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.

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They Did Not Know We Were Grass

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. COLLECTIVE was asked to speak at this meeting. Here we publish the text of their statement.

Thank you for giving us your time this afternoon. On behalf of my organization COLLECTIVE, I extend solidarity to RG Sudharson who has been unjustly terminated by the Madras School of Social Work due this political beliefs. I thank you for coming forward with your experiences and, I think I speak on behalf of all of us here, that we hear you and you are not alone in this struggle.

As I see this gathering today, I am reminded of the lines of the revolutionary poet Paash, who says (I paraphrase), ‘They thought they could bomb our schools and hostels… They did not know we were grass, we would grow back over their injustices.’ MSSW thought that they could eliminate struggling voices in campus by removing one teacher, and here we are, so many of us, thinking together about the way forward as a result.

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Press Release for Rights In Our Campus Event

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. 

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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.

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Why R.G. Sudharson’s Dismissal From Madras School of Social Work Must Be Resisted

Recently, Prof R G Sudharson was terminated from the Madras School of Social Work without due process. A petition with 167 signatories was sent to the administration, and they did not reply. The NotA Collective wrote an op-ed for The Wire, reproduced here.

On May 5th, 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. The letter of dismissal makes no reference to any complaints against Sudharson, and indeed, in the testimony of many students over the last four years repeated mention is made of the positive environment Sudharson had cultivated in his classroom, his thoughtful and diligent mentorship of postgraduate students, and his steadfast commitment to and advocacy for the welfare of students not just in his college but in the wider city of Chennai.

No charges were brought, no committees were constituted, no due process was followed. He was given an impossible choice: to either resign or face termination. Further, to the surprise of many, his letter of dismissal casts baseless aspersions on his professionalism, by alleging that he was not “diligent in the discharge of duties expected”, a vindictive move that is surely calculated to make it difficult for him to secure another academic position.

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Academia: A Glass Painting

All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more. 

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Summer Internships, Academic Success, And My Self-Worth

I read the recent testimonial “The Mine Field” published by NOTA. It was an honest account of how most of the summer internships look like. It brought back memories of my own summer internships, the period where I struggled to understand what I did wrong, the frustration of not getting into a good institute, a great program, a reputed lab.

Before I elaborate my frustration and anger on the system, let me explain how summer internships work in elite institutes, like the one I studied in. Unlike the author writes in the earlier article, it was not an unwritten rule in my college. We had to do a summer internship to avail our scholarship for those three months.

We were also told that summer internships help us improve our research skills and know how research is done, and we believed summer internships are just that. However, what is kept hidden is that it is a resume-building endeavor – the better places we go to, the sooner we start, the higher are our chances of excelling in academia. But, how to get into those great places is left for us to figure out. And this is where I didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

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Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

On my request, after a day spent isolated in my windowless studio apartment in [the city] – a room I felt I ought to leave on account of the irritatingly fine cement mist that buildings undergoing renovation shroud themselves in, and the fact that the silence I expected to enjoy during this isolation was frequently interrupted by the sound of pneumatic drills – the city municipal corporation promptly dispatched an ambulance that would drive me to the [local hospital], where I would begin a 10-day quarantine. You see, I had tested positive for COVID-19 just the day before. After a few routine tests were done, I was prescribed a course of medication. “Plenty of fluids, and plenty of rest,” advised the nurse from behind a face shield and baby blue scrubs, both a few sizes too large for her. I entered the room that was assigned to me at the hostel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had a small balcony with an old plastic chair.

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The Mine Field

Prologue:

It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, we undergraduate students were expected to do summer internships, for the long period of 3 months, outside our parent institute. As a naive second year, who hadn’t done an internship in the first year, I eagerly sent mails to many professors all over the country. Amidst the pile of rejection emails, a positive reply set my spirit high, and I committed the first mistake in ‘Mistakes in Academia 101’— stepping into the lion’s den without noticing the pile of bones behind the rock, i.e., choosing my professor without approaching people who had already worked under them. In my defense, they had no doctoral fellows or postdocs, not that I would have done that.

Let the first professor be ‘Prof. X’. Prof. X did all the formalities for me to be accommodated in their institute. And thus I set out, to a far off land, a place where the heat can claim you. We met, and they were put off since I seemed inadequate as I hadn’t had the relevant courses so that they could pose a problem and expect me to solve it. So they said, let it be a reading project, and suggested a book. After reading the portions they had suggested, they gave me another topic to read. This continued for quite some time-the changing of topics-they had no clue as to what I should be doing, and kept giving me random topics. Then they went away for an academic conference.

No guide, no friends. The people there spoke a different tongue. I was lost. During my brief stay there, another Professor there, who took interest in me, since we spoke the same language, suggested a book. So, I decided to settle on the book, read, and make a report about what I read from the book. Since I knew MATLAB, I made graphs of surfaces and curves, and added them to the report. I sent Prof. X an email, telling them that I was reading that book. Days passed, and I had to leave. My guide hadn’t returned yet, so I sent another email, asking when they would come back.

 This is the reply I got:

 “U take the sign of (another Prof) and leave the (institute) today itself. In case u r not doing any work and just gossiping around.

I don’t have time to answer your nonsense emails which are driven by other influences.”

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Critical Comments on the Mehta Affair

– The NotA Collective

Last week, the trustees of Ashoka University, a private liberal arts college in Sonipat, extracted a resignation from the political scientist and public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta which, soon after, prompted the resignation of Arvind Subramanian, the economist and former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India. Subramanian, who resigned in solidarity with Mehta, wrote that Ashoka University “can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom”. Mehta’s letter of resignation1 clarifies that his affiliation to Ashoka University was considered a “political liability” by the trustees. This was followed by student protests,2 which in turn prompted the authorities — along with Mehta and Subramanian — to release a statement about the whole affair.3

The discourse surrounding the Mehta Affair is fraught with confusion, so we at Notes on the Academy thought it would be worthwhile to jot down a few loosely related thoughts. Before we begin, we’d like to clarify: the purpose of this article is not to provide a defense of Mehta or his politics, which has been inconsistent4 to say the least and with which we have significant disagreement. Nor is the purpose of this article to rehabilitate the image of Ashoka University, which is no stranger to the accusation5 that the liberal ideals it champions do not reflect in the actual functioning of the university.

This is not an article about Mehta or Ashoka University — it is an article about everything in this episode but them.

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