Leadership crisis has been a periodic phenomenon across societies and professions. Indian legal academia is equally plagued by the problem of identifying credible leaders in the form of Professors of Law who can effectively lead the National Law Universities (NLUs). The contemporary trends in appointment of Vice Chancellors (VC) in the national law universities reflect this pattern. Firstly, there is an increasing practice of appointing the sitting Vice Chancellor for a second term. Secondly, the new trend is towards appointing a retired judge of the high court or retired district judge or the judicial officer from the State Judicial Academy to officiate as Vice Chancellor In-Charge.
Both models speak of the leadership crisis, or perhaps reflect foul play in the appointment process in one way or the other. The first model of re-appointment has its own demerits, nonetheless, it is workable because at least it is professors who have demonstrated some level of results in their first term that are allowed to continue in office.
The second model is most disturbing, because it indicates that there is a dearth of credible professors who can take the top management position in NLUs immediately after the seat of the Vice Chancellor falls vacant. Or, perhaps, this situation is increasingly being used by the judiciary to reward some retired judges with post-retirement positions. This is possible because the Vice Chancellors of NLUs are appointed by the Chief Justices of the respective high courts in their capacity as the Chancellor. Only National Law University Bangalore and Kolkata are exceptions, for which the Chancellor is the Chief Justice of India. The argument, however, remains the same. Some case examples of NLUs across the country clearly show this trend.
In Hidayatullah National Law University (HNLU, Raipur) a former judge of the High Court of Chhattisgarh was appointed as the officiating Vice Chancellor on October 3, 2018, by order of the Chief Justice, High Court of Chhattisgarh and the Chancellor of HNLU. In Chanakya National Law University (CNLU, Patna) also, a former judge of the High Court of Judicature at Patna is officiating as Vice Chancellor (in-charge) since March 2018.
National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL, Ranchi) was until recently being headed by the Director, Judicial Academy, Jharkhand, since April 2017. The former judge, Calcutta High Court, has been officiating as the Vice Chancellor in the West Bengal University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS, Kolkata) since April 2018. In National Law University (Aurangabad), Maharashtra, the only Professor of Law in the university has been officiating as the Vice Chancellor since December 2018.
As evident, out of the five NLUs, four are being led by either a retired judge of the High Court or a judicial officer from the higher judiciary in the state. The case of these five NLUs raises many alarming issues. First, why is the Vice Chancellor (VC) position lying vacant in so many NLUs since quite a long time? In case of HNLU, it has been over five months, in CNLU, it has been almost a year, in NUSRL, for over one year and 10 months, in NUJS for over 10 months and in MNLU (Aurangabad) for over two months.
Secondly, why are the Chancellors of these NLUs who are mostly the Chief Justices of the High Courts, unable to appoint any Professor of Law, either from within the NLU or any central or state university’s department of law as the interim vice chancellor till the vacancy is filled? Thirdly, why is there an increasing trend of entrusting this job to judicial officers? It compels us to think, what could be the interest of the judiciary in NLUs.
These questions are critical and highly relevant for the smooth functioning of NLUs and for maintaining the quality of legal education. We perhaps need to appreciate that an academic mind is as distinguished in its own right as is the judicial mind of a judge. Hence, the two have distinguished roles to play in society and generally these roles are not interchangeable. Heading an educational institution requires a different skillset and judgeship needs a different acumen. An academic interest can be best served only by an academic supervisor and none else.
Exercising extra-judicial power
Is the legal academia alone to be blamed for this crisis of leadership? From the four cases of NLUs in the recent past, it appears that whenever a seat of a Vice Chancellor falls vacant, the judiciary is exercising its extra-judicial power through the Chancellor and appointing retired judges as interim Vice Chancellors. Since the Chancellors have the power to constitute a search committee and appoint a Vice Chancellor for a full term, appointment of retired judges as Vice Chanecllors In-charge and allowing them to continue for months, raises concerns. Legal academia may perhaps need to take a collective call if this is a healthy practice.
The leadership challenges in an education institution has far-reaching implications. Likewise, in the case of NLUs, it affects the stability of leadership per se, policy decision-makingvis-à-vis appointment of law teachers and staff, quality of curriculum and syllabus design and overall standards of legal education.
Hence, what is needed is timely appointment of eligible and suitable law professors as Vice Chancellors for a full term. However, a limited role of the judiciary in supporting the NLUs to function smoothly must always be welcomed. At the same time, the legal academia must act steadfastly in developing academic leaders to lead the National Law Universities and improve the standards of legal education.
(The writer is Assistant Registrar (Research), Supreme Court of India, and Assistant Professor, NLU Odisha)