With the recent suspension of Delhi University vice-chancellor for “misgovernance”, the question of the quality of academic leaders in our universities has been allowed to resurface. It bears recall that in a move to curb political interference in the running of universities,,the University Grants Commission a few years ago had resolved that both academic excellence and proven administrative track record were to be taken into consideration while selecting vice-chancellors of different universities.

At a time when chaos and maladministration in our universities seem to be the order of the day, it may be iterated that the job of a vice-chancellor calls for a subtle management skill and integrity which must ensure they do not have to leave over allegations of impropriety or incompetence reflecting poorly on their selection procedure. Instances are many.

In January 2011, the Rajiv Gandhi University vice-chancellor had to quit after a fact-finding committee indicted him on the charge of sending a lewd email to a teacher. In February 2016, the Visva Bharati VC was dismissed after being indicted by an enquiry for financial and administrative irregularities. In the same year, the Pondicherry VC had to resign over charges of plagiarism against her.

In December 2017, the V-C of Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University had to resign after allegations of corruption prompted the HRD ministry to recommend his dismissal to the President. In October 2018, the Mahatma Gandhi Central University VC resigned after a nudge from the government over charges that he had fudged his academic credentials. Following allegations of nonperformance, Central University of Odisha VC had to resign in February 2019.

In September 2019, the Tripura University VC had to resign amid allegations of mishandling of complaints of corruption against some staff. More recently, Manipur University VC was dismissed after an enquiry found evidence of financial irregularities against him. Recently, the Governor of West Bengal as Chancellor had to make it clear that the VC has enough powers to sort out the impasse regarding the admission process which was continuing for nearly a fortnight at Jadavpur University.

Some time back, there was a stalemate at the same institution in the wake of the vicechancellor’s handling of a students’ agitation following a midnight lathi-charge on them. The VC of Vidyasagar University had to surrender his authority to SFI activists by withdrawing his resignation after being publicly humiliated and prevented from performing his duties. One may even recall the consequences faced by the Calcutta University VC for not submitting so easily to the command of superior forces a few years ago.

In March 2017, female students had alleged gender discrimination and moral policing in the Banaras Hindu University campus. To add to the unrest, the “insensitivity” on the part of the VC was blamed suggesting that a proper response might have averted the lathi-charge on girl students. One is reminded of RP Rastogi of the same university in the 1980s. When he tried to put the university on track, every attempt was made to oppose and sabotage him, but nothing succeeded.

One also knows of countless other vice- chancellors who compromise day after day and whose commitment to academic integrity is essentially a matter of convenience. However, questions are being raised about the role of the vice-chancellor. The VC is the pivotal figure in a university. As the chairman of the academic and executive wings, he must provide effective leadership and a link between the academics in the university and the outside world.

He is by far the most important functionary of the university system not only on the administrative side but for securing the right atmosphere for teachers and students to do their work effectively and in the right spirit, thereby fostering academic excellence. At the same time, the system adopted by many state governments for selecting VCs is such that, more often than not, deserving persons are seldom chosen for the post.

The universities today are so shot through with irregularities and so thoroughly politicised that the most a VC can do is to prevent further retrogression. A lot of arbitrariness and worse are in store if a wrong person gets appointed to this key post. It would cease to function as a centre of learning and it could hardly be expected to encourage quality higher education and research. Political and sectorial considerations dominate the entire structure of college and university administration.

Academics are hardly found to be attracted to vice-chancellorship in such a situation. Many of our academics often willingly play into the hands of vested interests when they enjoy the post. Grave irregularities in faculty selection, appointment of pliable experts in selection committees, violation of university acts, statutes and ordinances, and manipulation of the functioning of academic and executive committees vitiate the academic atmosphere.

There is need to search for that special kind of scholar, who though recognised in his area of specialisation, has both a flair for administration and a social conscience which urges him to help university life when so much is at stake. The vital question is about the role of the University Grants Commission or the Association of Indian Universities on issues like autonomy, credibility of the head of the institution, inquiry into the functioning of the administration, academic freedom and intellectual dissent.

The method adopted in most of the universities is to set up a search committee which prepares a panel of persons for the Chancellor/Chief Minister to choose .So, it is not enough if a university professor is academically sound and has most of the qualities of academic leadership. If he doesn’t have the quality to pull strings, his scholarship may not be recognised. Interestingly, committees have been set up from time to time to lay down the procedure for appointment of VCs but their reports have only collected dust.

To be an effective educational leader, the vicechancellor must represent an educational, moral and civic force in addition to the status and authority of his office. He must know and communicate the delights of intellectual curiosity and disciplined learning. And he must strive to utilise the university’s resources in the service of his community. The VC must have a strong and independent character.

Pressures from all sides ~ students, teachers, staff and the government ~ are exercised on him, and he must be capable of standing up to them. He has to maintain campus peace and order not as an end in itself but as a byproduct of satisfactory institutional and human relationships. The conventional strategies to combat campus disruptions such as closing the institution indefinitely and having the students vacate hostels or calling the police to suppress any eruption of student indiscipline can only provoke the very atmosphere and behaviour by which campus disorders are precipitated.

If a sense of shared purpose and meaningful relationships are maintained, such threats of disorder can be dealt with more tactfully. An effective vice-chancellor is one who should recognise that the university cannot perform its activities creatively and meaningfully without proper interaction between it and the community around. He should be conversant with all his constituencies and be prepared to initiate changes in the interest of the campus.

Only through his personal involvement in the ongoing affairs of the campus can its educational responsiveness and developmental coherence be ensured. The most important relationship that a VC has to maintain is with students, teachers and the government. In dealing with the students he requires patience, sincerity and friendliness. Teachers must be encouraged to live as members of a selfmotivated governing community who in spite of differences in outlook, training and temperament share the common ideals of a modern university.

The vicechancellor’s relationship with the government calls for neither confrontation nor subservience. It requires a cooperative outlook, independence of judgement and persuasiveness of argument. The university is not the tool of the government; still less is it the instrument of the political powers of the day. It is vulnerable to government instructions only because it gets monetary benefits from it.

When Harvard University began to consider its role in the New World that followed World War II, it laid down as a first principle that no senior appointment on the faculty should be dependent on financing beyond Harvard’s own control. This policy kept the University free from government influence. Are Indian universities yet to learn from this lesson?

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)