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Where are the ‘values’ in India's private varsities that the 2 professors talk about?

By Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

The two inspiring thinkers left Ashoka University within two days, first Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and followed by Professor Arvind Subramanian. Their resignations are based on the non-alignment of the values of the university in the recent time. Leaving a prestigious university based on the changing values of the university brings question in mind pertaining to, what/where are those ‘Values’ in the private universities in India that the two great Professors are talking about?
The key values at stake pertaining to any university aka academics is that they are or must be the place to exercise free and fearless expression as well as criticism. In a country where exercising such values is long foregone in the public universities already and is further emboldened in the recent time with the heavy handedness seen in the case of JNU, JMUI, AMU, DU, etc.; it is a further question as what values the private universities that are founded and funded by capitalists/corporates they will nurture to shape the society/future/country.
Such questions extend to the very privatization of the education in the country and the values that come as a baggage. So, why would the private universities be obliged to protect the freedom of thought and expression when the public universities/institutions struggle to do so and have made peace with this regime long back with showing more signs of that in the recent times? This becomes more relevant when serious indoctrination of the academic environment are in progress in the public universities, it is no surprise that private universities are either inclined or indoctrinated to fall in line with the rising authority of the invisible hand.
This is a question to my fellow/future teachers and students that when these Professors are talking about ‘vision and values’ of the university, what do they mean by that? What/where are those ‘Values’ in the private universities in India? Is there a written charter like those few paras available in every university homepage (could not find it at the Ashoka University’s website) that one may refer before taking a decision to engage with a particular department/institute/university?
Or is it something in unwritten format that one can assess based on the affiliated populace and the general achievements? Or does it even matter what vision and values a university upholds as long as the affiliation provides present livelihood to the teachers and ensures future livelihood prospects to the students? Among the acquaintances, it is not difficult to assess that it is generally the latter. Or perhaps one has ‘some’ values (even if sketchy) that one tries to fit-in into the university’s functioning during the affiliation, misunderstanding them as academic values?
Mere submission to all the diktats of the university rules with making deliberative and consultative processes dysfunctional among the teachers-students-management; and transacting with the teaching-learning process as a mechanical syllabus has taken life out of both the public as well as private universities. This is something that many including me can relate with. Any specific mention of the ideal ‘freedom of expression’ is not to be found in the written-unwritten charters and conducts of the affiliates of the present-day public as well as private universities.
So, I’m assuming that Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam brought their own pack of values and negotiated them with the university during joining the Ashoka. That their body of knowledge packed with their values as manifested through their teachings and writings are well known to the country and outside.
Still, how do the teachers and students can/may know when they chose a university as what vision and values a university upholds? Or should it matter to their selection of a private university in a country where unemployment is soaring high in the education sector augmented with the high vacancies in the public universities? Importantly, are the teachers and students setting their life vision and values prior to selection of affiliation for teaching-learning and where does the freedom of expression position in that?
In a country, where education for employment is the core value, it is not difficult to assess again among the acquaintances that the latter is a difficult askance. Then the submission of the teachers and students to the invisible hand of authority is natural since that causal path of education to employment lies on the principles of enslavement. Corporates, needless to argue, are likely to have employment preference for enslavement over enlightenment.
While my affiliation at a few public and private universities as visiting professor is limited to teaching specialized subjects for specific time, by the time I get to learn a bit about the values of the place, my exit from the system is round the corner. In other words, it is keeping me out of the system and helping protect my free thinking and implementing, but at the same time the continuous state of vulnerability to find new assignments is stressful more so when assignments are getting offered based on the soft assessment of one’s political values.
In the past, during full-time affiliations for a brief time at private universities in India like, Nirma University, Ahmedabad, and Amity University, Raipur, my search for the university values could not be attained but the overtone of the political values emerged from time to time among the affiliates. So, it wasn’t disappointing to ‘not being able to find’ academic vision and values in the university environments as my affiliations were brief and were based on simple employment in the cities that I chose to live. However, it wasn’t easy to defend my ‘some’ vision and values pertaining to teaching-learning.
Education, to me, shall transcend to enlightenment and empathy besides enquiry at the core and ensuring a dignified employment. So, as it will be in any normal course, before joining I did try to read everything/anything written in the university sites in terms of vision and values besides seeking opinions from the affiliated acquaintances. Rest, it was idealized that the vision and values, if any, may/will be observed in the everyday teaching-learning among the teachers and the students in the university corridors.
It was private universities that claimed to be heavenly abode for free and fearless inquiry and criticism
This meant that the un/written vision and values of the university were laid out somewhere and were to be made understood by the affiliates through the functioning. But when there are more unwritten values drawn from cultural prejudices of all kinds from communalism to color to currency to concerns; people like me get marginalized in most accommodations for unwilling to budge with own’s values.
Several anecdotal references can be made from communications with the affiliates that reflect that finding values in the universities can be a daunting task and thus the aggregate functioning of the collectives eventually will reflect any university’s value. So, when leading affiliates make communal remarks, demean women in science, and even demean science, it gets clearer that one’s own values are crucial to uphold in a given institutional environment even if that costs the virtues of the employment.
When I looked through a few private universities in India, including the Ashoka University, it was clear that each of these universities offer something that is unique from the others putting each as a lucrative option and a difficult decision in selection. What is unclear is whether provision of the best logistic facilities including remunerations/fees can qualify as academic vision and values. Or whether providing an environment for fearless inquiry into anything and everything is the fundamental vision and value that any university need to uphold. I’m assuming that Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam had confirmed to the latter before choosing to start a new Center to exercise free political thinking with corporate funding.
