How Do Public Universities Go To Seed?

| Updated: 28 June, 2022 3:03 pm IST


Mamta Tiwari – an Allahabad girl, an LSR alumna, and a senior counsel with a reputed legal firm – recollects: When I went for an admission interview at LSR in 1988, the Principal Miss UJ Rana asked why I wanted to take admission to Delhi University when good, old Allahabad University was there. I was literally at pains to explain how the university had long since begun going to seed and how my grandfather and my parents – all proud Allahabad University alumni – insisted that Allahabad university was not the place where I would go to.

It is a sad spectacle. University after university especially in the Hindi heartland presents a pathetic picture of fatigue and decrepitude. A university campus is supposed to be a youthful place with eclectic energy informing its affairs. It ought to represent, what Nehru so aptly called, ‘adventure of ideas’.

Why are things in such shambles? Enter any university which had once seen better days and you would instantly realise tell-tale signs of decay and decline. The walls look so sad. Wall graffiti of this or that political party spoils visual aesthetics. The canteen is either non-existent or non-functional or barely skeletal. Hostels have mostly turned into hotbeds of anti-social elements.

Debating, quizzing and cultural committees, which make learning such a pleasant exercise, are in terminal decline. Teachers look tired and demoralised. Many departments go without regular teachers. Students take admission not to attend classes but because it is an administrative or eligibility requirement for competitive examinations. Students blame teachers. Teachers blame the government. The government blames both teachers and students. Both teachers and students blame the government. Non-teaching staff blame teaching staff who in turn keep cursing non-teaching staff. Both teaching and non-teaching staff blame the government, UGC and HRD ministry.

All hark back to a halcyon past, all appear resigned to an uninspiring present and all seem to have given up on the future. Murphy’s law sneaks stealthily, starts gnawing at the intellectual  – the ethical fibre of colleges and universities  – and in no time, becomes a force that would destroy the quintessence of higher education.

How does a university start going to seed?

A university starts going to seed when a few birds flying blithely across university premises scatter some random seeds absentmindedly over its buildings. These seeds find warmth in crevices and cracks of walls to come out with green shoots. Nobody takes notice. Shoots break through walls. Walls crack. A Banyan tree or two gets embedded. Those in authority fear that uprooting the Banyan tree could portend disaster for them. A university that is supposed to stand for the ‘adventure of ideas’ gets caught in the labyrinth of stagnation. Protruding out of walls, trees keep growing. University keeps getting parochial.

The point is that physical repair and renovation could be undertaken. A new building could come up. But the idea behind the building is not mechanical. When we stop being vigilant, when we stop caring for what must be cared for, when we – out of lethargy or lassitude or lack of imagination – allow the idea behind the building to run aground, it is before long universities would begin going to seed.

Salman Rushdie uses the beautiful imagery of hunters versus gatherers in ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days’. Gatherers – given to painstaking efforts, sincere diligence, patient accumulation – have begun giving way to hunters who hunt, hound and haunt and grow at the expense of gatherers. A university goes to seeds when hunters are privileged over gatherers.

University education ought to be about patient accumulation, cultivation and dissemination of knowledge and wisdom and not about the mindless fixation with information. When hunters of teachers hunted gatherers of teachers out of the equation, guidebooks first replaced books and now WhatsApp is replacing guidebooks. Recruited mostly on the basis of extraneous considerations including primordial affiliation, ideological promiscuity and other non-academic considerations, they unleashed themselves upon the university. University started groaning and grunting under their weight. Hunters won. Gatherers lost.

A university goes to seed when symbiosis and osmosis of ideas between teachers and students suffer an irretrievable breakdown. This takes place both inside the classroom and beyond.

Tutorial sessions, small departmental libraries, seminars and workshops, departmental tours, interaction with neighbouring colleges, interaction with industry, civil society and other stakeholders, are the ways osmosis of ideas could take place. Tutorial classes were arenas which exemplified it most eloquently. But when regular classes went for a toss, others slowly faded away and out of memory. To paraphrase Orhan Pamuk, we first remembered what we had forgotten and then we forgot what we had forgotten.

A university goes to seed when its canteens turn into battlefields when they ought to have remained playfields. The day a soft drink bottle is broken by some hoodlums and its jagged ends are stabbed in a lover’s stomach and that hoodlum is elected the University president, it becomes difficult to tell a university from a wrestling pit or a gladiator’s arena.

When teachers stop reading books, a university could only go to seed. Caught in a time warp, fossilized, calcified and ossified, most of the teachers remain supremely indifferent to books and keep referring to notes they had borrowed from seniors when they were in BA Part II and were mostly busy chasing tumultuous fancies of capricious hearts.

A university goes to seed when its students’ union becomes an extension of political parties. It is not difficult to explain: politics feeds on partisanship; universities ought to survive on cosmopolitanism. When political parties meddle in universities, the former do not go cosmopolitan but universities go parochial.

Lack of diversity is another reason why universities go to seed. By its very definition, a university should be free from primordial affiliation and must go all out cultivating diversity – of teachers, courses, students, ideological persuasions and tendencies. Only then could we have different ideas streaming in from different directions. Only then could established shibboleths and certitudes be challenged. A university system is about fierce contestation of ideas – not physical but in an intellectual sense. The problem is that contestation has gone physical when it ought to have remained intellectual, strictly intellectual.

When dissent is banished and exiled from the classroom, when students are run down because they sympathize with Lucifer and do not trust angels, universities start going to seed.

Sanjay Kumar is a public servant based in Patna, Bihar. He is heavily invested in the ancient art of story-telling.

(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)

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