The Collapse of Institutions

| by Prof. Savitri Goonesekere

( March 17, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Some weeks ago the post of Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo was advertised. The advertisement was impressive. It outlined the very high standards of excellence that prospective candidates should satisfy. Applicants were being considered for the post of chief academic and administrative officer of what is expected to be an autonomous and non-political institution, entrusted with responsibility for achieving excellence in university education and research.

A few days ago, after the closing date for applications, it was rumored that there were only three applicants for this post. One is a professor with recognized academic credentials and a good research record. He has also proven administrative capacity as a Dean of a Faculty and is known to be a senior academic who has dealt effectively with student issues during a turbulent period. The other two applicants are reported to be Senior Lecturers Grade II, the lowest post in the state university system regulated by the Universities Act 1978. It is alleged that both do not possess the academic qualifications required for promotion to the immediately higher grade of Senior Lecturer Grade I in the state university system. One of the Senior Lecturer applicants is now known to be the spouse of the former Vice Chancellor and recently appointed Chairperson of the University Grants Commission, Professor Hirimburegama. It is alleged that he is 61 years old, four years short of the age of retirement, and yet holding the lowest post in the university system.

Rumours floating around in the university community have focused on how and why two applicants whose credentials do not conform with the high standards of excellence in academic scholarship, administration, and leadership, outlined in the advertisement, had applied for this high post. There was speculation that prospects of political decision-making had discouraged several qualified senior professors from applying for the post. Media reports prior to the Council meeting only drew attention to the aspect of conflict of interest, if the spouse of the former Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo, and current Chairperson of the UGC, was a nominee of the Council for the post. Surprisingly, statements on this issue in the press by the Law Faculty Union and FUTA did not adequately focus on the key issue – were the two Grade 2 Senior Lecturers qualified candidates for the post in terms of the public advertisement?

The Council met on March 11. Colleagues in the university have confirmed the Island’s report of 12/3/13 that all three applicants have been nominated for the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo with the single professor in the troika receiving just two more "votes" than one of the Senior Lecturers who is the current UGC Chairperson’s spouse.

Academics of the University of Colombo and the Council cannot be unaware that the last time professors applied for the post of Vice Chancellor many years ago, the professor who received the largest number of "votes" in the Council was overlooked for appointment by both the UGC and the President. It is reported that the professor who received the fewest "votes" was appointed as Vice Chancellor. In other universities too, Council "votes" for persons who are perceived as the best candidates, have been ignored in favour of appointees who do not have equivalent qualifications. Under Section 34 (1) of the Act the Council is empowered to forward the names of three nominees to the UGC, and it is the UGC that evaluates the applications in light of the Council’s views and recommends one person to the President for appointment to the post. This practice was followed by the UGC in the past, including when I was a member from 1994-1999.

The last Chair of the UGC, and by her own media statement the current Chair, have now abdicated the UGC’s power and responsibility under Section 34 (1) of the Act to select and recommend one person for appointment by the President. They have violated their duty under the Act and unlawfully clothed the President with authority to make his own choice of Vice Chancellor. Repeated violations of law are legitimized, creating the impression that regulations no longer have any relevance and can be dispensed with by a fiat by the person in authority.

Aware of these ground realities, why did the Council not raise the obvious disqualification of the two senior lecturers in terms of the advertisement for the post? If the university advertises three posts even for a junior lecturer grade, and there is only one qualified applicant who satisfies the advertised requirements, would the Council appoint the unqualified persons simply because they "applied" for the post? Councils are supposed to look at the applicants’ curriculum vitaes and documentation prior to a meeting to determine nominees for the post of Vice Chancellor, who is the academic and administrative head of the university. Did this objective discussion and deliberation take place at this Council meeting and if so how were the two Senior Lecturers considered qualified to be on a list of nominees to head the institution? Both unofficial and official members of the Council of the University are accountable for their decision and owe an explanation to the university community and the public. Why did they rely on a system of voting that is not even incorporated in the Act and yet fail in their bounden duty to evaluate and assess the capabilities of the nominees in terms of the advertisement and requirements of the post?

