Ashoka University is a liberal arts university situated in Sonepat, Haryana which continues to proclaim that its aim is to “help students become well-rounded individuals who can think critically about issues from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively and become leaders with a commitment to public service”. One would hope that students coming out of this university will be torch-bearers of justice and speak truth to power. However, except for a handful of voices in every batch of alumnae who speak when they see injustice, most others ensure that the status quo is maintained. There have been glaring instances of injustice to professors who questioned or taught about questioning the establishment and to a recent survivor of sexual harassment who had to endure ‘due process’ lasting more than a year with many discrepancies. There is also a disregard to the idea of affirmative action no matter how many surveys the students come up with regarding the lack of diversity in Ashoka University and instances of discrimination. Yet, both the alumni-council, the elected body of Ashoka alumnae and the university continues to toe a line that ruffles only a few feathers of social justice through piecemeal measures.
For instance, in July 2018, a few concerned alumnae and students launched a website detailing out the way in which a sexual harassment case against Mitul Baruah, a professor in Ashoka University. The due process which lasted almost a year had so many discrepancies resulting in no justice to the survivor. A disciplinary committee report that looked at the sexual harassment allegation signed in January 2018 was given to the survivor in April 2018. But, between the months of February and April, the website elaborates on how there were series of emails between the survivor and Vice Chancellor wherein the survivor repeatedly asked for the findings of the report and the action that will be taken. In response, the vice-chancellor only gave false assurances and in one instance expressed that the wait of the due process was excruciating for the university too, as if the trauma that the survivor and the university that goes through is the same. The university has maintained radio silence on this issue for almost a year now and has not even communicated to the survivor on the action taken against Mitul Baruah who continues to teach at the university according to principles of natural justice.
While the other discrepancies have been covered by the media already, this case could have been the space wherein the students of Ashoka University, entire alumnae including the elected alumni council could have finally put their liberal arts education to use. The professors of Ashoka University who talk about liberal arts and attend literary festivals could finally act on their thoughts of social justice. But, alas, the reality was different. Except for a professor or two, the entire faculty of Ashoka University maintained silence and never raised their voice publicly. The alumni council only engaged in piecemeal measures of having private meetings with the administration only to expound their uncritical faith and trust in the decisions of the administration despite the glaring discrepancies. This is despite the fact that the identity of the survivor was revealed in one of these meetings which goes against legal and ethical values embedded in handling cases related to sexual harassment or abuse.
Neoliberal Economy and Higher Education
What would explain the resistance to questioning authority? A way to understand this is to place these instances in the neoliberal economy constituting of free markets, privatisation, and financialisation that we are all part of. We live in times wherein education is seen as a commodity that is to be purchased and students are treated as consumers of this commodity. Once the commodity is consumed, the students then have to enter capitalist economy – many to clear their education loan debts and to take part in a profit-driven and profit-centered work. The role of the government in providing education and the role of public universities is deemphasised in such a framework citing bureaucracy, corruption, low quality education and private universities are seen as the shining beacons of efficiency and high quality education. In addition, the public expenditure on education by the government is continually reduced and instead non-banking finance companies are set up to provide loans to public universities. This would mean that universities are to be run like businesses and inevitably increase their fees to meet the debt from the loans.
In times like this, private universities like Ashoka University are seen as the way forward. Ashoka university is a not-for-profit university which runs based on the concept of collective philanthropy. The university is funded by many business bureaucrats and capitalists who are millionaires and billionaires. One can see a similar business model applied to universities such as Krea, Anant University and fellowships such as Vedica Fellowship, Naropa Fellowship etc.
In universities such as this, what would the culture of dissent and politics look like? How much can a capitalist funded university that wants to impart high quality liberal arts education succeed in ensuring critical education? Would such universities ever open up its gates for students from all sections of the society in a country wherein less than 10% have access to higher education? Would it allow for complete academic and intellectual freedom?
Alumnae, Alumni Council, and the University
The alumni council of Ashoka University which is the elected body and is responsible for representing the interests of the alumnae has largely remained as a unit that doesn’t transgress certain boundaries to maintain a cordial relationship with university administration. Over the years, it has put its energies in promoting networking of the alumnae and publicity of the university in various forums. It utilises most of the funds provided by the Alumni Board (Alumni Board constitutes members from the many founders, funders, and deans of Ashoka University) which is around 20 lakhs every year to conduct alumnae meetups and events. If in case the alumni council transgresses certain boundaries – let’s say by starting a petition or condemning the university for its actions on professors or raising a collective voice against injustice, and thus taking critical stances against certain actions of the university – then the fear is that the council will lose this cordial relationship and the funding that it gets. This limits the politics of the council. In addition, the council has reiterated time and again that it can only “suggest” the university any changes in the university policies or the apprehensions raised by the alumnae. This sort of relationship has emerged out of the meetings of the council with alumni board wherein some of the board members have reiterated that the council should remain within these boundaries, thus despising any political action or sustained measures to work against many of the injustices.
