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How not to choose a VC

Updated June 07, 2018

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THE appointment of Punjab University’s new vice chancellor has shocked academia, liberal-minded students and a significant section of civil society because it bodes ill for the premier university.

The professor chosen to head the university deserves respect and consideration due to his learning and experience. His personal dignity cannot be assailed. What is at issue is the report that the new appointee had once served as head of the student organisation that has ruled the faculty and the campus for decades through unacceptable means. If this allegation is even partly true, a grave injustice seems to have been done to the institution, its faculty, its students, the cause of education and to the worthy professor himself.

The student organisation in question has no door for exit from its ranks; allegiance to it is for life. To expect a former office-bearer of this organisation to abandon his outlook and biases is like asking a cat to become a vegetarian. Apprehensions that the university’s non-partisan and fair-minded functioning will become difficult, to say the least, are quite valid.

Even if the new VC can somehow jettison his so-called ideological baggage, the student organisation will not release him from his bondage to them. For putting him through this ordeal, the selectors have been unfair to him and ignored the university’s need to be free from all kinds of fissiparous trends and influences.

Punjab University’s need to be free from fissiparous trends and influences has been ignored.

The way the vice chancellor of Punjab University has been selected — and one presumes a similar procedure is followed at other public-sector universities — diminishes the prestige a vice chancellor must enjoy.

The process began with an announcement by the Punjab government, through its higher education department, that it was looking for “highly accomplished, qualified and motivated candidates” for the position of the Punjab University vice chancellor. Candidates considering themselves eligible were invited to apply. However, somebody perhaps thought that highly qualified educationists might not like to join the queue, and nominations were invited from “renowned scholars/academicians, management experts” and, surprisingly, members of the search committee were also granted the privilege to nominate suitable candidates. One does not know if any candidates nominated through the latter method joined the recruitment mela, but let that pass.

The job was open to applicants “of any gender” up to 65 years old and who met a seven-point criterion that suggests the bureaucrats presiding over educational matters wanted the vice chancellor to be an experienced teacher, a capable administrator and a successful fundraiser. The omission of any reference to a candidate’s interest in and reputation for pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward, commitment to the university’s autonomy and academic freedom, any record of inspiring students to scale new heights in creative and critical thinking, and lack of any mention of the country’s educational goals, cannot be ignored. Whether this was due to ignorance or the impossibility of finding the right persons, the conclusion is extremely distressing.

Instead of creating a special package of salary and fringe benefits for the vice chancellor of the country’s oldest house of learning, he/she is offered a tenure track salary package allowed to a professor plus a job allowance at 20pc of the basic salary, and this in a province where the windfalls allowed to bureaucrats chosen to head companies are scandalously huge.

The candidates are graded on a 100-point scale: 20 points for academic qualifications; 30 for professional and leadership experience; 15 for publications and awards; and 35 for viva voce.

A scrutiny of a few of the requirements for securing marks (called points) is justified. For instance, a candidate capable of mobilising Rs500 million to one billion or more gets five points (while for writing a book one gets only two points). This idea has perhaps been taken from rich, capitalist countries and institutions that train experts needed by industrial and commercial enterprises. Neither of the two conditions applies to Punjab University. Pakistan’s priority is not collecting funds from non-state sources. The state is spending only around 2pc of GDP on education; its priority is to raise the allocation for education to at least 4pc or 5pc of GDP and substantially increase the number of students reaching postgraduate level.

Likewise, there may be some justification for giving points for international and national research awards but the grant of five points for civil awards from national and provincial governments needs to be reviewed. These awards are not always given on merit and are often gifts to the administration’s favourites.

The question of selectors’ biases also must be addressed. They are once reported to have reduced a woman professor to tears on learning that she had failed to acquire a husband! Educational appointments must not be subject to clearance by intelligence agencies. Regardless of their professional competence, of which they may be proud, these agencies are by conviction and training conservative in outlook and uncomfortable with progressive ideas. The role of the provincial government, especially the chief minister’s (who could have a political axe to grind), may be curtailed and the selection of vice chancellors assigned to non-governmental chancellors’ committees (though one shudders at finding governors working as the ruling party’s agents).

The superior judiciary too has been dragged into Punjab University’s affairs. The professor at the top of the points table was passed over because he had been removed earlier from the VC’s position by the chief justice of Pakistan. The selection committee either balked at the idea of explaining matters to the chief justice of Pakistan or thought the professor concerned had been disqualified for life. The judiciary has a clear duty to intervene if higher educational vacancies are not promptly filled or are filled in violation of law and convention, but it would be grossly unfair to the chief justice to expect him to decide who is qualified to be a vice chancellor and who is not.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2018