New Delhi: Now, the prestigious Nalanda University is being Modi-fied. And as usual, the dictatorial manner in which things are being done is under criticism. Some call it another covert ‘surgical strike’ with termination emails being sent after midnight!
The Narendra Modi government kept the governing authority of Nalanda University, including the varsity’s chancellor George Yeo, in the dark about its decision to reconstitute the body this week, says a report in a leading English newspaper. This has triggered ‘concerns’ over the future of the institution’s autonomy and global character.
The Nalanda University Act does the government to reconstitute the governing board with no legal requirement to consult the chancellor, and the existing board has already had two extensions to avoid a gap in leadership.
But, the accepted convention is (at other top public higher education institutions in India) that outgoing boards are involved in picking new ones – a practice also followed at most public and private universities abroad. And Nalanda University is the only one of its kind, set up as a collaborative effort between 16 governments (countries) !
The decision was communicated to Yeo by an undersecretary-level officer in the ministry of external affairs after it was taken. Yeo sent an email to all other members of the outgoing governing board around midnight on Monday, informing them in a covering note that he had not been consulted or informed in advance about the surprise move.
The reconstituted board will not include at least six of the current members. These include Sen, the founding mentor of the university, British peer Lord Meghnad Desai, Harvard historian and Trinamul Congress MP Sugata Bose and New York-based historian Tansen Sen.
Equally crucially, the representatives of the governments of Japan – literature professor Susumu Nakanishi – and Singapore – Wang Gungwu, professor at the National University of Singapore – will suddenly no longer enjoy seats on the governing board.
Yeo, a former Singapore foreign minister, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and nine other members of the outgoing governing board were all informed of the move only after it was taken on Monday, three members on the body and two government officials confirmed.
President Pranab Mukherjee, as Visitor of the university, had on Monday approved the constitution of a new governing board for the institution that was envisaged a decade ago as a collaborative project involving over a dozen countries led by India.
The manner in which the decision was made, and its timing – while the governing board is considering the university’s future appointments, including that of a new vice-chancellor – have sparked concerns among outgoing members.
“It appears the government wants to control the university’s administration, if you look at the manner in which this has been done and its timing,” Bose told a newspaper. “That’s not new in Indian universities, but now it appears to have infected the way even this unique experiment of Nalanda University will be run.”
The most prestigious of Indian higher education institutions, like the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), have boards that select themselves, with rules dictating criteria and tenures. In the US, not just private Ivy League universities, but also public-funded institutions like the University of California Berkeley have boards that are selected by the body, with no role played by the state government.
The outgoing Nalanda governing board was initially constituted in 2009 as a Nalanda Mentor Group, led by Amartya Sen, to prepare the blueprint for the revival of the ancient seat of learning that attracted scholars from across the region till it was destroyed by invaders in the 12th century.
Under the Nalanda University Act notified in 2010, the mentor group was to act as a governing body for a year more. But in November 2011, their term, now officially as the governing board, was extended by another two years. Then, as that term expired, the board was given another three years in charge.
Differences with government
However, over the past two years, the board and the Modi government have also had frequent differences over the running of the university and its future, some of which spilled out into the public.
In February 2015, Amartya Sen wrote to the government saying he would resign at the end of his term that July, after the government sat on a governing board recommendation to give him a second term as university chancellor.
“Non-action is a time-wasting way of reversing a board decision, when the government has, in principle, the power to act or not act,” Sen wrote then. “It is hard for me not to conclude that the government wants me to cease being the chancellor of Nalanda University after this July.”
Earlier, the governing body clashed with the government over a controversial clause in the university legislation which stipulated that the five countries that made most financial contributions to the varsity would have membership on the board.
The board argued that the clause effectively suggested a sale of seats on the university’s top authority for the highest bidders. Instead, they suggested, the board could have representation from members of the East Asia Summit – the 16-nation grouping that endorsed the Nalanda University revival plan – by rotation.
The government had accepted this proposal, and an amendment was drafted. It has yet to be placed before parliament.
“We were under the impression that the government would get this amendment passed in Parliament before reconstituting the board,” Bose said today. “Now I doubt whether they even intend to do so.”
The current law, under which the board has been reconstituted, ensures that the governments of Laos, China, Thailand and Australia apart from India will now have representatives on the new governing board – since they have currently contributed the most financially.
India is bearing most of the financial burden for the university – it has sanctioned Rs 2,727 cr. The government of China has already paid USD 1 mn (Rs. 6.7 cr), while the government of Australia has handed over a cheque worth AUD 1 mn (Rs 5.1 cr). The government of Thailand has paid USD 100,000 (Rs 67 lakh), while that of Laos has paid USD 50,000 (Rs 33.6 lakh).
The government of Indonesia, which has already paid USD 30,000 (Rs 20.1 lakh) – this was actually meant as payment to Sen for a lecture he delivered, but was converted into a donation to the university at his request – will not make the cut.
Japan’s government has committed a mammoth 42,852 mn Yen (Rs 2808.4 cr) as a soft loan. But the agreement has not been finalised, the money hasn’t come through and loans don’t count under the university law at present – so Japan will not have a board representative.
A group of individual donors from Singapore has also committed USD 10 mn (Rs 67 cr) – but much of the money hasn’t yet come through, and only grants from governments count under the law, so the city-state will also no longer have membership on the board.
Sabharwal, who was picked as vice-chancellor by the mentor group, was to be replaced after the government rejected a suggestion from the governing board to give her a second term. But the process of selecting her successor, begun by Yeo, may now be delayed.
Yeo had set up a selection panel chaired by him and consisting of Bose, Singapore’s Wang Gungwu, China’s board representative Wang Bangwei and former bureaucrat N.K. Singh, also a member of the governing board. The team was to submit three names of shortlisted candidates to the board. But two of the five-member selection panel – Bose and Wang Gungwu – are no longer members of the board.
Mr Singh will serve as India’s representative on the reconstituted board. Arvind Sharma, professor of religious studies at McGill University, Lokesh Chandra, president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and Arvind Panagariya, vice-chairman of Niti Aayog, will serve as “renowned academicians/educationists” nominated by the government to the new board.