Guv-CM tussle over VC job

Subhasish Mitra - Wide Angle

The tussle between the West Bengal government - read Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee - and the state governor on appointment of vice chancellors is just the tip of an iceberg. 

Universities and their administrations in many parts of the country are caught in the midst of what is essentially a political tussle between the NDA government at the Centre and non-NDA-led state governments.

The appointment of Vice Chancellors in universities has become a major flash point in the confrontation between these state governments and the Centre-deputed governors.

Grievances and allegations such as appointments being held under political influence, biases and disregard for excellence have also caused a stir on certain campuses, turning them into a political battleground.

At the Centre, the president is the honorary head of most institutions. The president appoints the head of the central institution from the panel suggested by the central ministry. But at the state level, the governor is the chancellor of a state-run university.

In some states, the governor appoints the vice-chancellor or head of the institution directly, while in others they select from the panel suggested by the state government.

Experts from the academic fraternity fear the tussle is going to deepen further due to greater political polarisation that is bound to impact appointment of VCs and the autonomy of institutions.

There is an ongoing power tussle between the state governments and the governor because in most cases there hasn't been any consultation with the state government before the appointment or any feedback taken.

VC appointments have become political appointments, as the governors all are BJP people sitting in the states. They are appointing only those as VCs who are close to them, amounting to political interference.

The tussle is not new. It has been there during previous regimes too. The need of the hour is to find a neutral way that pacifies all stakeholders and improves the country's academic integrity.

The debate is not about whether the state or the governor should be given control but about the autonomy of universities so as to ensure academic excellence globally.

For this, the actual stakeholders - the academic people associated with the university - should be given the power to make the educational decisions.

But, across India, the most endangered thing is the autonomy of the universities. There should be academic freedom. The state (government) that has been elected by the people should be the framers of the policies.

The political tug-of-war between state governments and governors over academic institutions is very prominent in West Bengal.

The appointment of a new Vice Chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University led to a confrontation between Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government in West Bengal, with state Education Minister Bratya Basu pointing out that Dhankar's "unilateral appointment" of a VC for Rabindra Bharati University was at odds with the state government's decision conveyed last month on re-examining the appointment process in view of a bill on university administration passed by the WB Assembly.

Asserting that he has returned the "incomplete" bill to the Assembly, the governor had said he expected "maturity and propriety" from the ruling party and the government. Dhankhar had recently said that he will consider those bills without any bias or prejudice.

The WB Assembly passed a bill on June 13 to replace the governor with the chief minister as the chancellor of 31 state-run universities and another bill on June 14 to appoint the education minister as the reader of 11 private universities.

The tussle over the administration of state-run universities is the latest flashpoint between the Mamata Banerjee government and the governor, with the two sides having indulged in multiple feuds since 2019 when Dhankhar assumed charge in West Bengal. 

The state government had taken the first move towards curbing the governor's authority over universities under the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Administration and Regulation) Act, 2017 which stated that the VC's communications to the chancellor will have to be routed through the higher education department. The bill was passed in the assembly in 2019.

The governor and the CM have been at loggerheads over a range of issues since Dhankhar entered Raj Bhawan in July 2019. Dhankhar has been trying to establish that as chancellor of state-run universities he has more say in the running of universities than the titular role the state expected him to play.

On December 21, 2021, Dhankhar had another run-in with the TMC government when the state government appointed Vice Chancellor of 24 universities without his approval.

In Kerala, expressing displeasure over political interference in the appointment of Vice Chancellors of the state universities, Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, who is also the chancellor of universities, had shot off a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan urging him to amend the Acts of the Universities to enable him to assume the position of the chancellor.

Vijayan is heading a Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in the southern state.

Clarifying his government's stand in the wake of the governor's claims of political interference in the appointment of VCs of the state universities, Vijayan had said neither the present nor the previous LDF administration have tried to illegally interfere in the functioning of the varsities.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK government, which has crossed swords with state Governor RN Ravi over a number of issues including NEET, had brought a bill in the Assembly empowering the state government to appoint VCs to various universities, in an apparent bid to clip the wings of the governor on the matter.

Chief Minister M K Stalin then recalled that the Punchhi Commission on Centre-State relations had, while dealing with the subject of VCs' appointment, said, there will be a "clash of functions and powers" if the authority to choose the top academician wrests with the governor.

In Rajasthan, the governor's order to halt two management meetings of a university had set off a political controversy, with university officials alleging interference by the Raj Bhavan and the opposition BJP warning against the institute becoming the "JNU of Jaipur".

Vice Chancellor of the Haridev Joshi University of Journalism and Mass Communication, Om Thanvi, said Governor Kalraj Mishra's move to halt scheduled meetings of the institute's Board of Management (BoM) and the advisory committee was "arbitrary".

In Chhattisgarh, the governor and the Congress government in the state were on a collision course over the appointment of the vice chancellor of the Raipur-based Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (IGKV).

Governor Anusuiya Uikey had questioned if only people from one community should be considered for the post in a state where 32 per cent of the population is tribal, 14 per cent belong to Scheduled Caste communities and there are also people from Other Backward Classes.

Hitting back, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had said the governor "should stop doing politics" on the issue and said the people's demand must be taken into account.

In Odisha, the BJD government allegedly attempted to take power of varsities by passing the Odisha Universities (Amendment) Act, 2020 through which the state government had sought to control appointment to important academic and administrative posts in state universities, including the recruitment of teaching staff.

The Act was first challenged in the Orissa High Court, which allowed the state to go ahead with its legislation. The matter is now before the Supreme Court.

In Maharashtra, the Higher and Technical Education department had set up a 14-member committee headed by Sukhadeo Thorat to study the Maharashtra Public Universities Act and suggest amendments in the law along with the incorporation of the National Education Policy.

One of the suggestions the committee recommended was introducing the post of a Pro-Chancellor in the state universities.

"Through this recommendation, we are trying to create a balance of power between the governor and the state government, unlike other states where the power of appointing the VC is solely with the state government," explained Thorat, also a former chairman of the University Grants Commission.



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