Academics value academic freedom. They must have a central role in university governance

Bhagwan Chowdhry and Deepa Mani

The recent exit of Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University has put the spotlight on the role of universities and academic freedom and expression in modern India. As we usher in private investments and effect policies to allow foreign universities to open campuses and raise the standards of higher education in the country, it becomes critical to understand how these institutions of higher education should be governed to create 21st century equivalents of Oxford and Harvard.

It will take more than financial resources to create high-impact institutions as the failed attempts in Singapore for over three decades and the recent attempts in Abu Dhabi and Suadi Arabia have demonstrated. Singapore has provided spectacular largesse and financial incentives for elite higher education institutions in the West to develop their kind in their country. The partnership between Yale University and National University of Singapore (NUS) to establish an undergraduate liberal arts college in the country is an outcome of such largesse.

Uday Deb

However, because of the illiberal context of Singapore, Yale-NUS never emerged as a true counterpart of Yale University. Yale-NUS has prevented students from creating campus branches of existing political parties and cancelled events on criticism, dissent and resistance. As a result, Yale faculty and student opinion about the partnership tends to be generally negative.

The Yale Daily News fumed in one of its pieces: “Instead of being in loco parentis, Yale-NUS operates in loco regiminis – in the place of the state. This is hardly the foundation for a renewal of the liberal arts.” The illiberal contexts in which these borrowed institutions operate keep away academic scholars and excellence.

Professor Merton Miller (with whom one of the writers studied as a PhD student) from the University of Chicago wouldn’t attend any conference in Malaysia during former PM Mahathir Mohamad’s regime. More recently, for these very reasons, attracting top academic scholars to the Abu Dhabi campus of NYU is proving challenging despite lucrative financial compensation.

A useful lens to assess this issue is the work of Harvard economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron. He observed that the “intellectual climate” of late developing economies like India is markedly different from that of early developers from whom they borrow a backlog of technological innovations. As a result, the role of institutions (such as universities) and the values they embody (such as academic freedom) are very different in the context of the late developer.

In his astute commentary on the Yale-NUS partnership, Michael Montesano observes that the People’s Action Party (PAP) government views universities as arms of the state focussed on national development, with government officials even serving in positions of university leadership. This is in contrast to the United States, where classrooms are a “marketplace of ideas” that train leaders through wide exposure to robust exchange of ideas and discovery of truth through a “multitude of tongues rather than through any kind of authoritative selection”.

In turn, Montesano notes that academic freedom, an unquestioned value and a central feature of Yale, has a purely instrumental function in NUS: “Freedom has no value in its own right, and disciplines and expertise may be demarcated in ways that restrict scholars to what is in effect a spacious and exceedingly well-appointed academic pen.”

This is the very difference in the nature of academic freedom that is evident in the recent events at Ashoka too. Mehta dared to colour outside the lines. He chose to forget that he belonged to a liberal arts college in an illiberal context where the criticism of policies, politics and character of governments is unwelcome. As Arvind Subramanian noted in his resignation letter, “that Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing.”

Yet, such a space is a foundation for not just the renewal of liberal arts but building great universities. Free expression, debate and discussion promote dissemination of ideas, critical thinking and create homes for iconoclasts and radical innovations.

How can the vision and values of the institution be preserved and protected in an illiberal context where the trustees are not immune to the pressures of political power? The obvious answer is that the private donors, many of whom run businesses, must not accept decisive executive roles in university governance.

After all, their fiduciary responsibility is primarily to their shareholders and it will be foolhardy, and understandably so, for them to champion for academic freedom when political pressures threaten their core business interests. Somewhat counterintuitively, this very decision to cede power in university affairs will allow the university to flourish and create a world-class brand that they wanted to create and associate with in the first place.

However, business leaders can continue to provide a useful advisory role that will become increasingly relevant in the 21st century. Creating an expanded executive board that includes not only the founding trustees but also successor trustees appointed from amongst the alumni of the university, alumni fellows elected by the alumni of the college, ex-officio members from university leadership and faculty members would provide a more robust university governance.

Deepening relationships with faculty, students and alumni and institutionalising opportunities to receive input from various stakeholders will be critical. Clarity on delineation of roles between the executive board and the university leadership is important.

Academic scholars value academic freedom more than anything else. It is also academic scholars who understand academic freedom better than anyone else. They must be given a central role in the governance of the university.

The writers are Professors at the Indian School of Business (ISB). Views are personal



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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