The Monopoly of Excellence: A JU Alumnus’ Rants

By Avishek Ray

This article concerns certain issues that have been obscured — often strategically — in the context of the brouhaha over the scrapping the admission test at Jadavpur University (JU) Arts Faculty. In the course of the viral hashtags, hackneyed online petitions and TRP-targeted TV talk shows, we get to hear one prominent discourse: self-professed claim to ‘excellence’, which is being used as a springboard to mount the populist demand for ‘autonomy’ (to continue to conduct the admission test ‘internally’). The grand narrative of the JU-versus-State-Government conflict — as it is floating on the popular media — isn’t symmetrically divided either.

The proposal for retaining 100% weightage on admission test was outvoted in the Executive Committee (EC) meeting, wherein 2 EC members — the VC and the pro-VC — didn’t vote. This means that the voting members were all JU faculties. So, within JU, there is no consensus among the EC members on the admission test, to begin with. Now, if it’s the faculties who democratically voted to arrive at the decision of scrapping the admission test, why does the popular media invoke ‘government diktat’? Undercutting JU’s claim to excellence and underlying the JU-versus-government narrative are layers of problems and inconsistencies that warrant attention. As an alumnus of the university, I will reveal some of the inconsistencies hitherto obscured. Here, I have cited some information which I’m privy to, but not without evidential verification. I do not intend to speak from a position of sagacity and give verdict on what the admission process ought to be. Instead, I aim to posit a few questions in order to point at the lacuna in the discourse of the protest, which is rather glaring.

Among other things, the protests have (re)furnished the dialectic of internal/external, so fiercely critiqued during Hokkolorob. If one recalls, the ‘rebels’ during Hokkolorob, had played on the rhetoric of the ‘external’ (bahiragoto in Bangla, to be precise), when accused of having mobilized the movement through ‘external’ aid of the ultra-Left. ‘Within the liberal space of the university’, quipped the protesters at that point, ‘who determines who’s an external?’ I wonder how it all faded so quickly from the public memory. The irony is the protesters love to take pride in the ranking bestowed by ‘external’ agencies and the university perforce has to rely on the ‘external’ evaluation for the award of its highest degree (the PhD). But in the context of the undergraduate admission test, they have decided on a verdict: examiners outside of the departmental pool of faculties are ‘externals’, whose academic worth must not be trusted!

In his recent article in Raiot (e-zine), Swagato Sarkar succinctly puts: ‘Entrance tests and interviews allow the teachers, worldwide, to control the admission process, and they invariably tend to select “people like them”, students who fit into their worldview, class, race and caste. It is a process of preserving the ideology and interests of the privileged’. This has also been admitted by Prof. Abhijit Gupta (Head, English dept., JU) in The Telegraph (1 July 2018): ‘We knew the things that we were looking for in our students. This is crucial because ultimately we will be teaching the students’. This implies that the department is predisposed to admitting the students who demonstrate ‘the things’ the department looks for in its prospective students. In other words, the department doesn’t impart lessons according to the needs of the students, to avoid which it out rightly admits certain students who best suit its existing skill sets. Mind you, this is UG teaching (rather than research programs) being discussed here! Anyway, I’m not getting into the sociology of meritocracy — the social constructivism that equips certain students with ‘the things’ –, but I’m simply puzzled at his self-contradictory remark that appears in the same Telegraph report: ‘The selection process was so transparent. We did not favour anyone’! Really?

Making a case for transparency of the department, certain unnamed ‘sources’ mention: ‘A few years ago,…the then head of the department had kept himself out of the admission system because his ward was an examinee’. Conversely, let me remind you the department’s stance when the son of a departmental faculty molested a fellow student in 2016. In this context, The India Today (27 July 2016) reports: ‘[T]his young man happens to be the son of a senior professor of JU’s English Department, who is said to be ‘protecting him’.’ Indeed, public memory seems to be very short-lived! One might argue that this is certain professor’s (parental) stance, which might not have been collectively endorsed by the ‘transparent’ department. Then, the department never took an official position on this — never ever publicly.

The Telegraph further reports: ‘When asked why he was fearing the new system would lead to a decline in the academic standard, Gupta said: “We change the type of questions that we have set earlier. We know the history of the questions that we have set”.’ Gupta’s logic is naive and inconceivable to have been furnished by an Oxford-graduate that Gupta is. In my understanding, this ‘history’ is well documented to the extent that every year the student unions distribute copies of the previous-year-question-papers to JU-aspirants before the entrance tests. And, in all likeliness, these question papers are archived in the university libraries. If the student unions can access the question papers, why can’t the ‘externals’ know, or better still, made aware of the ‘history’ — history that Gupta somehow believes is so discreet? What this reveals with clarity is the stubborn refusal by certain stakeholders in JU to collaborate with or be evaluated by the ‘externals’.

