VC hiring challenge

Published February 23, 2024
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

EVER SINCE the so-called higher education reforms were initiated during the Musharraf era, the number of universities in the country has increased manifold.

The Higher Education Com­mission, which continues to pride itself on the qu­­antitativeenhancement of higher education, adv­ised the concerned quarters to devise a ‘transparent’ procedure for appointing university vice chancellors (VCs). Previously, governors — who are the chancellors of public-sector universities in the provinces — would appoint VCs directly in Sindh and Balochistan. In Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this task was routed through the provincial higher education departments.

One expected that by making the process open, a better quality of university leadership would emerge. Sadly, this has not happened. While most of the senior faculty members aspire to becoming the head of the academic institution, the path to the VC’s post is not as straight as it may appear. Patronage, nepotism, and behind-the-scenes influence often cause the selection process to deviate from merit-based appointment criteria.

Some time ago, the selection process for the VC’s post in a major medical university in Karachi was initiated. A senior medical professional and academic, with sterling credentials, scored higher than the rest of the competitors. But the powers that be preferred to appoint someone who was perceived as a ‘political favourite’. When the medical professional approached the court, matters appeared to go in her favour. But eventually, the decision of the provincial government prevailed, and the other person was appointed.

In another case, a relatively junior, but politically desirable academic was chosen to lead the largest university of a province. The legal battle waged by his competitors did not yield any results. In this milieu, many capable academics stay away from this process altogether. Most of them do not want to tarnish their reputation by engaging in the process, which is murky, politically motivated and of dubious transparency.

It must also be noted that sometimes the choices become too dangerous for academic stakeholders. One vice chancellor from a varsity in Sindh is facing an inquiry for indecent conduct and behaviour. Another one from a campus in Karachi has been sent on forced leave on similar allegations. The VC of a premier public university in south Punjab was jailed for his alleged collusion in setting up a campus in Lahore.

Whereas it is strange for a university in the south of Punjab to venture into the provincial capital, it is not yet settled as to who was at fault. The point is not to exonerate anyone of wrongdoing. Indeed, allegations must be probed in all circumstances, with the complainants provided support in their quest for justice and the suspects given a fair chance to defend themselves. But in the latter’s case, rumours abound that only those face the music who are not connected with the powers that be in the government.

It is truly appalling how many mediocre souls are allowed to sail through smoothly to the post of vice chancellor.

A structured though stale procedure is followed to select a VC, who must possess a PhD degree, have experience as a full professor, with research and publications to his credit, and have held university administrative positions, such as those of the dean, provost, or teaching department head. But while these benchmarks may be useful, they are not enough to enable the best to make it to the top position. Ironically, many mediocre souls sail through smoothly.

Indeed, when one meets some of these chosen ones, one is unable to figure out how such people are supposed to lead universities. Search committees are ‘carefully’ constituted, ie, with an overload of ‘yes’ men, who follow the nods and nays of the government. Hardly any individual is chosen who thinks independently.

No one gauges the stature of the chosen VCs or their capacity to offer dissent in case the government unduly interferes in the university’s domain. Some interesting parallels were viewed in the US recently when the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania had to step down, after refusing to submit to the high-handed tactics of the US Congress that saw their stance as anti-Zionist.

If university leaders do not show strength of character and conduct, the student body and teaching faculty are also rendered spi­neless. Needless to say, it follows that the quality of human resource is completely jeopardised.

Expectations from VCs have also changed. An ideal VC, in the eyes of the administration, faculty, students and the government, is someone capable of mustering the requisite resources to run the varsity smoothly. He is required to conform with the profile, conduct and even attire of a modern-day corporate head and maintain excellent relations with the business community, industrial leaders and the public sector to promote future employment for his graduates as well as to win over grants and endowments.

A contemporary VC must possess excellent networking skills and be able to persuade the electronic and print media to report on the activities and achievements of his university. Since the increase in the number of private universities across the country, the quality variables desired in a VC are promoted more on the basis of business acumen than academics.

While the cut-throat competition of the 21st century may redefine a VC’s role, certain basic criteria are not likely to change. A VC must have a vision, and a clear strategy towards achieving it, which would involve willing partners with a stake in the university’s progress; indeed, especially in Pakistan’s context, where universities lag behind their counterparts in other countries, the work must extend to beyond the job description.

As a norm, the VC must be able to reach out to the student body and read its pulse; ensure the right environment for teaching, research and outreach; demonstrate high ethical values; and accept intellectual dissent for the promotion of knowledge. And above all, he must ensure that the university functions as an autonomous entity without any direct interference of the government.

The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2024

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