Then I looked through a few well-known professors in the US as was available calling them controversial professors also to check what do the professors do or not do in sync with their respective university vision and values. One learns that these professors uphold their values and have the boldness of ideas about the society including the government besides displaying the courage and doggedness in defending them. They become significant public intellectuals because they value their freedom of thought and expression (and that of everyone's) and keep us reminding about value of the freedom of expression in the education and its place.
Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam are undoubtedly among those professors and they were doing exactly what they were hired to do, teach, write, invent, inquire, etc. It is in the inquiries lie the reasons that upset the internal and the external systems and then such public intellectuals are put to test about their values.
Well, public universities were always considered to be the place of ‘restrained expression’ particularly against the government unlike their conceptualization. It was the private universities that claimed to be the heavenly abode for free and fearless inquiry and criticism manifesting through the flamboyance of having big names and ensuring personal-professional growth up to the societal leaderships. 
With the rising demand of the education sectors and the slow advancement of the public education system barring the IITs, IIMs, NIITs, CUniversities, these desirable private universities of India highlighted their objectives to provide quality educational environment for teaching-learning to produce leading and successful people.
So, in a country where one has difficulty expecting freedom of expression in a public setup, the academic autonomy and freedom promised by the corporate setup must be exercised with great precautions. And if the private universities were promising an environment for fearless inquiry and criticism’, did Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam succeed in exercising the academic autonomy using their individual values and persona and, in the process, strengthen those with the affiliates; or did they take the promise as default for them being renowned people and Ashoka being equally renowned? The inquiry may read naïve, but the unwritten rules and the invisible hands are contextual and volatile subjected to unforeseen situations.
If the universities cannot be place for free and fearless thinking and deliberations, then why they must exist?
Well for the students, the vision and values of any university or education are solely dependent on their immediate experiences with the teachers. It is then the responsibility of the teachers to either reflect their free spirits, which Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam did and is reciprocated by the students by standing for them. 
It also gives strength to find that teachers from within the university and scholars from all over the world are questioning the submission of the university values to the invisible hand of the authority. This, when followed by the university’s acknowledgement of grim situation with a joint statement including Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam shows that we are going through difficult times in education and their places.
All this noise is pertinent as Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam are famous personalities and once a close aide to the ruling regime in the Modi-1.0 term. Professor Subramanian served as the Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India and along with Professor Mehta have headed several committees in the government’s initiative understandably to accelerate the country’s growth path with new ideas.
Now they seem to be at the fence of those ideas and initiatives. But when we imagine in a country when (not so famous) teachers like Hany Babu, Shoma Sen, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bhardwaj, and students like Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, Sharjeel Imam, Safoora Zargar, face serious repressions for exercising their freedom of expressions, it is natural for most teachers-students to lock their values and live in submission mode.
Though in this situation, it gets extremely difficult to distinguish between those carrying their values silently (may call it submitted) and those complacent with the things in guise of one’s livelihood aka wellbeing. So honestly, the places of education that are meant to nurture values of diverse thought cultures with serious discussions and debates to bring out the best in teachers-students, now stand as fractured places of monocultures.
This will get further reinforced with the New Education Policy 2020 which will not only increase the privatization of education but transform the institutions of higher teaching-learning as corporate appendages. So the freedom of expressions exercised by the students and the teachers from time to time are crucial in keeping in bay the regimes, the public-private universities readiness to exercise control over the thinking places and the thinkers. Similarly, the farmers protest against the three farm laws are deep concerns to be raised by the populace to curb the increasing privatization and governmentalization in order to protect the democracy of the people, by the people, for the people.
Academic freedom is fundamental to uphold institutional values as well as country’s democratic values. It is also the path to the evolution of humanity. Its oppression by the invisible hand of authority is a serious damage to the future science and society. The universities need to defend that at any cost, else they do not deserve to exist. 
However, if the resignations of Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam can make Ashoka introspect and even if we go past this time, it will take a long time to restore the values in the education system especially the way they are getting politicized and privatized. While the academicians can be cut like butter (as Professor Amartya Sen says), Professor Mehta and Professor Subramaniyam are sending us the teachers-students a reminder to have those individual values and defend them as long as humanly possible.
Staying optimistic and going by the history, the onus lies on the youth to bring the country out of this mess of lack of academic freedom despite the fact that they are badly suppressed in the last few years during the Article 370 repeal, the CAA-NRC protests, the JNU-JMIU-AMU rows and recently with the case of Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur. I shall rest my hope on the youth knowing that my generation is in the submission and complacent mode. The youth have to realize their immense power to change the way things are today and learn a bit about the social movements and leaderships like the independence movement and the JP movement.
However, they must be constantly reminded of the blunders of such movements like the JP movement that was though initiated in the academic spheres but that led to the current state of the regime and the leaders. If and only if the youth of the country can capitalize this situation to stand up for free thinking and the other issues of unemployment, downfallen economy, citizenship, safety, communalism, etc. there is a hope. The youth can ask a simple uncomfortable question: If the universities cannot be the place for free and fearless thinking and deliberations, then why they must exist; and where we must have them when parliamentary freedom and freedom in public places are diminishing?
---
*Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator

Comments

Anonymous said…
Ashoka bhai University bhai is totally fearless and open in its views. It is possible it subscribes totally to the views of the government . Nothing wrong or leftist or nehruvian or seditious about that .
Does-not-matter said…
Does left allow and tolerate alternative viewpoint in their bastion? Are nationalists free to express their views in JNU and Jadavpur university?

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