Ashoka University issue: Are universities encouraging liberal, democratic and free speech?

“I think Ashoka University is extremely relevant because this kind of broad-based learning in the humanities and social sciences contributes to the making of a democratic citizenship. Our country needs informed citizens who can question the status quo. This is what teaching at Ashoka meant for me, encouraging students to ask questions and find answers for themselves. It also helped me to explore my own ideas with the active collaboration of the students...We should keep in mind the objective of a liberal education, which, ultimately is an education and preparation for democratic citizenship.”

— Professor Andre Beteille, Chancellor, Ashoka University quoted on The Vision page of the university’s website.

If Ashoka University encourages its students to question, is expressing opinion undemocratic in institutions of higher learning like this one, built on the lines of American universities encouraging liberal, democratic and free speech?

The recent turn of events in the Ashoka University campus speaks otherwise and has raised debate in the academic circle, especially after two of its staffers tendered resignations.

“The students in the universities do have the freedom to express their opinions, but it all depends on the style of functioning of every individual university. For example, our university is much more open,” said Shiv Visvanathan, social observer and professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.

“However, the incident that took place at Ashoka University is a question of technical issue. The media reports have mentioned that university’s letter head was used to express an opinion by the students and three staff members. The vice chancellor has mentioned about the misuse of authority. Things will be clear once more information comes out,” he added.

Ashoka University. University website

Ashoka University. University website

Ashoka University case

A 25 July petition signed by 88 members of the university, addressed to the J&K government and the Centre, condemned violence after militant Burhan Wani’s death and called for de-militarisation of the state and the conduct of a plebiscite. Signatories included students, alumni, two employees and one faculty member.

7 October: Two university staff members-- Saurav Goswami, deputy manager of academic affairs, and Adil Mushtaq Shah, programme manager of academic affairs, of the Young India Fellowship (YIF) sent farewell emails to the current batch of 225 YIF fellows. YIF is a one-year postgraduate diploma programme in liberal studies.

9 October: 168 YIF fellows wrote to Vice-Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee expressing their concerns over the resignation.

10 October: The VC replied the group, promising to hold a meeting with the students soon to discuss the matter with pro-vice chancellor Vineet Gupta and other senior faculty members.

According to The Indian Express report, “The duo stated that the resignation was on personal grounds, but many on campus say the management had made its ‘displeasure’ known to them after the petition went public… It seems too much of a coincidence that the only two employees who signed the petition resign together and leave the university the same day.”

The faculty and the students’ community at Ashoka University are virtually tight-lipped and no one is ready to utter a single word on record. “There is a massive internal pressure from the top on the three staffers including the assistant professor of Mathematics to quit for signing the petition. The management has been questioned on how 88 members could endorse an anti-national issue,” a source close to the developments told Firstpost on condition of anonymity.

According to The Quint:

“On this petition, which was eventually signed by 88 members of the University, the official name of Ashoka University was used. A polite mail from the vice-chancellor soon forbade the students from using the name of the university in an official capacity if only the views of some students are to be expressed… At no point has the university stopped its students from expressing its views in solidarity of a cause they think needs their voice, it simply asked for its official name not to be used on a petition that did not uniformly represent the views of all faculty, management, administration, students and alumni… It’s largely without justification to say that a liberal arts university is violating fundamental rights under pressure from a ‘Hindutva government’.”

Political scientist and professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Zoya Hasan said, “Freedom of speech is the essence of democracy and any attempt to curb free speech diminishes democracy and academic freedom. The right to question and freedom to explore are absolutely essential for learning and the academic development of young minds.” She maintained that it was not just the new-age high-profile private universities, but the public ones as well that enjoyed free speech.

“Until recently, most public university students enjoyed complete freedom. These new private universities in India structured similar to the US universities certainly value political and academic freedom. Curbing freedom of speech in a liberal arts university like Ashoka University is unacceptable and the reasons offered so far don’t cut ice,” added Hasan.

Ashoka University is a private educational institution built through “collective public philanthropy.” It is backed by big names in business and academia including Sanjeev Bikhchandani of; Sid Yog, managing partner, Xander Group; Puneet Dalmia, MD and CEO, Dalmia Bharat Cement; Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean, Indian School of Business; and sociologist Andre Beteille who is the chancellor of the university. Ashoka started the YIF programme six years ago and its undergraduate programme began in 2014.

When Firstpost spoke to faculty members of some of the new international private universities like Shiv Nadar University, OP Jindal Global University, Manipal University, etc, they said that there has been no problem with free speech. With lots of foreign students studying on these campuses, no limitation has been set on staffers and students on their freedom of expression. “Even students from Jammu and Kashmir are comfortable here and focussed on their studies. There is no issue as such,” a senior member of the managing committee at Manipal University shared.

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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2016 10:41:56 IST

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