Saturday, June 22, 2024

Can we retrieve academic freedom from clutches of dependence?

They (Ashoka University and its two resigned professors) continue to believe strongly that Ashoka University should embody a liberal vision and commitment to academic freedom and autonomy. The two resignations of the professors caused a worldwide stir and inflicted a dent on eminence of the Ashoka University. Then to retrieve some prestige and save the face of ‘academic freedom’ a joint statement has been issued by the Chancellor and two Professors who resigned.

In that joint statement the Ashoka University has admitted to “some lapses in institutional processes which we will work to rectify in consultation with all stakeholders”. The administration have also said that they “reaffirm our commitment to academic autonomy and freedom which have always been at the core of the Ashoka University ideals”.

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Professor Mehta wrote to students who were protesting the circumstances that compelled them to resign, saying: “Your “rebellion” was grounded in a concern for freedom and democracy. You carried it out with dignity, grace and I might add, based on memes some of you shared, some serious artistic creativity.” He further wrote: “The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate. So I must close this chapter. …giving up the company of Ashoka students and colleagues, disrupting our lives, and leaving a fine university, is not an easy decision. But it is, for me, the only honorable thing to do, consistent with my values; values I think you share. I also believe it is in the best interests of the university….“But if I may exercise one last bit of professorial discretion: your mission is larger than the fate of two Professors.”

Writing a letter, Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee to the students, faculty members, alumni, founders and trustees assured that University would focus on a “recovery” from the current situation, also on “critical thinking” and “intellectual autonomy”.

Chancellor has also supported the founders, denying the claims that they were responsible for the resignations. But Mehta’s resignation letter made it clear that it was a meeting with two founders that led to resignations. Chancellor wrote: “Today when the Founders are being attacked for trying to compromise and curtail academic autonomy and freedom of expression, I find it necessary as Chancellor, and given my association with Ashoka from its inception, to state unambiguously that the Founders have never interfered with academic freedom: faculty members have been left free to construct their own courses, follow their own methods of teaching and their own methods of assessment. They have also been left free to carry out their own research and publications,” Mukherjee has said.

Earlier, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, known for his outright expression wrote to his Vice-Chancellor, of Ashoka University, chose to quit saying “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”. On the face of it, it is clear that it is not voluntary resignation. It is caused by something which is obvious but also a top secret. If a private university of high eminence cannot secure a professor of independent thoughts, one can imagine the plight of professors in public universities.

Prof. Malabika Sarkar,
Vice- Chancellor, Ashoka University.

Dear Prof Sarkar,

I write to tender my resignation from Ashoka University as University Professor. After a meeting with Founders, it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. 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. I would request that the resignation take immediate effect. I am teaching one class and would not like to leave the students stranded. But I think the university can find a solution. I can informally finish out the rest of the classes, if no other solution is found.

It has been a great privilege to get to know the students and several wonderful colleagues at Ashoka. I hope that the institution continues to thrive. I thank you and the Chancellor for your personal kindness over the years of my association with Ashoka.

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It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that “no living for truth is possible in a university.” I hope that prophecy does not come true. But in light of the prevailing atmosphere, the Founders and the Administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom.

My only request is that the administration cooperate in making all the transition formalities as painless as possible. If any arrangements can take due consideration of my driver, Gajendra Sahu, I will be most grateful. He moved jobs with me and should not be penalized. If some interim help can be granted to him, while I make alternative arrangements to transfer him to an appropriate payroll, I shall be obliged.

I will forever remain a supporter of the values Ashoka is meant to embody. Please convey my deepest gratitude to all of Ashoka’s faculty, students and staff. They have all been unfailingly professional, supportive and generous.

I will have a hard copy with my signature sent to you as well. But this mail be treated as my resignation.

With warmest personal regards,
Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Cc: Chancellor, Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Mehta’s resignation was followed by another reputed personalities withdrawal from the Ashoka University. Following is the letter of Arvind Subrahmaniam.

Dear Malabika,

As you know, I came to Ashoka University with the aim of teaching students, and building a centre for economic policy to build our national capacity for high-quality research, analysis and communication. With the University’s support, especially of key trustees, the Centre has been taking shape – with events, research projects, teams of talented researchers, and resources – beyond what I could have hoped for, especially considering the pandemic-induced constraints. The exciting sense was growing that some of our long-term goals would be achieved. And I was really enjoying getting to know and work with the brilliant students and colleagues of Ashoka.

However, the circumstances involving the “resignation” of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is not just a dear friend but a truly inspirational national figure, have devastated me. I am acutely aware of the broader context in which Ashoka and its trustees have to operate, and have so far admired the University for having navigated it so well.

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But that someone of such integrity and eminence, who embodied the vision underlying Ashoka, felt compelled to leave is troubling. That even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing. Above all, that the University’s commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka.

So it is with a sense of deep regret and profound sadness that I am writing to submit my resignation from the University which will take effect from the end of this academic year. I wish you and the University, and especially its gifted and motivated students – who are the heart of Ashoka – success in the future.


PS: As a courtesy to my colleagues in the economics department, and in the interests of transparency, I will be sharing this email with them.

Before the New Education Policy 2020 is implemented, these developments in a very eminent private university, which is supposed to be independent of any political government, project what could be the future vision of our education. Very sad.

Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu
Author is Dean, Professor of law at Mahindra University at Hyderabad and former Central Information Commissioner. He published a number books in English and Telugu.


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