It is no surprise then why the council focuses its energies on raising funds to support ‘underprivileged-students’ instead of ever questioning the increasing educational fees, proposing workshops and awareness sessions on sexual harassment instead of ensuring mandatory gender-sensitisation for students, faculty, and CASH (Committee Against Sexual Harassment) members or requesting for the annual reports of the CASH, raising funds from the alumnae cohort for providing scholarships instead of ever working on pushing the administration to implement affirmative action policies.
Another facet that limits dissent is that many of the alumnae utilise the connections that they make with different professors and founders/funders of Ashoka University to further their educational and professional career, businesses, social enterprises. Many alumnae are also funded by the same founders/funders who fund Ashoka University and many work in the university as teaching assistants or in administrative roles. While it does provide the support to alumnae that isn’t easily available outside these networks, it also ties the alumnae down since they are dependent on and benefiting from this privileged network for their successes and thus will never question the administration fearing ostracisation from the network.
Thus, funding and networks that provide access to capital and support for personal and professional progress without which one cannot easily further their work, education, or careers become some of the key factors that limit political action. Any strong dissent against the university would mean that the alumnus will stand the chances of losing out on the privileges that come along with studying at Ashoka University and thus cannot participate in the neoliberal market economy as easily as intended.
Collectivisation , Political Expression, and Governance in a Neoliberal Economy
In a neoliberal economy, there have been multiple examples of how there is continuous shutting down and destabilization of trade unions by the government. Strong labour laws in a neoliberal country are amended to ensure more power to the business owners than its workers to ensure a profit-driven and profit-centered market. Similarly, in private universities across the world, there is a an aversion to allowing student politics within campuses and involving students in every step of the decision making process.
Ashoka University which imparts liberal education aims to create critical individuals who have the ability to look at the world holistically. However, when the same criticality is applied to the functioning of the university, the administration of Ashoka University responds in a defensive manner. In fact, the more distant the issue based on which students or alumnae are dissenting about, the more space that the administration provides. But when it comes to its own actions, the university administration banks on the fact that there will always be only a handful of alumnae raising voices against injustice. All the administration has to do is to maintain radio silence for a long period and the any voices against injustice – be it dismissal of professors, affirmative action, sexual harassment, fees, usage of university funds etc get scuttled because the handful of alumnae would not have the energy to keep the questioning going on. The mobilisation of alumnae and collaborative movement against injustices have also been effectively curtailed by an email policy that doesn’t allow students or alumnae to send emails to other email groups which they are not part of. For instance, an alumnus can never email the email group of faculty or current students of Ashoka University directly and has to go through a moderator to be able to reach across. While the university continues to use alumnae’s names and achievements to speak about the university, the alumnae or students are told to not sign petitions for political causes using their designations or the name of the university.
Similar to how the onus is put on the individual in a neoliberal world to deal with societal issues of depression, unemployment, casteism etc through self-care, individual acts of dissent and social media protests, Ashoka University administration toes the line of putting the onus on the alumnae to come up with solutions for increasing diversity and bettering inclusivity. Time and again, instead of putting the vast resources that the university has to get the best minds together to figure systemic issues, the administration delays effective action by transferring the responsibility on to the alumnae who now have to do the work of research and thinking amidst their daily jobs and lives. For instance, year after year, implementation of an affirmative action policy is put on hold despite multiple surveys by students and alumnae, with the administration expressing that they are open to solutions from the alumnae and thus never taking the responsibility on to themselves to come up with a policy.
One can also see a high increase in number of contractual jobs which doesn’t provide the benefits such as pension, insurance, and other labour benefits in a neoliberal economy. Similarly in universities one sees an increase in number of adjunct faculty members, administrators, undergraduate/graduate employees in place of tenure faculty members and many decisions are taken by the administrators or the business bureaucrats without an equitable participation by the academicians part of the university in the decision-making. Thus the bargaining powers of faculty members who are not tenure-faculty are even more skewed and their course can be dismissed arbitrarily without any transparency in the review process.
