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The Need to Rethink Jaffna Council Appointments

The constitution of the Jaffna University Council is a critical factor in rebuilding the University and its image. Retaining council members like Prof. Tharmaratnam is necessary to establish justice and fairness in the way the University of Jaffna conducts its affairs in the future.

Following open letter written to the Minister for Higher Education in Sri Lanka, Dr. Wijedasa Rajapaksa

( May 16, 2018, Jaffna, Sri Lanka Guardian) We the undersigned express our deep disappointment at the manner in which the new Council for the University of Jaffna was appointed recently. We learn that the appointments were rushed through by the UGC with almost no transparency by 20th April, and posted several days later just before you, the incoming minister were sworn in on 1st May. The UGC Chairman then went abroad and the University of Jaffna received the information by post from the UGC on 2nd May.

While several members of the outgoing Council have been retained, some others have been dropped. We are puzzled as to the basis on which the University Grants Commission decided whom to be retained and whom to be excluded. We are particularly concerned about the decision made by the University Grants Commission to not retain Professor Tharmaratnam who showed a keen interest in the affairs of the University of Jaffna in many different ways during his tenure as Council Member and before. He was for transparent and fair recruitment process; a man of integrity, he went far beyond the routine duties of council members and expended much effort in cases involving sexual harassment of women and justice for minor employees. He was a rare voice on raising these issues and pressurising the council to deal with them

Owing to serious malpractices in recruitment and lack of sensitivity towards the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the students coming to the University of Jaffna from different parts of the country, the University has been facing a crisis for the past few decades. In the post-war era, the University needs visionary leadership and guidance to re-envision its social role. Some recent events highlight the importance of secularism. Normal postwar development has resulted in large numbers of Muslim and Sinhalese students being admitted to the University. But the University, which has increasingly projected a narrowly religious and political image, fails miserably to bring the students together and forge a common university life. They too tend to live in their narrow enclaves and reactions to this narrowness could be potentially explosive as recently with the Buddhist monument crisis in the Vavuniya Campus. By contrast, in the early days of the University, when there were leaders among the staff who resisted pressures of pettiness and bigotry, there was still a common university life amidst diversity of the student population, many of whom could not function effectively in English.

The University had the benefit of enormous goodwill at the end of the war, which could have been used to bring in visiting teachers from overseas and other universities in this country, to radically improve standards and give it a more open character. This has not happened. Those who tried hard to come have been actively discouraged. Inviting visiting lecturers from other universities in the country and universities abroad who conduct their research and teaching in English would have enabled those who find their competency in the English language in need of improvement, or limiting their academic progress, to get critical support and guidance.

In early 2017, there was a strenuous effort on the part of some council members to break out of the rotting mould by supporting a well-accomplished academic, Prof. Sam Thiagalingam, of Boston University, for the position of vice chancellor that was to fall vacant. His application was obstructed by interests that were intent on preserving status quo.

At issue was the technicality of a slight postal delay in Prof. Thiagalingam’s application. Much to widespread relief, two council members, Prof. Tharmaratnam and Dr. Jeyakumar, who have been left out in the present round of appointments, though not lawyers, went to enormous trouble to confirm the Postal Rule, which says that the day an application was stamped at the sending post office is the day of delivery. The university administration denied this rule despite the considerable legal resources they had in the Council and the Law Department. More puzzlingly, the UGC too, deliberately or otherwise, was unable to clarify this well-known rule and stood by, enabling the outgoing vice chancellor to drop Prof. Thiagalingam’s name. We give two instances to illustrate the enormous damage done.

