Of VCs, universities and state of enlightenment

Of VCs, universities and state of enlightenment

It's a rare spectacle to see Vice Chancellors of a few public universities becoming subject to their students' anger. The nature of agitation belongs to no ordinary protest against the VCs. In cases, students opt for extreme forms of movement like laying siege to the VCs' offices --- and also the self-punishing hunger strikes. In a stunningly surprising turn of events, the frequency of the students' agitation against their Vice Chancellors has increased at an alarming rate. On occasions, the premier and stellar universities of the country are also found joining the trend. The whole episode, in which the general students bring allegations of various types against their VCs, has made Bangladesh a unique one among the countries having these higher seats of learning.

However, there are also cases in which the incumbent VCs are compelled to resign after a change in the government. Although the change in the post follows a constitutional process, requiring the President's final nod, the VCs serving the past governments have to quit the highest post of a public university. Many former 'chief academic officers' and 'chief executives' of universities are seen joining the departments they had served before they became VCs. The ubiquitous private universities do not have to go by the book in appointing their VCs. They have their respective executive boards to pick their Vice Chancellors. Lately, the Ministry of Education is reportedly considering involving the government in appointing the private university VCs. Many of the private universities allegedly have no formal Vice Chancellors. Coming to the outgoing VCs, despite the mood of pathos among the students and teachers close to a departing public university VC, the farewell takes place in silence. The students do not raise demands that the departing Vice Chancellors remain in their posts.

All the recent agitations centring round the sitting Vice Chancellors have not been sparked by political reasons. Reforms in areas ranging from academic activities, teaching practices, teacher-student relations to one or another VC's unbridled comments on non-academic subjects have been identified as factors stoking the ongoing campus turbulence. In cases, partisan issues add to the fast deteriorating chaos. Despite the political volatilities in East Bengal, later East Pakistan, in the 1950s, then in the 60s, and the 70s onwards, the university students in general were loyal to their Vice Chancellors. All of them were public universities located in Dhaka, Rajshahi, Chittagong (now Chattogram) and Jahangirnagar in Savar near Dhaka. Besides, there were BUET and Mymensingh Agricultural University. Pioneered by Sir Philip Hartog (1920-1925) and followed by the legendary VCs Professor George Harry Langly (1926-1934), Sir Ahmad Fazlur Rahman (1934-1936), and Professor R.C. Majumdar (1937-1942) and 25 others in the university's 100 years (established 1921), the VCs of the University of Dhaka have been able to earn due respect of their students. There were figures, with the views of whom the general students couldn't agree. But they differed amicably. Fluid situations didn't have any chance to spiral out of control.

It was in the 1980s that the Dhaka University campus and that in Chittagong began being restless. The previously close ties between the students and the teaching community kept yawning. This development had a lot to do with the appointment of teachers on political considerations. Likewise, politicised students also did not lose a chance to vitiate the campus atmosphere. In fact, a section of students and teachers were found brazenly lacking in scruple. Harassment of female students by a handful of teachers, and also by muscle-flexing students, became commonplace. Dhaka University could put in place a semblance of restraint. Throughout Bangladesh, quite a handful of the 53 public universities virtually let loose a reign of anarchy and violence and display of power lately. It meant links to local party honchos. At many universities, teachers consider the students as their rivals, and vice versa. To speak in brief, the strife-torn smaller public universities continue to detract from the decades-old institutions' fame, especially those specialising in science and technology.

The academic atmosphere of universities is different from those prevailing at other institutions. Students here enjoy enormous freedom with no restrictions on movement on the campus. Skipping one or two classes doesn't make a difference in a student's attendance record. The prerequisite the learners are required to meet is remaining present at the tutorial classes. Absence from these special classes intermittently leads to poor performances in the exam results. Teachers are hardly seen reprimanding the erring students at universities. The relationship between young teachers and students at university level is normally warm and nearly informal. Against this backdrop, the Vice Chancellors remain mostly busy with executive jobs. It is the Pro-VCs in charge of academic activities and administration who execute the jobs on behalf of the VC. Despite the visibly light burden of work and responsibility, the Vice Chancellor of a large public or private university has to go ahead with a lot of executive appointments and meetings. Although his contact with the students is mostly occasional, a few critical meets are necessitated by highly urgent issues. Given the weight of their positions, VCs are careful that they are not viewed as frivolous.

The Vice Chancellors hold a hallowed post. Thanks to this image of theirs, they should be careful about the fact that they do not cross their limit of decency when speaking about female university students. No matter if they study at their institutions or at others.  In the time of falling standards in all professions, the bitter truth is universities cannot be expected to remain different. But it could have been. On the other hand, the average university students do not know how to converse in standard spoken Bangla, leave alone in English. Even a few Vice Chancellors do not bother to speak in their regional Bengali dialect. They have no compunction. They hardly feel embarrassed.

The Vice Chancellors and the university teachers belong to a highly revered segment in society. Even in the developed and affluent societies they are held in high esteem. The VCs in the past would prefer to remain within their close academic circles, virtually in a state of seclusion. Unless they are called outside to spread the light of knowledge, the scholarly VCs loved to remain engaged in studies. In ancient Greece Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were regarded by their disciples as teachers. They had no particular venues where they could engage in teaching. Socrates, the senior-most of them, and also called the founder of Western philosophy, used to teach his students in whole Athens, which was his 'classroom'. He placed questions to the elite and common man alike. He wanted to arrive at some basic truths of life, ethics in particular. It's a riddle that Socrates left no books or written texts for the posterity. But he passed on his thoughts to his faithful students.

Plato founded a formal centre of teaching in Athens in 387 BCE. It was formally called Plato Academy. Plato, the second- generation Greek philosopher, met here his senior Socrates, and disciples who included Aristotle. All the three spent their lives in search of the ultimate truth. Of them, Socrates was compelled to embrace death by drinking hemlock. The allegation levelled against him by the Athens rulers was he had been misguiding the youths. The Greek philosophers were self-appointed de facto Vice Chancellors, the rulers being the Chancellors.

On a parallel branch, the evolution of scholarship and the dissemination of its messages continued to become part of the oriental school of thoughts. Starting from West Asia, it extended up to China. Europe had its own style of breaking new ground in the sphere of knowledge. Starting from the 11th century Bologna University in Italy through Oxford, Cambridge and the other seven universities in Europe, the continent began to be exposed to higher learning in the Middle Ages. Against this vast field of scholarship along with the teachers, fixing the place of Bangladesh has become a prime task --- at least for deciphering the rationale of its universities.


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