Of campus democracy and academic excellence: Students of St. Stephen’s College
This is a guest post by some STUDENTS OF ST. STEPHEN’S COLLEGE, Delhi
Over the past one year Delhi University has been subjected to significant changes in the name of academic excellence, and many more changes are in the offing, like an un-thought-out introduction of the four-year undergraduate course. Teachers and students who have voiced concerns (and protested) have been harassed and not paid any heed to. One can witness a general shrinking of democratic space, and the space for dissent within the university. It is almost as if democratic decision making is an enemy of academic excellence, and thus needs to be curbed! A sharp contradiction between campus democracy and a vaguely defined academic excellence has come up recently in some issues pertaining to St. Stephen’s College. In this article, we – some students of the college would like to draw attention to the injuries inflicted on campus democracy, and the questions thrown up about the very meaning of academic excellence in the process.
Since the beginning of the semester, some students had collectively voiced their dissatisfaction over the 10 pm curfew for female residents in college (men have no such curfew time). They had demanded that the curfew be lifted, as it is discriminatory, and attention be paid to making the campus safer on the whole. Opinions had been divided within the faculty as well as students on the issue – some felt that the curfew was not entirely unacceptable considering the insecurities regarding safety of women within the city. The debate took a decisive turn towards being silenced a couple of weeks back due to an atmosphere of fear and insecurity among students in college due to various threats by the administration.
In light of the opinion against curfew, a General Body Meeting was organized in college on 25th March to put forth the demand. The Principal came to the GBM, and behaved in an extremely high-handed and authoritarian manner, terming the issue of curfew as a ‘petty grievance’ contrived by a few mischief makers. He made highly sexist comments proclaiming that men and women were not equal – they were different, like apples and oranges, like eggs and stones, and had to be taken care of differently. He refused to recognize the students right to voice their demand, claiming that they were mere guests and that he could force everyone out of residence and keep the buildings empty if he so desired. A student pointed out that women’s curfew is a traditional patriarchal gesture, a question he ignored. Since then, the most vocal section of the students has been targeted with threats of disciplinary action on the slightest of pretexts. Students have been called to the Principal’s office individually, or in small groups, and threatened with suspension from residence if they were not happy with the rules, by him as well as the hostel wardens. The Principal has been trying to isolate the ‘troublemakers’ by questioning their academic inclination.
A month before the semester examinations, the students have been told that they would not be granted hostel facilities next semester automatically. They would have to go through an interview process, which would take place on 22nd and 23rd April. The Principal himself would be conducting those interviews. Grant of hostel facilities would be based on academic excellence, contribution to college activities, and attendance. A new form for reapplication to the hostel has been brought out, asking vague questions about students’ contribution to college and asking them to specify if they disagree with residence rules. This constant uncertainty, coupled with a policing of students through the hostel wardens has created a sense of insecurity among students merely weeks before the examination. This seriously questions the Principal’s commitment to academic excellence. In the light of his claim of being a champion of the same, his treatment of a demand made by Mathematics (Hons.) students in 2012 may be noted. They had asked for an optional course, and since they were more than ten in number, according to the university rule, the college had to provide this option. The college refused to do so, asking the students to pay extra for a teacher if they wanted the course, citing lack of funds. In the very same year the college has gone on an extravagant facelift spree for no reason, importing grass worth 4 lakhs for the lawns. Whither academic excellence?
We are deeply concerned by the attitude of the Principal in dealing with dissenting opinion among students. The principle underlying such authoritarian behavior is disturbing. He is treating the college as his personal property and refusing to accept and engage with the voice of students in deciding how the college should be run. An institution of learning is meaningful to a society only when it is organically linked to it. That naturally means that all participants in the institution, whether students, staff members, or karamcharis, regardless of their location in society, have a say in matters concerning it. That is the basic principle of democratic functioning of an institution and it is being blatantly violated in St. Stephen’s College today. The wielding of disproportionate power by the Principal is running parallel to the same by the Vice-Chancellors of Delhi University and Jamia Milia Islamia. Education in India awaits a rescue from the hands of such figures.
We shall end with a note on the meaning of academic excellence. We believe that academic activity and theoretical debates cannot be disconnected from larger social debates and changes. Our classroom discussions, of patriarchy, equality, and democracy, stand in clear contradiction with the views expressed by the Principals and his supporters in the college administration. We believe academic activity is fulfilling when it is practiced in engagement with struggles in society and is integral to the process of dialogue and development. The snuffing out of the latter is not compatible with academic excellence. The kind of distortion of the meaning of academic excellence that is happening in the college and in the University as a whole, calls for a concerted challenge by all democratic and progressive sections of society.
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