Something is very sick about a university that is cavalier about the rule of law and, with a heavy hand, denies justice to, and abuses the underdog. In July 2016, it was only Prof. Tharmaratnam, who spotted that a minor employee, Janatheepan, was quietly dismissed on the basis of a memo handed over to the Council at the commencement of the meeting, without any discussion. He pointed to the abuse of law in dismissing an employee without first interdicting him, and got him reinstated and interdicted pending inquiry. The inquiry pointed to the action against the employee having been engineered by two deans, who became powerful under the earlier vice chancellor, and were compromised in the illegal cutting and removal of trees from the Killinochchi Campus. Janatheepan had only drawn the inquirer’s attention to the theft. The Council interdicted the employee the second time, arbitrarily associating him with the theft he had brought to light. Under the new council, the whole matter stands to be swept under the carpet and the employee sacked.

In two cases of sexual harassment of female students, the council minutes show that the inquiries were pushed along because of Tharmaratnam’s initiative. It was his personal involvement that in one case ensured the inquiry was completed before the Supreme Court’s deadline.

The Dean of Management has the case of T. Ravivathani, once the leading candidate for Probationary Lecturer in Financial Management, dragging on in the Supreme Court for four years; although the selected candidate had given false information about her experience and the former vice chancellor had lied to the Court that she was present at Ravivathani’s interview. The same Dean, backed by the present Vice Chancellor, has clashed with Prof. Tharmaratnam on the selection committee for another vacancy in the same post. Tharmaratnam, along with the head of department and a third person, opposed the attempt to appoint a favourite who is about eighth on the Jaffna University merit list, over a woman first class from Sri Jayewardenapura of outstanding merit, who holds the prestigious award of Chartered Financial Analyst, USA.

Regarding the substance of the appeal, the Jaffna University was the outcome of concerted effort by a group of very distinguished academics during the 1950s. The term Tamil University Movement was perhaps unfortunate; what was then proposed was a regional university with headquarters in Trincomalee. When Jaffna University was finally established, it was headed by Prof. Kailasapathy, who was highly respected amongst academics of all political shades.

Unfortunately, largely as the result of the war, Jaffna University gradually degenerated into a parochial university. Despite having had several distinguished professors, the quality suffered and the emerging leadership increasingly succumbed to narrow Tamil nationalism. Although started about the same time, Jaffna is today widely regarded as failing to match Ruhuna University, most visibly in its physical layout, design and building, where, in Ruhuna, Geoffrey Bawa had a major hand. We can, however, improve the quality of the leadership, if we are willing to look worldwide. Jaffna University as currently constituted cannot be a source of pride, either for the people of the North or for those who initiated the Tamil University Movement.

The constitution of the Jaffna University Council is a critical factor in rebuilding the University and its image. Retaining council members like Prof. Tharmaratnam is necessary to establish justice and fairness in the way the University of Jaffna conducts its affairs in the future. We urge you to recognize the courage demonstrated by Council members like Prof. Tharmaratnam and Dr. Jeyakumar and the efforts they took in bringing about far-reaching changes at the University of Jaffna and re-appoint them to the Council. Tolerating the brazen mismanagement of one university by excluding members who are committed to progressive change would eventually discredit the entire university system.

List of Signatories

1. Devanesan Nesiah
2. Kumari Jayawardena
3. Manel Fonseka
4. Hettigamage Sriyananda
5. K. Chitravadivel
6. Sterling Perera
7. SriNadaraj Kalaraj
8. Kanishka Goonewardena
9. Rohini Hensman
10. Arjuna Parakrama
11. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu
12. R.E. Jayaceelan
13. Panini Edirisinghe
14. Selvy Thiruchandran
15. Nirmala Rajasingam
16. Suren Fernando
17. V. Nisanth
18. Indra Jayewardene
19. Marshal Fernando
20. S. Shiva Sabesan
21. Rajan Hoole
22. S. Ravishankar
23. T. Sivarupan
24. Ananda Dias Jayasinha
25. N. Sahayanathan
26. Janaka Ratnasiri
27. S. Thangarajah
28. Kanagasabai Nagulendran
29. Jehan Perera
30. R. Varathan
31. Thiruchandran Jeremeah
32. K. Visakaratnam
33. V. Thuvarahan
34. S. SreeHarikesan
35. S. Sutharsan
36. S. Aingaran
37. Camena Guneratne

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