On the 6th of June, 2021, the students and alumni of the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW) and Notes on the Academy organised a webinar on the theme of Rights in Our Campus. The meeting was precipitated by a growing list of issues faced by MSSW students on their campus. The need for such a discussion was realised after the unlawful termination of Prof. R. G. Sudharshon, a popular faculty member in the Department of Developmental Management who was known for his strong pro-student views and his consistent opposition to hierarchical practices on campus. Also invited to participate in this webinar were Collective (a Delhi-based revolutionary student organization), and The Teachers’ Collective (a Chennai-based teachers organisation).
The meeting was attended by several faculty members and students from other colleges as well, and saw a lively and wide-ranging discussion of the suppression of democratic rights of students and faculty members in MSSW and other campuses across the country. In particular, the discussion of the campus environment and practices of several faculty members by MSSW students and alumni shook participants to their core.
The meeting began with testimonials from students and alumni of the MSSW, who raised a number of extremely serious issues relating to academic and institutional culture. Significant among these was the issue of fees: students and alumni alleged that the fees have been raised with each batch for the last five years. We learnt that the primary component of the fees goes under the title of “Special Fees”, and no explanations of what prompted these increases was provided. Other issues of immediate concern, such as the practice of internal assessment, which gives unlimited powers to the faculties and administration over students, and the lack of any placement cell (despite the administration claiming otherwise) were also highlighted by all the students as well as recent graduates.
Past and present batches of students have attempted to raise these issues at the department level (by appealing to their head of respective departments) and the college level (by approaching the college principal directly). Each time, their efforts were routed, often accompanied by admonishments or individually targeting those seen as “coordinating” the efforts to make the management and administration more accountable. The college management further ensured that the faculty themselves discourage students from raising questions on fees and placement. We learnt that even faculties like Sudharshon who raised these issues were told to not raise them as “their salaries came from these fees”. Although the salaries have not increased for most of the faculties, the fees paid by students continue to increase.
The students and alumni unanimously agreed that the attitude of the management was simply that it was not the students’ place to question their decisions. As is common in most college campuses, students at MSSW were often told that they were also “stakeholders” in their campus, but their testimonies made painfully clear that the administration was not interested in their feedback or establishing a consultative process.
An established grievance redressal mechanism is sorely lacking, and this has allowed the management and several of the faculty members to operate with impunity and without accountability. Some of the alumni in attendance related past stories of successful struggles against the management – against, for example, manual scavenging that was taking place on campus just a few years ago – and urged students to organise themselves in order to more systematically respond to aggression from the management.
By far the most shocking part of the meeting were the stories of toxicity on campus, in their student festivals (where sexist and demeaning humor was frequently used) and their classrooms (where students were routinely shamed for dressing the way they chose to). A section of the faculty, the students agreed, functioned as moral police on campus, making comments about women’s bodies, their choice of clothing, or their choice of company. This ostracisation and harassment by sections of the faculty is not only directed at students, but also at junior faculty members from departments perceived to be “inferior”. We were horrified to see several students clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of regular harassment and verbal abuse by faculties. Several alumni going as far as a decade back spoke of the same harassment they had faced from many of the same faculties who now have prominent positions on campus. Some of the students noticed that although no action was ever taken against such faculties, people like R. G. Sudharson, who always stood with students and tried to instill the idea of equality among students and faculty, were dismissed. The scale and frequency of harassment and verbal abuse of women students in a so-called school of social work is simply shocking and warrants a thorough inquiry.
The overall picture this meeting painted of MSSW was of an intensely hierarchical educational institution, where students face regular harassment, have no voice, and where progressive elements in the faculty are cornered and threatened into toeing the line drawn by senior faculties and the management. Some, such as Prof. Sudharson, have paid a heavy price for not compromising on their principles. His dismissal, as well as the grievances expressed by the students and alumni, are not unrelated: they indicate that the underlying issue is one of a college management that is unwilling to admit criticism from any quarter. This problem is not unique to the MSSW, of course; it is a story with a thousand different iterations in college campuses across the country.
The meeting ended with a clear call for students to organise themselves, not only within the MSSW campus but across campuses as well, to form a network of student groups with organisations like Collective and Notes on the Academy.
We have also learnt that during the 10 days since the meeting was conducted, students have twice approached the college administration for a bilateral meeting to discuss several of these issues including the issue of fee hike during pandemic time. Both of these requests have been turned down by the principal. We strongly condemn this complete disregard for students’ opinions and voices.