The Supreme Court recently upheld a Calcutta High Court verdict setting aside the government’s support to an incumbent Vice-Chancellor, despite the Governor not agreeing to the proposal, holding that the West Bengal government had no authority to do so as per the provisions of the Varsity’s Act.
It said that the State cannot do away with the clause requiring the approval of the Governor of the State who is the Chancellor of the university. The previous Governors of West Bengal had, time and again, exposed the dubious process that generally followed in the universities under political pressure. It bears recall that when in 2008, the political class had named the retiring Director of Agriculture as the VC of the Uttar Banga Krishi Vishwavidyalaya, Mr. Gopal Krishna Gandhi as Governor called the bluff by returning the file, confirming that every rule in the book was flouted to ensure a political appointment.
Lately, the apex court has held that a state cannot legislate the appointment of a VC contrary to the UGC regulations. Therefore, if any state does not follow the apex court judgment, the appointment shall be unconstitutional. In many cases, appointments of VCs in universities have resulted in dissensions between the state government and the Governor. Kerala, of late, witnessed the Governor writing to the Chief Minister about his proposal to vacate the office of the Chancellor in universities due to political interference.
The Governor is also exploring possible action against the 11 VCs who had been appointed violating UGC regulations in the wake of the SC orders in the APJ Abdul Kalam Technical university VC’s appointment. Tamil Nadu proclaimed bringing a resolution to withdraw the power to appoint VCs of State universities from the Governor. The Maharashtra legislature recently bypassed the Maharashtra Public University (3rd Amendment) Act curtailing the power of the Governor in universities.
In Gujarat, the state government makes the appointment of VC, nevertheless, the Governor remains to be the Chancellor of universities. Tami Nadu has the reputation of having the highest number of VCs and higher authorities of universities in India facing prosecution agencies and court cases. With politics having permeated the groves of academe, the union HRD ministry in 2009 tried to be bold enough to dispense with the traditional system of a government panel nominating VCs ~ a system that merely served to entrench political interests.
The task of shortlisting candidates was envisaged to be entrusted to a collegium of experts. Apart from discontinuing government intervention, the system would hopefully end the double standards that had plagued the functioning of Central universities.
The provocation for this move had been the bitter tussle over the appointment of a VC of Jamia Milia Islamia University. The Collegium to be constituted by an Act of Parliament should have been able to ensure an independent selection of VCs to Central universities. There was a message there for the states as well. Committees have been set up from time to time to streamline the functioning of universities, particularly to lay down the procedures for the appointment of VCs. But their reports have generally collected dust. Every university enjoys a statutory status under an Act of Parliament or a state legislature.
In the case of West Bengal, when the Left Front was in power, the senate was packed with Left nominees, effectively ensuring that the CPM had controlled the appointment of VCs. The 1979 Calcutta University Act 8 (l) said: “The vice-chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor (Governor of the state) on the unanimous recommendation of the Senate. If the Senate fails to make any such recommendation, the vice-chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor in consultation with the minister from a panel of three persons to be cleared by the senate in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote.”
When the Trinamul came to power in 2011, the Senate’s hold was broken as it could nominate only one of the three members of the search committee. The Chancellor and the UGC Chairman recommended one member each. The search committee was asked to give weightage to academic excellence, exposure to the higher education system in the country and abroad, and adequate experience in academic and administrative governance and reflect the same in writing.
The W B University Laws (Amendment) Act, Section 8(1) (b) said: “The vice-chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor out of the panel of three names recommended in order of preference by the search committee constituted by the state government.” The balance, however, shifted in favor of the government in 2012. As the senate is usually packed with sympathizers of the ruling party, the government could count on two of the three members on the search panel.
In 2014, the clause that said “nominee” of the “Chancellor” was replaced with “a nominee of the Chancellor shall be appointed to the search committee in due consultation with the state government.” Evidently, the government ensured nearly a 100 per cent role in picking members of the selection panel that would choose VCs. However, the WB University Laws (2nd Amendment) Bill was drafted instantly which said: “The vice-chancellor shall be appointed by the Chancellor in concurrence with the minister. A panel of three names shall be submitted to the state government by the search committee constituted by the state government. Out of the said panel, the minister shall forward one name to the Chancellor for appointment to the post of the vice-chancellor…” The draft was meant to ensure total control of the government. The minister would forward one name ~ robbing the Chancellor of choice and reducing his post to a rubber stamp.
The draft was, however, withdrawn immediately. The way in which some vice-chancellors are removed has the appearance of arbitrariness. Certainly, there is a need for laying down a procedure broadly on the lines of that provided for the removal of holders of constitutional functionaries such as judges of high courts and members of Public Service Commissions.
The recent case of Sonali Chakraborty Banerjee turns out to be an example of how the VC of a university can become a victim of an ego tussle between the state government and the Governor, resulting in the faulty application of an emergency clause regarding the appointment or reappointment of a VC. Several appointments in the recent past have been quashed by the judiciary because of the selection of “ineligible candidates”, lack of consultation between the Governor and the state governments, lacunae in the composition of search committees, etc.
The Supreme Court upheld the appointment of the VC of Madurai Kamaraj University on the technical ground of “non-adoption of UGC regulations by the state of Tamil Nadu.” It seems, there is a need to relook at the UGC regulations (18.9.2010), which envisage a VC to be a distinguished academic with ten years’ experience as a professor. The Kothari Commission stated: “A vice-chancellor should be a person with vision and qualities of academic leadership with the ability for administration… He must have the quality to provide leadership to the university by his academic worth, administrative competence, and moral worth.”
The Commission did not rule out the possibility of inducting outstanding people from other fields. In the past, prominent civil servants and judges have been seen at the helm of university affairs. P N Thapar, a civil servant, served efficiently as the VC of Punjab Agriculture University. G Parthasarathy, a diplomat, was VC of JNU. So was KR Narayanan who subsequently became the country’s President. The former Vice-President Hamid Ansari was the VC of Aligarh Muslim University, General Zaki had a remarkable tenure at Jamia Millia Islamia and General Shah as the VC of AMU helped the university improve its rankings.
Justice PB Gajendragadkar was appointed as VC of Bombay University after his retirement as Chief Justice of India. If Oxford University could appoint John Hood, a business magnate, as VC in 2004, why should we restrict our choices to academics only? Most of our VCs are academics, and yet hardly a university is ranked among the top 100 at the global level. One of the suggestions is to request a Supreme Court Judge who might have been associated with the respective state in the past, or the Chairman of the State Public Service Commission or the Election Commissioner of the state to nominate somebody out of a panel of three incumbents recommended by the executive committee, after examining their credentials.