Wanted: Hundreds of vice chancellors

There are around 450 universities, which include Central, State, Private and deemed universities. Most of them require a VC every three years, and some even at shorter intervals. That means, the country needs at least 150 vice chancellors each year, writes Prof Anil Bhatia

Education holds the key to any prospect of achieving the high goals that the Republic has pledged itself to, namely, a polity that would secure to all citizens justice, freedom, equality and brotherhood. The pursuit of these goals would involve many harsh decisions, including the dismantling of the pyramid of privileges that we have built up in the name of Education.

We have around 450 universities which include Central, State, Private and deemed universities. Most of them will need a VC every three years, and some even at shorter intervals. It means we need at least 150 vice chancellors every year. And yet the academic community is not known to have undertaken a study of the nature of job and the sort of persons who should hold such a coveted office. The job description will not be same for all the universities, despite similar statutes. Perhaps, the willing surrender to anti-intellectual forces that has become a common experience on all campuses has created a situation in which the same sort of person will do for all universities, for he would make no difference whatsoever.

Not long ago, I spent a few days near the campus of a university in north India which was looking for a new VC. Academics were busy speculating about possible choice. As things were, they had decided that an upright man was hard to find, no one would have been surprised if the quest produced some weird outcome. However, there are three ways of making a choice. One is choice by the government or Chancellor. Another is choice by the university’s senate. Both these methods are being abandoned in favour of the more devious one of asking a selection committee, in which the Chancellor (the competent appointing authority) is represented, to submit a panel of names, from which the Chancellor makes a final choice. There have been open-minded choices made through this method, more frequently, the whole procedure is rigged. We need a better method.

One of the reasons why wrong choices are made is that when a university wants a VC, it wants him in a hurry. Even when the retirement of the incumbent could be foreseen far ahead, no preparation is made in advance. Instead the departure is followed by an interregnum during which either the registrar or a senior faculty member performs the current duties of the vacant office by indulging in some instant jobbery.

When at last an appointment is made, there is no effort to promote a sense of continuity. Every incumbent seems to be called upon to begin at the beginning, instead of where his predecessor left off. Many VC’s consider it their mission to undo whatever their predecessors had been doing, and in this effort, they receive a zealous support from a vast crowd of sycophants. Most VC’s have only two styles when they recall their term of office namely to be boastful or bitter, or be both in alternation. These don’t yield a realistic picture of the university situation in the country. During my long turbulent teaching career of more than four scores, I have admired only one VC, namely Lt. Gen.( Retd.) K Balaram of Kurukshetra University.

Despite the straits to which vice chancellors have been reduced, and despite the concepts such as participatory democracy, the importance of the office survives, and no university is likely to be better than its VC wants it to be. Hence the importance of the right choice of an upright person. To ensure healthy and orderly growth, a university should during the tenure of every VC, make preparations for the succession.This should be one of the services that a VC renders to the university. It is not every VC who can recall his experience with the good humour of Dr Clark Kerr, who, on being obliged to leave California University,said,” I am ending as I began— fired with enthusiasm”.

The UGC or some independent agency should sponsor a dispassionate study of the kind of VC’S we have had in our university system since it’s inception. The study should include some survey of the manner of their choice,and the considerations that weighed with the appointing authorities in making the choice. The circumstances in which vice chancellors sometimes leave before their tenure could also be studied. The study might provide some guidance for the good governance of the universities and would also prove to be a goodly compendium of entertainment

The proliferation of university teaching departments and a creation of multitude of professorships should have changed the scene. But the illusions of power that go with administrative positions have spread to the universities, and there are few learned men in our seats of learning who do not yearn for administrative status of some sort or other. And outside the universities, the hierarchical pattern, with the bureaucrat administrator at the apex prevails in all areas of education.

Mr MC Chagla, during his tenure as Minister of Education, continued to maintain that “ we made a serious mistake, when we drafted the Constitution, in making education a State subject”. He even advanced the thesis that the present arrangement was a legacy of the British, who wanted only clerks to administer the country. Evidently he ascribed our education’s lack of ambition to its being controlled by small men in the State capitals.

The anarchic environment in which our higher education had been functioning for some time, had made it impossible to distinguish between bad management and bad leadership.It made no distinction whether the persons incharge were deficient in administrative skills or deficient in academically valuable ideas. Examinations, for instance, could not be conducted properly, that being so, there was insufficient concern over the basic question of whether we were examining anything worthwhile. There were VC’s, who, in times of crises, behaved like the Gilbertian character “ Who led the regiment from behind,He found it less exciting”. Since the outcome was a rout anyway, did anyone bother to ascertain whether it was due to a failure of strategy or a failure of character..

The excessive visibility of the administrators in our universities and colleges, and the usages of governance that yield the illusion of accomplishment even though the real tasks of education remain unattended to, have together produced an academic aridness, the extent of which is yet to be realised by the public at large. An immediate reform could be to de- emphasise administration, and decentralise it to the point where it will be seen, as sub serving the needs of teaching and of learning. After all, we want a VC to be a leader, and not a paper shuffler or even a manager. Perhaps a first step towards escape from the pressures of trivia is to follow Peter Drucker’s advice to remove all paper from the desk of the man whose role is that of creative and constructive leadership. The law is really not so inadequate as those in authority sometimes pretend Besides, the power and influence of a university are not expected to be spelt out exhaustively and exclusively in its statutes. By its decisions and attitudes,I it is expected to build up such moral authority as individuals and institutions would hesitate to defy. There are no statutory substitutes for the will to insist on the right standards.

Professor Anil Bhatia (retd) was working with Department of English, DN College, Hisar. Views expressed are his own