A university self-destructs

Updated 31 Mar 2018


MUCH has been said about the corruption of Pakistan’s politicians, generals, and judges. But large numbers of PhD professors (and the ranks below) are now out to give them stiff competition. While some still care for academic values — i.e., knowing their subjects properly and teaching them well — for many only the holy triad matters: pay, perks, and promotions.

Rampaging protesters brought Quaid-i-Azam University, Pakistan’s purportedly premier university, to a virtual standstill for nearly four weeks. A mob laid siege to the administration building, attempted to manhandle the vice chancellor (VC) near his office, and disrupted the few classes then still being held. They prevented buses from collecting and dropping students, ignoring pleas from fee-paying students that classes be permitted.

These were not just rowdy students. In fact, the protesters have PhDs (many from QAU itself) and are highly paid teachers. They arrive for ‘work’ in fancy cars, negating the time-honoured notion of the hopelessly underpaid, studiously engaged, fuddy-duddy professor with no time for anything other than his books. For nearly a month, these teachers have picnicked at public expense and that of their students, and are still vowing to keep their ‘struggle’ going until victory. Fortunately, they will actually have to struggle because dozens of other QAU teachers have refused to join the strikers.

Greed-propelled professors must be stopped from wrecking Quaid-i-Azam University.

But what exactly are the protesters protesting? A ‘white paper’ issued by the Academic Staff Association declares that it has a single point agenda — the removal of the VC. Indeed, it is almost time for him to leave — he has only a few months of tenure left anyway. But curious readers must ask why this unseemly rush.

Measured on a Pakistani scale, the white paper’s accusations are fairly bland. The VC is deemed incompetent, accused of lacking financial integrity and leadership acumen, etc. Unaware that they contradict themselves, the accusers say the VC has not taken “ownership of the university” but in the next breath complain he interferes in everything.

The VC’s written rebuttal to these charges may or may not convince. But one fact glares out — the striking teachers do not demand a change in the university’s increasing bleak academic environment. Over the last 30-40 years the only thing that the ASA has done is to make every possible demand for enhancing the personal wealth and power of teachers.

Past demands have included the outrageous proposition that the university’s land be gifted to teachers as their private property. The current ASA bitterly resists attempts to have professionals in the university’s administration, insisting that key administrative positions be reserved for teachers.

At a collective level, the ASA has made no proposal for improving QAU’s pathetic teaching standards, ending the widely practised system of rote learning, or any other academic cause. Meanwhile, the new four-year BS programme stands abandoned because professors refuse to teach those classes, leaving this task for poorly paid visiting teachers. On violations of academic integrity by university teachers, the protesters are mum. And yet, well known across the campus, are countless examples of appalling behaviour:

Take department W where an influential professor of that very department manipulated things to get his son and student appointed as junior faculty. Ninety PhDs, some from good universities in Europe and elsewhere, had applied and 18 were shortlisted. But it turned out that advertising the position had been a mere formality; the outcome had long been pre-decided.

Or take department X. A different ethnicity means you cannot get a job there. How else to explain that almost all its faculty members are from the same province and share the same ethnic background? Strong preferences for those sharing the same ethnicity is evident everywhere. Last year, the university was shut down for weeks when Sindhi and Baloch students bashed each other with dandas while Punjabi students recorded this gleefully on their smartphones.

As for department Y: to be welcomed on to its faculty you had to belong to the right religious sect. Earlier appointments had in fact reflected this fact but then the other sect — which happens to be the majority sect in Pakistan — couldn’t take it anymore. The inevitable backlash happened and the chairperson was ousted.

In department Z it’s a bit different. A particular candidate was judged to be clearly superior in relation to all others. But a call from ‘above’ — i.e., from the agencies that supposedly protect Pakistan — said he must not be promoted because of his anti-establishment views. As is often the case, only verbal — not written — directives were given. His academic achievements were disregarded. Thus that promotion case ended right there!

Had principled behaviour been a consideration, the above examples would instantly have generated outrage. But only greed and personal benefit exp­lains the present upheaval. Perhaps one particular motivation has been more important than any other.

It so happens that some time ago, certain influential teachers had strong-armed the administration — mostly in the previous VC’s term but also more recently — into granting them massive salary increments. Auditors eventually declared these excess payments illegal and the Higher Education Commission refused to foot the bill, demanding instead that excess amounts be returned.

No way! Instead, these professors — again through the ASA — forced the university to pay and caused student fees to rocket upward. Unaware of the real reason, students directed their anger at the administration. An average teacher’s salary amounts to roughly 10-15 times what they pay to their domestic servants.

Other Pakistani universities are in no better shape than QAU, some decidedly worse. But QAU in Islamabad is supposedly Pakistan’s flagship university. It is located barely two miles from the seat of government. What happens here is watched widely across the country.

Pakistan has been unable to develop a university culture over its 70 years of existence because violators of academic ethics, morality, and basic notions of justice go scot-free. To stop QAU’s rapid descent into a moral black hole, the government needs to enforce the rule of law. Whether they are professors or students, those who use violence to disrupt academic activities should have no place on campus.

The writer has taught physics at Quaid-i-Azam University since 1973.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2018