Recently, economist Mihir Shah’s course in the Young India Fellowship programme was discontinued despite being one of the most sought out and appreciated course on political economy. A short email from Pramath Sinha, founder-trustee of Ashoka University was sent to Mihir Shah expressing that the course will be discontinued because of “some curricula and budgetary changes.” This example of a curt and sudden dismissal of an important course says quite a bit about the way in which decision making takes place in the university and its relationship with the professors who teach at the university. As Mihir Shah explained in his email, Mihir Shah was not involved in the “review” that took place in any capacity, the decision was communicated without any intimation, and more importantly the decision was communicated curtly by Pramath Sinha without any explanation or words from the Vice-Chancellor or the Academic-Advisory committee of the university. Another course, by Professor AF Mathew saw the same process of discontinuation without a transparent review process. It begs the question as to who has more stakes in decision making – whether it is the founders/funders/trustees or the academic-advisory committee, students, professors etc. Mihir Shah, in light of this, also rightly questioned the way in which the university might treat its junior and more vulnerable professors. In response to a petition by some of the alumnae, the Vice Chancellor in a mail urged the alumnae to trust its decisions despite the lack of transparency in the review process and despite the feedback given by alumnae regarding the course. However, without a transparent review process and without a transparent utilisation of funds of the universities the decision making processes remains hidden allowing for arbitrary dismissal of professors and discontinuation/change of courses. The ones who may not align with the ideologies of the stakeholders of the university may in fact be dismissed arbitrarily through this non-transparent process – the example being that of Professor Rajendran who was involved in ensuring labour rights of the workers in Ashoka University along with many other things and was pushed to resign for signing a petition on Kashmir.
It would be pertinent to mention here that as opposed to the definition of transparency that the vice-chancellor mentioned recently in the alumnae get together held in June 2019 wherein he expressed the inability to go into the nitty-gritty of decision making and mentioned that there is a limitation to transparency, transparency involves laying out clearly the processes involved in dismissal of a course/labourer/professor, the stakeholders involved, the checks and balances etc. This would ensure accountability in decision making and one will understand why let’s say Mihir Shah was not even approached in the process of deciding to end his course for the Young India Fellowship.
Breaking the shackles
This year, in the Alumni Weekender (get together), Anand Patwardhan was invited to screen his new documentary. In the same event last year, an event on reservations, caste, and affirmative action faced severe resistance by many of the alumnae including some members of the alumni council. There was vehement disapproval of Professor Kancha Ilaiah, Cynthia Stephen, and Sumeet Samos of JNU being called for a discussion on reservations wherein the alumnae organisers were repeatedly told to ensure nothing will be spoken against the university. The title of the workshop also had to be changed to include appeasing terms such as ‘diversity’ instead of terms such as ‘reservations’. While it reeks of a casteist mindset, it also establishes the aforementioned results of a neoliberal ideology that despises systemic and political action.
At this juncture, if the alumnae and alumni council continue to safeguard this cordial relationship with the university administration that limits even minor political actions such as writing a petition, it will pave way for a complete abandoning of the values of social justice that we are taught in the university.
There is an immediate need to demand for transparency in decision making processes of the university and utilisation of funds and to push for systemic changes within the university (affirmative action, strong and transparent sexual harassment policies, better welfare of workers etc) that will break open the neoliberal functioning of the university and pave way for a better environment not only for the students but for the professors, thus creating a culture of protest or liberatory political action that is essential to human progress. The onus of bringing in affirmative action policy, strong sexual harassment guidelines, worker grievance redressal mechanisms or similar systemic solutions should be put back on the university.
There is also a need to redefine the meaning of what cordiality or civility entails and allow for questioning of the authority instead of a very passive approach that is seeped with uncritical and unfounded faith in the actions of the university. The fact that the university relies on the alumnae and its achievements for spreading the word about the university in public forums can be used to demand more stake for the alumnae council. That can happen only if the alumnae and students come together as a collective and strive towards breaking from the shackles of the neoliberal economy instead of limiting themselves to the boundaries that the university sets for the alumnae. Only then there won’t be more Mihir Shahs, Rajendrans, AF Mathews. Only then survivors of sexual harassment will get justice that they deserve. Only then we will be using our education towards tangible actions that will establish social justice.
The author has been part of the Alumni Council of Ashoka University for a brief span of time and resigned due to differences in the way in which the members of the council functioned concerning issues of injustices.