The real cause of a summary dismissal from an academic institution amidst the pandemic

R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. His appeal for an enquiry into the circumstances of his dismissal was ignored. We are republishing this piece by Sudharson regarding the reason for his dismissal from Ground Xero, with permission.

I’m writing this lengthy post in an attempt to recount what led to my summary dismissal from a Social Work Institution in Chennai and how I feel about it. I would like to thank ‘Notes on the Academy‘ (NotA), ‘Collective’ , my beloved students & alumni, friends and comrades, for your continuous solidarity. Growing up as a student, my individuality and original aspirations were scarred by unsparing teachers, egged on by an education system where the vast majority of students are set up to ‘fail’. It was made sinful for me to have my little quirks and to function as a child. Whenever I become an embarassment to my teachers or parents, the only means I had to escape the daily punishment and abuse was by zoning out or sleeping off the trauma. In both school and college, toxicity was the one unchanging rule of the game. During my adult years I have dreamt of being many things, of which being a kind empathetic teacher ultimately assumed the most significance. It is extremely motivating for me to have met all of you who share those very same dreams.

It is shocking that the Institution chose to dismiss me amidst the double pandemic of COVID and unemployment. I have worked with the Institution for 4+ years without a single blackmark. However, on multiple occasions fellow faculty and well-wishers from inside the Institution have alerted me to the management’s monitoring of my political views including my Facebook posts. There were instances when my position on gender-sensitivity and objections to tolerating sexism resulted in open confrontations with the college authorities. I was even cautioned by a few well-wishers that my political views and pedagogical methods, if not made discreet, might cost me my job.

The decision to terminate itself followed on the heels of a very disturbing episode, where the Management had snooped on conversations inside a private faculty-only Whatsapp Group. The real cause of my summary dismissal can be easily deduced by all who are associated with the Institution. Yet the Institution takes refuge in denial and attributes the cause to the bogey of “academic performance”.

My private Whatsapp message, had raised valid concerns on NAAC grading-related processes. The message gave expression to difficulties experienced in taking on NAAC related work over and above teaching hours, problems with planning and how it has added pressure on the already underpaid faculty while diverting valuable time and efforts away from teaching-learning. I later learnt that this message had been “leaked” without my consent to those representing the Management.

I can never forget 1st April 2021. After a heated conversation about the WhatsApp message in question, I was abruptly asked by the Principal to leave the college so that the Institution can be at peace. He added, “either you resign today or we will initiate termination”. I rejected these outrageous non-options and wrote to the Principal appealing to review their decision. This did not fetch any response from the concerned authorities. To add salt to injury, even as I was still employed, the Institution placed an advertisement in ‘The Hindu’, calling for applications to the post of Assistant Professor in my department.

Thereafter, without adhering to any due process, the Institution terminated my service on 8th May. The Termination Order carries exactly 2 sentences of reasoning, in words that are carefully selected to deal a death blow to my academic career. The Principal & Dean went on to advise that, if I accepted the Termination Order without any complaints, I would be relieved with a favourable Completion Letter and recommendations for future employment. I rejected this quid-pro-quo arrangement and insisted on following the due process of internal enquiry as per the Institution’s own Service Rules, but in vain.

Since then, 60+ alumni & students, besides 160 academicians & scholars from institutions across the country and abroad, have written to the Management demanding my immediate reinstatement. Till date there is not a single official response to these letters, from the Management. When contacted by a journalist with ‘The Hindu’, the Principal has commented that I have no publications to my name and no PhD. This new allegation clearly does not tally with what is cited in the Termination Order. Moreover, the unmistakable irony in such a statement is that, the Institution’s recruitment advertisement published just days before my termination does not mention PhD as a minimum qualification for the post of Assistant Professor. This isn’t surprising because neither does the UGC. From what existing UGC norms stipulate, at the College level a PhD is a prerequisite only for promotion as Associate Professor. My appointment, like that of all other Assistant Professors, had been confirmed by the Institution and eventually approved by the University of Madras only because I was fully qualified for the post. It is also a fact that the UGC requires Colleges to prioritise teaching that includes community work and co-curricular activities, and Universities to prioritise research – a key distinction that the Management wants to gloss over. This past January, I had sent a mail to the Principal specifically stating that I would be registering for my Phd in the upcoming academic year. I wonder why this information has been conveniently withheld when speaking to the media. At any rate, it is curious that my academic credentials or performance did not become an issue until I put forth my criticism of the NAAC process.

I was paid less than Rs.3.6L/annum (less than Rs 30,000/month i.e. even after 3+ years). Similar slabs apply to other faculty too and it is not even half of UGC’s recommended scale. Worse is the case of non-teaching employees. In the past, when a few faculty members expressed the need for a more equitable pay scale, the management patronisingly advised us to not nag the Institution and to generate our own revenue through consultancy projects, in other words to go Aatma Nirbhar. One Management representative even went on to say during a faculty meeting “I don’t want to lecture on how one should know to spend their money”.

Coming to publication and research, yes they are vital academic activities but teaching & classroom innovation cannot be subservient. If putting teaching, critical thinking and engagement with dissent on death row is what will fetch glamorous rankings and/or inflated college fees, I dread to imagine where we are headed. If we in the teaching community have adapted so well to the “old” education policy, then in all likelihood the horrors in store under the “New” education policy could least upset us. To me, that is indeed a depressing kind of flexibility to live with.

More worryingly, by ignoring my contributions as a teacher and academic mentor, the Management has sent out a message that is bound to have far reaching implications for the entire Institution. If not in academia, I cannot think of where else freedom of thought, opinion and expression could be safe from persecution and not prove fatal. I sincerely hope that what ought to be a wake up call for my colleagues and more importantly for the Institution’s students and their parents, isn’t muzzled out by the deafening silence and chilling effect surrounding my termination.

While I’m overwhelmed by the support pouring in from all corners, I’m deeply anxious for my students who might face the wrath of the Management. As I write, the Institution is in all probability working tirelessly to recruit someone in my place; which is all the more reason for me to be asking certain questions. Why is it wrong to hold, impart and seek out informed academic opinions, political or otherwise? Why are employees and students expected to not put to practice Constitutional values and goals such as democracy, gender-sensitivity, anti-casteism or socialism? How can the Institution be allowed to shun fundamental rights and their proponents while actively encouraging or tolerating regressive outlooks? Why is it wrong to express legitimate criticism even in a private Whatsapp Group? What gives an Academic Institution the authority to demand and enforce self-censorship? It is questions like these that have cost me my job, but I am convinced that it is also questions like these that enliven the pursuit of education.

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