellor imminent, all eyes are now on the University Council and how its members are going to act on Prof. Sam Thiagalingam’s application.

To read the letters of UJTA and JUSTA click: UJTA’s letter to the Vice Chancellor and Members of the Council and  JUSTA’s letter to the Chairperson and the Members of the Council

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