At the heart of the academic freedom debate at Ashoka University is the tension between an open and liberal campus and a management that is trying to run it like a corporation.
A well-respected professor at Ashoka University resigns from his position. The reason? Alleged interference by the University’s management in their extra-curricular work, which stood in opposition to the current dominant political ideology and which the university viewed as getting inextricably linked to its own public image. This is followed by the resignation of another faculty member as a form of solidarity.
If you thought I was talking about the recent resignation of the Assistant Professor of Economics, Sabyasachi Das, you’d only be half right. In 2021, another imminent intellectual and professor of political science at the university, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, resigned from his position. In his resignation letter, he wrote,
My association with the university may be considered a political liability.
Founded in 2014, Ashoka University is, in its own words, “committed to maintaining the highest intellectual and academic standards” as a “private non-profit university, an unprecedented example of public philanthropy in India”. Yet over the years, the University has shown a lack of moral fortitude to uphold these commitments whenever challenged by the dominant political forces.
On July 20, 2016, an open letter titled “Open Letter condemning State Violence in Kashmir, was floated by six Young India Fellowship (YIP) students. It was signed by 88 signatories. The following day, the University released a statement condemning the letter as well as the petitioners and effectively distancing itself from it. On October 7, Saurav Goswami, Deputy Manager of Academic Affairs, and Adil Mushtaq Shah, Programme Manager of Academic Affairs, who were among the signatories, resigned from their positions.
In December 2016, Rajendran Narayanan, a mathematics professor and the lone member of the faculty among the signatories, resigned as well. Although the Univeristy claimed that they resigned of their own volition, according to an Indian Express report, emails sent by the Univerisity’s Faculty Council showed a different picture. Prior to an email sent on October 16 which alleged Goswami and Shah being “asked to resign by the founders”, another email was sent on October 8 by the Council resisting this plan to fire Narayanan. It stated,
The Faculty Council feels that Rajendran’s dismissal would deal a death-blow to Ashoka’s vision. It will be difficult to make a case of personal or professional misconduct against Rajendran as his colleagues will vouch for his integrity, or of having violated University guidelines because there were none at the time he signed the petition. Therefore, notwithstanding the Founders’ track record in upholding freedom of speech, for which we are extremely grateful, this would very much be seen as a case of faculty dismissal consequent on exercise of free speech.
On March 17, 2021, came the news of the resignation of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the professor of political science. He said,
My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens is perceived to carry risks for the university. In the interests of the university, I resign.
A report in The Edict (which was supported by Time Magazine), Ashoka’s student newspaper, claimed that Mehta’s resignation had paved the way for the University’s expansion and was related to funding regulation. The University denied such a claim. However, during a discussion between the Founders and the Student Government on March 21, the former claimed that they had met Mehta on March 9 and informed him that some of the Founders believed that his “political opinions often get conflated with the university’s stance and that they were simply relaying feedback”. The incident laid bare the tension between the management, responsible for the administration and funding of the University and the faculty and students, which make up the soul and the ethos of a liberal arts university.
In August this year, after Das’ working paper, titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, created much furore online, the University immediately moved to distance itself from it. The Wire reported that the university’s investors had received angry calls from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Union Education Minister. In an unprecedented move, the university set up an ad hoc committee to examine the ‘political context’ behind the research paper. In a further concerning development, The Tribune reported that officials from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) visited the campus to probe the paper and Das. The University’s brazen timidity in the face of the pressure from powers that be was reputationally damaging, to say the least.
With each blow to its liberal credentials that Ashoka has seen, it has run into the same problem: the promise of a liberal and open campus, which by its very nature is supposed to be noisy, a fertile ground for dissent and debate, and which cannot, in any feasible manner, run like a corporation. A corporation, which, to ensure efficiency, demands obedience and purges anything that it deems a liability.
There is no denying that the GB is facing tremendous pressures from the political climate but it is this very tryst between the Board and the politically tied capital that stands starkly in contrast to the liberal spirit.
– wrote an undergraduate in The Edict.
If Ashoka University wants to deliver on the promises that it made at its conception—that of a liberal and open campus—it needs to stop trying to run a university like a corporate firm. The irony of this whole ordeal is that the strongest backlash towards the University’s actions every time has come from the very people it demanded obedience from—the students and the faculty, who at this point seem more committed to the University’s purported ideals than those who promised them do.
Featured Image Source: The Wire