Failure of leadership

Failure of leadership

Governance of Universities

Aligarh Muslim University

It was reported recently that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has launched a new modular three-week training program to expose senior professors, deans, heads of departments, directors of institutes and vice chancellors (VCs) to the challenges of leadership, nuances of governance and skills of crisis management. The genesis of the idea was, it seems, the observation that those appointed as VCs, despite considerable academic brilliance, were often found to be deficient in administrative acumen.

It was gathered that the student unrest and violence that rocked the campuses at Film and Television Institute, Pune, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Osmania University, Hyderabad, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and Aligarh Muslim University could have been averted had the managements taken prompt remedial measures.

Secondly, a few years ago, Yale University in the US had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with IIT Kanpur and IIM Kozhikode to prepare academic leaders, although the impact of this initiative has not been widely felt. Moreover, a survey in 2018 claimed that in the last 15 years, more than 75% of those appointed as VCs lacked vision as well as academic recognition, besides being naïve about governance of higher education.

It is true that a good proportion of academics appointed as VCs/directors lack the requisite experience to tackle matters related to administration, finance and personnel. Altogether, there is a glaring crisis in our academic leadership, akin to that in our political leadership. Conflict and crisis management, necessitated by periodic disturbances on the campuses, warrant courage, tactics, reasoning and sound judgement of the prevailing situation. These virtues are not necessarily the components of a VC’s scholastic profile and hence need to be acquired through orientation or induction programs.

To draw an analogy from the corporate world, senior managers such as CEOs, CFOs, COOs and GMs undergo periodic refresher programs to keep abreast of changing dynamics of the business from both national and international perspectives. Besides, in the corporate culture, the search for a suitable CEO involves a great deal of time and efforts, often lasting 6-12 months.

The crisis of academic leadership is, in fact, embedded in the very system of appointment of VCs as it is currently operative. For instance, the search-cum-selection committee constituted for identifying a suitable candidate has no means to assess the leadership qualities and managerial capabilities of candidates, for the entire process is based on subjective assessment of qualifications on paper, rather than competence to deliver. In fact, the selection committees many a time are bereft of experts in governance.

An old adage says, “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” Another one states, “a leader does not follow a known path. Instead, he treads an unknown path and leaves a trail”, implying that a leader is a pathfinder and an innovator, not an imitator. Good leaders, being performers, believe more in deeds than in words. In the past, in the South, we have had VCs like Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar (Madras University), D C Pavate (Karnatak University) and M A M Ramaswamy (Annamalai University) and many others who functioned as architects with vision, mission and passion. Their integrity and impeccable conduct were unquestionable –- never challenged by anyone either from inside or outside.

There was hardly any political or bureaucratic interference those days and whenever there was one, it was promptly resisted, not obliged. Those stalwarts built institutions over years (there was no fixed ‘term’ for a performing VC) with devotion and commitment. Of course, the overriding thrust then was on teaching, with judicious selection of outstanding teachers. The VC used to be the supremo, with unbridled powers.

It is true that the character and functioning of universities have undergone a sea-change in the last 2-3 decades. Both state and central universities are increasingly controlled by governments, mainly because of their pathetic financial dependence. University autonomy, of late, has been eroded beyond redemption. The VCs are targeted not only by the stakeholders but more so by bureaucrats, politicians and, regrettably, even by the judiciary. Many university campuses have been reduced to shelter houses for nefarious communal and political activities, often jeopardizing their tranquility and serenity.

Our universities are vulnerable to rampant fanaticism, parochialism, groupism and nepotism. There are few or no stalwarts on the Syndicate/Board of Governors to act as ‘think tanks’ and to advise the VC on policies and programs. Many are universities by nomenclature, not by a culture of higher learning and research. They are academically weak and financially unsound. The VCs are made to run from pillar to post in the state secretariat on various issues, including grants for payment of salaries. Government secretaries boss over the VCs –- a scenario totally unseen and unheard of a few decades ago. In short, university leadership is wantonly subjugated and downgraded.

Need for competent leaders

Universities, per se, cannot produce leaders, but they can certainly inspire and motivate many students to become so. We have umpteen examples of student leaders ultimately rising to be national statesmen. Leadership calls for sterling character, hard work, discipline and integrity in addition to courage and indomitable will. A leader’s inner strength generates confidence. He listens, analyses, corrects and is receptive to criticism.

Competent leadership is one of the many requisites to upgrade our universities from the current morass they are in. A large country like ours cannot be complacent with a few islands of excellence like IIMs, IITs, NITs, IISc. We certainly need to adapt a new paradigm of selecting VCs who, given autonomy, will translate the doctrine of self-reliance and self-governance into fruition so to transform our universities as seats of scholarship and intellectualism. Needless to say, it is the intellectual capital that heralds the economic prosperity of a nation.

(The writer is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Mysore)