Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Internationalising SL universities and appointing vice chancellors


By O. A. I. Ileperuma

Reading through the series of articles on the above matter by my friend Prof. Ranjith Senaratne (The Island May 30, 2012) was like reading through a fantasy novel. Nevertheless he should be congratulated on bringing in a burning issue which continuously frustrates the academic community in Sri Lanka on the appointment of their Vice Chancellor. Finding the right person to the position of Vice Chancellor of a University is important; not only in the interest of the university, but also in national interest because thousands of students and the general public view this leadership with high expectations as somebody who can truly contribute to their future.

Prof. Senaratne’s particular emphasis was on the role of the Vice Chancellor and how they are appointed in the top Universities of the World like Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. However, I would have liked him to talk about the intricacies we in Sri Lanka follow in appointing Vice Chancellors. Let me quote from his article, " Vice Chancellors are treated differently from all other Heads of Public Institutions as reflected for instance in the totally different procedures that apply to the appointment of Vice Chancellors as compared with other senior public administrators" This is absolutely true! However, he should have elaborated on these "totally different procedures". This is where the pathetic state of affairs with respect of the appointment of Vice Chancellors becomes apparent. Let me explain the current procedure adopted in the selection of a Vice Chancellor. The University advertises this post where in impressive academic credentials are called for the coveted post of Vice Chancellor. Aspiring applicants who are sure that they can get the necessary political support do not care for the high academic standards called for while the more serious applicants who think they have the required qualifications and experience also apply with lengthy dossiers of publications, vision statements etc. Unlike any other post such as a Lecturer or a Professor, the application for the Vice Chancellor only goes to the Council of the University where the majority is political appointees of the minister. The applicants are not ranked according to academic merit but by a secret vote! This is part of the "different procedure" adopted in the selection of the Vice Chancellor. The vote too depends on how much the candidate influences the Council members through the political authorities and not on the curriculum vitae submitted. Interestingly, canvassing may be a disqualification for many other jobs but not this particular one!

Influence peddling

The one who works well in advance to get this job on political merit, makes sure that he signs election lists at the right time, shows his face at election meetings or other social gatherings. Often they tap someone influential close to the highest political authorities to pass a word on his/her behalf. Once these links are established and if the appointing authority is also convinced about the candidature of this person, it is just a matter for the higher ups to inform the appointed members of the council to vote for their favourite. Many respectable senior academics do not even consider applying for this post because they do not want to go down on knees to politicians to get this position. Application to any other post like a Lecturer or a Professor involves facing an interview panel of eminent academics in the same area of specialisation and the evaluation of academic credentials such as research publications, books written and dissemination of knowledge. Can Prof. Senaratne elaborate more on whether such credentials are evaluated and if not what other criteria are considered in making Vice Chancellor appointments?

In Prof. Senaratne’s article, many examples such as Harvard and Cambridge are given where people from outside the University system have been appointed as Vice Chancellors. These Universities look for the best qualified persons with proven track records who can carry the Universities forward enabling them to survive in an increasingly competitive and challenging environment. This is the case even in our region. When the Vice Chancellor for the post of University of Madras, a highly prestigious university, which is one of the oldest in India fell vacant, Chief Minister Jayalalitha entrusted the task of finding a suitable person to three eminent scientists in India. One of these members personally told me that there was no influence by her or any other politicians in making this appointment and the best person was selected. Politicians and the members of this particular selection panel love their country and care for the well-being of this educational Institution founded in 1839, that they do not want it ruined by an under-qualified political henchman. Many Universities in India follow similar procedures but there have also been cases of abuse by certain corrupt Governors in appointing Vice Chancellors of smaller Universities. For universities in India, the mandatory requirements are that the applicant should be a Professor with over 10 years of experience and a proven track record of academic and administrative leadership. In contrast, Sri Lanka does not have any requirement except political affiliation and we have senior lecturers appointed as Vice Chancellors overlooking many senior academics.

Advertising Vacancies

Prof. Senaratne mentions advertisements to appoint Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors and Deans of Universities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam and "fishing in global waters" to select high calibre professionals. It is not impossible to imagine that in Sri Lanka, if such a scheme is adopted, our Universities will be filled by defeated political candidates and other political stooges.

We in Sri Lanka are still in the dark ages as regards the appointment of Vice Chancellors. The University academic community and academic bodies like the Senates have no say in appointing their leader and no one really knows on what basis the Vice Chancellor is selected from among the three names submitted to the President. Clearly we are 50 years backward compared to other universities even in this region. No wonder that none of our Universities are ranked in the first 1500 in the world ranking of universities.

Appointing Vice Chancellors on the basis of political affiliation generally results in him/her as more accountable to the government than to the university. This can lead to major conflicts between the academic staff and students on the one hand and also with the University administration on the other. Appointment on the basis of pure academic merit can at least ensure that the Vice Chancellor selected has some sort of credibility in the eyes of the academic staff and the students.

In the last of the series Prof. Senartane talks about the unsatisfactory procedures adopted in the advertisement for the post of Vice Chancellor and stress the need to look beyond the confines of the university in attracting best qualified people. This point is well taken. He also quite correctly argues that "Circular no. 880 of 15.08.2006 concerning the appointment of a Search Committee to identify suitable candidates is in this respect faulty and self-defeating". This committee consists only of academics from the same university to which a Vice Chancellor is appointed and does not have teeth to make any impact. For example, in the recent selection of three names for the post of Vice Chancellor at the University of Peradeniya, this committee made no recommendations. These concepts of head hunting are common in highly developed countries and it is the best procedure available. However, it is doubtful whether our politicians will allow this to happen. For them, universities need to be under their central control and even if the UGC is serious about such a procedure it will not happen in Sri Lanka for the obvious reasons mentioned above.

Unsatisfactory Process

What Prof. Senaratne has not mentioned is the procedure adopted after the nominations reach the UGC and then the President. Would he be candid about the unsatisfactory nature of the current process for appointing Vice Chancellors at the highest level? The whole exercise which Prof. Senaratne is trying to promote is useless unless those who are at the highest authority feels that Vice Chancellors should be appointed according to pure academic merit and experience. In any case, Prof. Senaratne should be thanked for bringing into light the shortcomings of the procedure and the need to appoint good mangers to head our higher educational Institutions.

Sri Lanka is not the only country where the Head of State appoints the Vice Chancellor. Considering the immense responsibilities attached and the importance of this post, it is always the Head of State or the Governor of a Province who appoints Vice Chancellors. It is my belief that this practice should continue in Sri Lanka but not the the way it is done. Many Asian Universities also follow similar procedures. However, their initial screening involving a powerful search committee involving those outside the university concerned recommends only the most suitable person to this post and certainly the kind of political manipulation as happening in Sri Lanka is by and large absent. Hong Kong University Council appoints the Vice Chancellor on the recommendation of the Senate and there is no interference from the Head of State. This explains why the University of Hong Kong is ranked number one in Asia and there are only a few universities in the Asian region in the top 100 Universities in the world. In developed countries such as Canada, a professional Human Resources firm is recruited to select the most qualified candidate and in consultation with the Board of Trustees recommends a single name to the Governor of the Province.

According to Prof. Senaratne, we spend Rs. 20 billion annually to maintain our Universities, and the public of this country has a right to demand much more from our universities such as new degree programmes, life-long education, to serve as knowledge hubs and contribute to economic prosperity. The appointment of the Vice Chancellor on a political basis greatly reduces the ability to harness the full potential of the University community to move forward.

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