The fact that only a handful of teachers — remember, teachers are divided on the admission test — are desperately wanting to examine the 17000 odd applicants, no less, in the face of the university admin waiving off their responsibility, is counter-intuitive (suspicious?), to say the least. Those who portray this in the light of ‘labour of love’ (an expression I came across in the petitions) are either genuinely naive or have a larger agenda: to (mis)construe the ‘inferiority’ of the ‘external’ — an imagined entity, anyway –, against which the self-professed ‘excellence’ of the ‘internal’ may be projected. To take but one example, Prof. Sukanta Chaudhury, during an interview in the ABP-Ananda, explains why entrance tests in the Humanities can’t have MCQs. Likewise, Prof. Ananda Lal is also apprehensive about MCQs. But they never explicitly mention: Where from did they infer that the question papers, if and when set by the ‘externals’, would comprise MCQs?

In their diminutive imagination, the ‘externals’ can barely ask MCQs, while only the ‘internals’ are capable of identifying ‘the things’ in the prospective students! Curiously, if they were privy to the information, why did Prof. Gupta then tell the Telegraph (1 Jul) that the existing system ‘is now sought to be replaced by a system which is not clear to any one’? One possibility is that Choudhury-Lal came to know of this after Gupta has made his statement. In that case, why didn’t anyone resist the inclusion of MCQs? Rather, everyone continued to be fervently obsessed with eliminating the ‘externals’. For that matter, why is the protest orchestrated around the dialectic of internal/external, to begin with, instead of MCQ/descriptive? Why isn’t a fraction of this battery of protest ever directed against the MCQ-based NET exams (wherein the ‘internals’ teachers don’t get to exercise their power/influence)?

Speaking of excellence, let me cite a few instances from the department of Comparative Literature (CL) that, besides the English department, is spearheading the protests. The faculties of the department have recently written an open letter to the VC. Among other things, the signatories request the university admin to profess ‘faith in the integrity and excellence’ of the faculties, which, as an alumnus of the department, I find a little too difficult to digest. Most signatories happen to be my teachers, whose integrity I am well aware of. At this point, I recall ‘integrity’ may conventionally mean ‘to be morally upright’, but it could also mean ‘the state of being whole and undivided’. Thinking in the latter sense, the signatories illustrate unquestionable integrity. No one in the department smelled a rat when:
1. During the course of 3 recruitment cycles spread over several years at theCL department at Visva Bharati, ‘external’ experts from the CL dept. at JU (which is to say, certain signatories) consistently found only their ‘own’ students suitable.
2. Of late, these students, in the capacity of external examiners, examine the graduating students from the CL dept. at JU. In sum, the dept. has instituted a leak-proof, ‘incestuous’ system so as one’s erstwhile students may now ‘examine’ her present/graduating student!
3. Likewise, in the Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI) journal — possibly unindexed –, certain affiliates of the dept., in the capacity of editor (and also, book-reviewer), ‘evaluate’ their colleagues’ works.
4. As far as I remember, Dr. Debashree Datta Ray had been recruited for a post, for which specialization in ‘Sanskrit/classical Indian’ literature was a desirable, if not required qualification. (I can’t retrieve the advertisement off-hand. Some of the signatories here may clarify). However, she has neither taught (or, may be, was never assigned) a course along similar lines, nor does the internet (Google Scholar) attest to this side of her qualification.
Ironically, Sumit Kumar Barua — allegedly been molesting his students, for which he has been suspended — also speaks of integrity! I’ve cited only those instances, for which I can draw evidential substantiation. These speak volumes about the integrity and excellence of the signatories, and, in so doing, illustrate the need for external moderation. Clearly, the academic worth of the signatories does not match up with, say for example, Prof. Chaudhury’s or Prof. Lal’s. Yet, the protest literatures indiscriminately invoke ‘integrity and excellence’ as a stock expression, whereby the entire JU fraternity – as an ‘imagined community’ – has been rendered morally upright and academically excellent!

Within this ‘morally upright’ community, no one seems to be concerned about a certain recruitment in the department of Film Studies, whereupon the ‘expertise’ of the faculty isn’t even remotely related to the discipline she teaches (Predictably, she’s a JU alumnus!). A few years back, JU-ites were vocal about the erstwhile VC’s plagiarism, yet no one raised a voice against Prof. Sekhar Samaddar’s plagiarism. These issues have direct and immediate repercussion on the educational interest of the university. Yet no one speaks about these. This is because of the immunity the university (or, any organization, for that matter) promises to dispense to its ‘internals’. After all, the university is no exception to all those kind of social systems that, among other things, distributes certain goods, benefits, certain incentives and awards, certain ideologies. Within this status-quo-ist set up, as long the ‘internals’ are supremely powerful — as is the case in the autonomous institutes – university stakeholders (students included) would never be able to articulate their conscience.

In the face of this, external audit may decentralize power and authority from the hands of an elite few, and bring in accountability in the curricular practices of the university. For those who now must be dislodged from their seats of power, this is worrisome. Accordingly, the dialectic of internal/external — very parochial indeed — stems from the helplessness of the very ‘internals’ whose authority will now be trodden upon, and more importantly, a sense of imagined elitism, wherein no ‘external’ could ever better the ‘internal’. The latter concern, it’s worth noting in this context, pervades the recruitment scenario in the Indian academia including JU (just check out: how many how many JU faculties are JU alumni).

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