Tuesday, June 5, 2012

New breed of institutional leaders for internationalising Lankan universities

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

I am happy to see Professor Ranjith Senaratne, Vice Chairman of the UGC, taking an interest in the welfare of universities and coming up with sound ideas (29, 30, 31 May, 2012).

In our system of patronage appointments, the most unsuitable persons – embezzlers, womanizers, drunkards, political stooges and the down-right lazy – are put up for high appointments. Occasionally, however, a suitable person comes up. Professor Senaratne is one such person, a rare Sri Lankan professor who has really earned the title professor and wears it with distinction. He has been recognized through an honorary higher doctorate from University of Durham. I take pride in having been part of the UGC that rooted for his reappointment as VC in 2004. As Vice Chairman of the UGC, he is vested with immense powers to change the system as he wishes.

Senaratne advocates, rightly, changes to the way VCs are presently appointed under Circular 880, saying 1) The advertisement presently used by the universities calling for applications does not adequately describe the candidate and does not define the role and responsibilities of the VC and the attributes an applicant should possess; 2) The Search Committee to identify suitable candidates is improperly constituted under the chairmanship of the incumbent VC who might be a candidate; 3) The advertisement ought to be widely placed.

These problems with VC appointments were widely recognized by the UGC under Prof. Ranjith Mendis when I too was a member. A crisis was precipitated in 2003 when the Peradeniya VC sought renewal and its Council (which included a present member of the UGC) conspired to throw out a highly qualified foreign academic and a civil servant who had applied and substituted the names of two Council members after the closing date (See S. R. H. Hoole, "Peradeniya’s Shame," The Island, 29 Nov. 2003. I complained widely and, when no one listened, took it to The Ombudsman, Justice R .B. Ranaraja, who gave a scathing report and asked the UGC to change the rules. The result was UGC Circular 839 of 26 Jan. 2004. It provided for much of what Senaratne suggsts: 1) The advertisement shall be disseminated as widely as possible within and outside the University System and specify the qualifications desired of the VC. 2) The advertisement shall specify the desired qualification of any applicant (which included research accomplishments as a first); 3) That selection shall be by objective criteria agreed to before the advertisement and 4) The search committee appointed by several authorities shall include persons from outside the university system and 5) No related meeting should be chaired by a candidate.

The OU was in a mess at the time as the old scheme had attracted only 2 applications, outsiders not having applied as only internal candidates had a chance, leaving them without the 3 names to be forwarded to the President. When Circular 839 was applied, the only time it was, there were some 17 applicants! The university system was aghast. The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Directors consisting of many unqualified VCs appointed under patronage, panicked. They mounted such a vociferous protest that Prof. Mendis unilaterally cancelled 839. Senaratne was on the CVCD then and surely knows of 839’s provisions which he now advocates.

In measure of how unmindful of the law the system is, 839 upon promulgation had cancelled preceding Circulars 670 and 765 on the appointment of VCs. Even if the chairman had the power to nullify Circular 839 passed by the UGC, which did not give new life to the now dead Circulars 670 and 765, which were not specifically revived. The system thereafter operated until 08/2006 without any ordinance on the appointment of VCs, believing that 670 and 765 were in force! When I pointed this out, the episode was so embarrassing that no one wanted to touch VC appointments.

Mendis knew exactly what was wrong with VC appointments and persuaded us on the UGC to push hard for the appointment of Embuldeniya – neither an academic nor an insider – whose successes Senaratne has recounted. We could do it because Uva Wellassa was being just founded and the UGC had a big say on who would be the first VC.

But why did Embuldeniya decide to manage with so few non-academic staff members? Shortly after he became VC, the UGC, too, got a new Executive whose first circular was the obnoxious Circular 876: "[H]aving considered a request made by the Hon. Deputy Minister of Higher Education on the instructions given by the Minister of Education, [the UGC] decided that all external recruitments to the minor employee grades … be made from a list of candidates compiled by the Ministry of Education." (While the Minister cannot instruct the UGC, note how his instructions to his Deputy are stated as if he were instructing the UGC to cover up UGC cowardice and escape responsibility). Accordingly you and I as citizens cannot apply for these posts which are only for the minister’s stooges, hangers on and "tail-holders." Thus in Jaffna, one must go to suck up to the Minister of Traditional Industries & Small Enterprise Development who sends a list to the Minister of Higher Education. These recruits will not obey the orders of their superiors. Embuldeniya was better off without such stooges.

Good foreign scholars as VCs, like in Singapore, would be good indeed as Senaratne wants. They would be above influence peddling. But would they be left to run the university without interference as in Singapore? Would they be willing to appoint the minister’s stooges as under 896? Would the minister allow them to survive if they stood up to him? How would the Councils select them as specified by the Universities Act? Before we take that bold step of bringing in outsiders, these ordinances need to be revised.

As UGC Vice Chairman Prof. Senaratne can fix many of the problems plaguing our universities – the widespread corruption by some VCs as the UGC looks the other way, the appointment as VC of persons against whom there are stringent indictments from the AG, the fraudulent appointment of professors by counting conference papers as journal papers etc. Even at the UGC we have those appointed while Associate Professor to run the universities and then mysteriously are listed a Senior Professor without the required 8 years as professor and, in another case, after retirement promoted to professor in the UGC website.

I am not sure Professor Senaratne can surmount the forces of lethargy and privilege he faces, forces invested in the status quo and using obscurantist speeches of high principles while running an oligarchic university system. He is a product of that system and therefore obliged to the patronage that pervades it and I am sure he has favours to return as when he kept quiet on the CVCD and I, too, had to on numerous occasions while on the UGC. Overcoming this is his challenge. I wish him well.

*Under threat of criminal charges for an article on election malpractices, the author fled Sri Lanka, where he and his wife had been terminated from their permanent positions and refused appointments even as Senior Lecturers. Both were quickly absorbed at full-professor’s rank at Michigan State University, a top-50 national research university in the US.

Original Article on The Island

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