THE appointments of several public-sector vice chancellors are being challenged in court. Recent examples include the Jinnah Sindh Medical University, Women University Swabi, the University of Karachi and the Federal Urdu University. Not too long ago, Dr Asim Hussain, chairman of the Sindh Higher Education Commission, said that unfit people were being appointed as VCs in Sindh’s public universities. In a letter to the chief minister, he raised serious concern about the capacity and moral fitness of such academics to lead universities.
The competition to head universities is intense and ugly, with many senior faculty members aspiring to the post. The perks and privileges, social status, high visibility in ceremonial events, frequent interaction with public functionaries as well as foreign travel beckon academics in this direction. Whenever an advertisement for a VC post is announced, hundreds of applications are filed. While the Higher Education Commission and provincial governments — which administratively control higher education in their respective jurisdictions after the 18th Amendment — claim to have devised transparent criteria, many of our public-sector universities are led by submissive personalities or cronies. They are not independent-minded academics as required. The meritorious VCs of yore were invited to lead varsities as a mission; it wasn’t simply a job assignment.
Sir Ross Masood served as VC of Aligarh Muslim University during its formative phase. Being a capable academic, he revolutionised the university’s status. Appointing experts to lead academic departments; using his personal contacts to bolster AMU’s finances, evolving protocols for managing residential halls, creating enabling conditions for high achievers to be admitted to AMU and raising the social profile of the university through administrative and academic reforms were some major contributions by him.
While AMU was seen as the premier talent pool of young Muslims, it was often accused of promoting the Pakistan Movement. After 1947, it faced many challenges. At this point, the leadership of Dr Zakir Hussain, who promoted neutral and balanced academic activities in the post-independence period, kept AMU afloat. The varsity proudly celebrated its centennial a year ago.
For VCs of yore, it was more than a job assignment.
Professor Imdad Ali Imam Ali Kazi was among the early leaders of the University of Sindh. He transformed the institution into an active teaching and research-based university and invited outstanding men of letters to the campus. Prof Ghulam Mustafa Khan. an eminent researcher and teacher who supervised more than 50 doctoral dissertations in Urdu literature, joined Sindh University at Prof Kazi’s persuasion.
Prof Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi led the University of Karachi during its formative phase, and worked hard to develop the campus. The university launched liberal ideas and struck a balance between right- and left-oriented viewpoints. Senior alumni recall that PPP chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was invited by the students of the Political Science Society in the 1960s. Some thought that Prof Qureshi would not allow Mr Bhutto to address the students due to various controversies surrounding him at that time. But not only did Prof Qureshi grant permission, he also facilitated the event, despite possessing opposite political views. Those were the days when political discourse and ideological debates were common on campus and wise university leaders made it a point to promote them. Dr Mahmood Hussain, Dr Abdul Wahab, Dr Zafar Zaidi and many others were noted VCs in their own right.
Things have changed. An ideal VC in the eyes of the administration, faculty, students and government is one who can muster resources to run the varsity. He is required to resemble a corporate head and expected to maintain excellent relations with the business community, industrial leaders and the public sector to promote the future employment of graduates and to get grants and endowments. A contemporary VC has to have excellent networking skills and be able to promote the university’s achievements in the media, besides winning competitive funding and favours. Since the increase in private universities, public-sector VCs are appraised more on the basis of their business acumen than academic leadership credentials.
What should be the attributes of those who head universities? A VC must have a vision, and must know how to turn this vision into reality. He must persuade stakeholders to share his vision. The VC must be able to reach out to the student body and read its pulse and ensure an environment conducive for teaching, research and outreach. He must demonstrate high moral and ethical values and accept intellectual dissent. And above all, the VC must ensure that the university functions as an autonomous entity without any government tutelage. We still have plenty of people with such leadership qualities among us.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2021