I was an ex officio member of two university councils as Senate nominee and Vice Chancellor and was privileged to serve with many eminent personalities from the public and private sectors. Senior academics on the Council considered themselves accountable to the university community and the public. Those Councils would never have considered a Senior Lecturer Grade II in the lowest academic grade as a person qualified for the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo. The Law Faculty teachers’ union in its press statement had referred to the high quality of academic and administrative leadership required of a Vice Chancellor of a university. Vice Chancellors, among other responsibilities, chair meetings on key appointments and award of degrees and also chair regular meetings of Council, and the Senate which is the highest academic authority of the university.

And yet extraordinarily the current Council has nominated the qualified candidate (in terms of the advertisement) and two candidates who do not conform to the requirements of the advertisement. How did this transformation take place? Some members of the current Council of the University of Colombo are distinguished professionals or have wide experience in the university system. There are two President’s Counsel who should know the law, and a former Registrar of two universities including Colombo and a long time Secretary of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors. The Deans of Faculties have been elected for their qualifications and leadership qualities. Have they not failed the university community in this matter? Does the Council consider that it has fulfilled its responsibility to do what is right by the university community and the higher education system of the country? Is there a cynical sense that it is uncomfortable to contradict the chairperson UGC who has publicly stated that her spouse is qualified for the post? Or is there a naive belief that sanity will prevail and the single qualified nominee will be selected?

If sanity is indeed to prevail, every Faculty Board and the University Senate must in one voice indicate to the UGC and the President that they want their institution to be headed by a person whom they respect as a qualified and competent academic and university administrator. If a smear campaign is launched against the single qualified nominee – the only senior don who had the commitment and the courage to apply for the post – such a "dirty tricks" campaign must be publicly challenged.

Faculties, Senates and Councils have been appointed as the agencies responsible for university governance by the Universities Act, following academic traditions in many countries. The day before the critical Council meeting on March 11, the Head of a Department of the University of Colombo and member of the University Senate, waxed eloquent at a public meeting on the importance of sensitivity to social issues, particularly conflict and disempowerment in our country. Is it not the responsibility of these same academics to be concerned about university autonomy, the governance in university administration, and the subversion of these institutions by politicization of key posts in the university? It is the gap in consciousness and the infinite capacity to enjoy the perks of office without any accountability for the responsibilities of that office which has contributed to the collapse of institutions of governance in our country.

Many years ago Faculty Boards and Senates would have held emergency meetings on issues of concern in the university. Sadly, we now have a deafening silence from many of these bodies that are meant to support accountable university governance. FUTA and a small but dedicated pool of academics struggle to be vigilant of political interference, striving desperately to achieve standards of excellence in the state university system by their activism. I do not wish to discourage this minority of my friends and colleagues who want to stem the decline of governance in the university system. If I thought cynically I would argue that the time has come for all Sri Lankans to recognize that they no longer have institutions that can function with a sense of accountability and responsibility to the people. We have a parliament and public service where members (with some exceptions) engage in strident rhetoric on maintaining professionalism and high standards of excellence to achieve progress and development. In fact many members of these institutions enjoy the perks of office but become in the words of Shakespeare "rocks and stones and worse than senseless things" in their approach to the responsibilities of office.

Why should we as citizens collaborate in the erosion of the rule of law through disempowered institutions that cannot fulfill their responsibilities? Should we not dismantle the "institutions of governance?" Why do we need Faculty Boards, Senates and Councils if they are useless appendages of a politicized university administration? It is so easy to cocoon ourselves in a comfortable mantle where we can be "rocks and stones and worse than senseless things." Blindfolded we can all march to a common political drum towards that vision of "a small miracle" and the "knowledge hub" of Asia.

We have seen much suffering and are grateful for the end of a fratricidal war. But do we not have the right and duty to weep for the collapse of national institutions that we value. We are told that it is only traitors who criticize the quality of governance in our institutions. Yet I cry for my beloved country. I can only cling to the hope that some day, some time we will recreate the institutions we have collectively destroyed by our apathy and indifference. Who knows but there may come a time when as the poet Rabindranath Tagore said "the mind is without fear and the head is held high, … knowledge is free. … the clear stream of reason has not lost it’s way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit," and we can realize the promise of peace and freedom.