We Make The University

R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. A petition with 167 signatures was sent to the administration, and no reply has been received. Some students and alumni organised a meeting regarding ways to move forward. The NotA Collective was asked to speak at this meeting. What follows is the text of what we said.

“Let us begin by expressing our appreciation for all the students here, as well as prof. Sudharson, fighting the fight. And thank you for sharing your stories. We are humbled that the NotA collective has been able to play its tiny part in all this. We at the NotA collective would like to learn how to help more with these important and necessary battles, please reach out to us if you’d like to discuss. We will leave our details in the chat box.

“The unlawful termination of Prof. Sudharson from the Madras School of Social Work is the most recent addition to an already long list of instances where faculty at colleges and universities in this country have been intimidated, harassed, suspended, or dismissed for doing precisely what is expected of them: thinking critically and speaking honestly. The case of Prof. K.S. Madhavan at the University of Calicut, who was issued a show-cause notice by the university administration for authoring an article highlighting how reservation policies are being subverted, is just one more example, but there are many others. There are some common features shared by all these events that we would like to highlight. We believe that these three features are all different faces of the same overarching process.

“In many cases, it is abundantly clear that the administration is under pressure (either from reactionary forces on campus, or political formations outside the college/university) to “do something” about dissident faculty members and students. Lately, as the cases of Sudharson and Madhavan attest to, these events involve the administration appearing to curtail the freedoms of their faculty suo motu, i.e. upon their own initiative, and without the outward appearance of internal or external political pressure. This is a form of self-censorship, and it is instructive to understand why colleges and universities are developing this bad habit.

“For one, the autonomy of central and state universities has been eroded systematically, with the University Grants Commission (UGC) today serving less as a regulatory body and more as the enforcement arm of the education ministry. The UGC also controls the disbursement of funds to universities (often requiring NAAC accreditation, which many government colleges cannot afford!) and serves as an additional point of leverage. In the same breath, we must also acknowledge the decades-long project to privatise and commodify education. Political dissidents in academia, in this environment, are viewed as liabilities, whose continued presence on campuses interferes with the ability of colleges to attract funding from private corporations. We would be remiss if we did not also mention the increasingly ad-hoc or contractual nature of academic employment — in Delhi University, for example, this group accounts for up to 40% of the academic workforce — which represents a third factor relevant to the question of self-censorship.

“A second common feature shared by these events are the constraints placed on faculty both inside and outside the campus. On campus, the choice of topics discussed in their classes and their manner of instruction is constantly scrutinised and policed. Outside the campus, constraints are placed on their social engagements and political activities. Dedicated and conscientious teachers like Sudharson appreciate that in order to use one’s education positively, it is important to understand the society to which this education might contribute. It is admirable — indeed, it should be a matter of great pride — that lecturers like Sudharson discuss society and politics in their classes, and are involved in social movements, for in doing so they are better preparing their students for the world they will one day shape.

“A third feature that is widespread across educational institutions in this country is the denial of agency to the student body. Students are often treated by the college or university administration as a capricious, incoherent, bumbling mass that understands nothing and has no right to speak or make demands. Even the most basic demands for accountability, redressal, or even hostel amenities, are met with intimidation. Indeed, students who wish to protest the decisions taken unilaterally by the administration are routinely faced with suspensions, police cordons, and in some cases even violence. This is equally true of colleges as well as major central universities and research institutions. Instead of facilitating a smoother, more enriching educational experience, administrations adopt a paternalistic attitude and sneer at our presumptuousness.

“Through these difficult times, we must remember that a college is its student body. We learn new things every day and teach them to our friends. We fill the classrooms with passion and dialogue, and the corridors with laughter and excitement. We organise festivals of art, engineering, and science. We work hard. We make the university. Why should we not speak when our friends and teachers are mistreated? Why do we not get a say in how our campus is run? A seat at the table is rightfully ours, and it is right for us to demand it.

“We at Notes on the Academy congratulate the students and alumni of the Madras School of Social Work for their courage and resilience in demanding accountability from their administration. We express our unflinching solidarity with your cause, because your cause is the cause of students everywhere.”

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