Monday, July 2, 2012

This is what political patronage creates


By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

When university academics were getting ready for a next round of trade union actions, a journalist asked me what I thought of university lecturers conducting private tuition classes. I said I was against it on the principle that university teachers should ideally be creating and disseminating of knowledge at university level. When one does it that at level one needs to re-think received knowledge of a certain culture, and only the fully committed people to that endeavor can engage in such processes of reflective thinking. Teaching at school level or at external degree level one does not necessarily get into that mode of reflective thinking and knowledge production required at university level.

I added further, however, that the insufficient salaries and other resources at universities and lack of mechanisms to uphold the true ideals of a university teacher may have led people to such engagements that do not lead to a professional academic life. I even pointed out that there were no mechanisms at universities to prevent lecturers from having huge private tuition businesses that demand a significant time of their working hours. Not only that there are no mechanisms to prevent that but also the political authorities interfering in university affairs even appoint famous tuition masters to powerful positions at the university system undermining the ideals of a university teacher. I made reference to such appointments in the recent past.

One such person, called me one night to remind me how friendly he was to me and so on. Though he spoke in a rather apologetic voice without threatening me with anything, he did not forget to add this: "I didn’t make dollars by licking the asses of white people but conducted tuition classes"

Perhaps he was referring to my postgraduate education in the US funded by a Fulbright fellowship and several grants from the University of Wisconsin. I could not tell my angry colleague that at Wisconsin the majority of my teachers were non-white, and their bottoms were supposedly non-white too! Of course there are many white people who are my respected teachers, direct and indirect. Those include a wide range of white people from Marx to Said, from Derrida to Zizek. I know them as people not as white people. I have also learnt from many non-white people from Achabe to Soyinka—Gandhi to Tagore, Amartya Sen to Arundati Roy. Well, let’s forgive the man for his parochialism.

Now this man is a head of a famous university. Will he not send any of the younger staff members to a reputed international university staffed by white people for his or her postgraduate studies? Can such parochialism help produce the ‘knowledge hub of Asia? I leave those questions to the very qualified and reputed academics of that university.

Before this phone call, the person in question had struck me as a gentle, amiable person. That does not mean that he is naturally qualified to be the head of an international level university. The university academics in this country are now fighting hard to stop politicization of universities and to re-discover the principles that real university should be guided by. So it is within our legitimate rights to ask for qualified people with proven academic and administrative records to be our leaders. Of course, anyone can think that he or she has those things. In front of the political patrons, they may have even pretended to posses those qualities. But in an academic community, which is growing in critical consciousness after a series of trade union action, one cannot just pretend to be an intellectual, scholar and wise man.

Being an academic committed to creating a true intellectual culture in our universities, I must express my views about key appointments to our public universities, especially when a journalist pointedly asks. The appointee may be a personal colleague of mine but the position is a public one. After all, no names were mentioned in the press. The civilized way to engage me in such an important debate would be to make it a public dialogue rather than giving me late night calls. At a time when efforts are being made to protect our State universities, it would be a welcome addition to the debate if an academic in a leading position can confess how he had to waste much of his academic life conducting private tuition classes and what made him fall short of becoming an accomplished academic. In addition, we like to know what/who made him think that he is a good enough to lead a university with scholars of international repute.

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