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Ashoka University Chancellor says founders never interfered, Board stands for intellectual independence

In a strong counter to the narrative building around reasons for the exit of Professor PB Mehta, Ashoka University Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee has said the institution remains committed to academic freedom and intellectual independence while its Board of Trustee Chairman Ashish Dhawan promised an open line of communication.

Days after Mehta, who had resigned as Vice-Chancellor of the university two years back, chose to step down as a Professor also, saying that the founders made it “abundantly clear” that his association with the institution was a “political liability”, Mukherjee wrote to faculty and students stating the institution’s founders have never interfered with academic freedom.

Dhawan in a separate letter said the Board of Trustee stands for free enquiry, academic freedom and intellectual independence and the university is committed to providing an environment of excellence. “I deeply regret any lapses that led to this situation – this was not something we had anticipated or planned.”

“Today, when the Founders are being attacked for trying to compromise and curtail academic autonomy and freedom of expression, I find it necessary as Chancellor and given my association with Ashoka from its inception, to state unambiguously that the Founders have never interfered with academic freedom: faculty members have been left free to construct their own courses, follow their own methods of teaching and their own methods of assessment,” Mukherjee wrote.

They, he said, have also been left free to carry out their own research and publications.

“There are only two points that the founders have insisted upon. One, that Ashoka should not compromise on intellectual standards; and two, that the Foundation Courses should be integral to Ashoka’s academic offering,” he wrote on March 20.

Dhawan in the separate two-page letter said faculty and students are encouraged to continue questioning the world around them, including the university.

“The last few days have taught us it is really important for us to build an open line of communication and also listen to you. We will make ourselves available for meetings with the Student, Government and Alumni Council on a regular basis,” he wrote.

“The Ashoka administration is entrepreneurial in spirit, and we know that you are too. We want to encourage you to express yourselves and know that we will be there to hear you and take your feedback.”

The university belongs to students as much as it does to the faculty and the founders, he said, inviting students to use their voice to help management understand their need.

“We hope to become a more inclusive university that continues to develop on the basis of student, faculty, and administration partnerships.”

“I admit that the departures of Professors Mehta and Subramanian make us all feel a tremendous loss but there is nothing for you to fear. As an institution, we are committed to freedom in every aspect. Even as we evolve, this commitment will never fade,” he said.

Over 150 international academics have come out in support of Mehta in an open letter that described his resignation from Ashoka University as a “dangerous attack” on academic freedom. Former RBI Governor and economist Raghuram Rajan too has expressed solidarity in a blog, saying, “Metha is a thorn in the side of the establishment”.

The university students union has given a strike call on March 22-23 over the resignations of Mehta and Arvind Subramanian, a noted economist who resigned in solidarity with Mehta.

Ashoka University on Sunday acknowledged “lapses in institutional processes” and expressed “deep regret” at the recent events surrounding the resignations of political commentator Mehta and Subramanian from its faculty.

Meanwhile, Mehta wrote a letter to students, urging them to not “press” for his return, asserting that the circumstances that led to his resignation will not change in the foreseeable future.

“Ashoka University’s commitment to core values and our Founders and Trustees’ role are being questioned in the wake of the recent resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta,” Mukherjee said, addressing Mehta by the first name and calling him a “close personal friend” whom he had brought to the university and succeeded him as Vice-Chancellor.

Mehta, he said, made invaluable contributions to building Ashoka into the institution. “We all regret what has happened, but I am sure we will recover and move forward from the situation we find ourselves in.”

“It would be no exaggeration to say that some of my colleagues, including faculty members and some Founders, and myself drew up the core values of Ashoka – critical thinking, intellectual autonomy, learning through debate and interaction, the importance of social responsibility, and of moral courage. Ashoka University and its reputation stand on these pillars,” he said.

“We have always been and will remain committed to academic freedom and intellectual independence.”

This is why Ashoka has set new standards in higher education in India. “With our additional commitment to excellence, I do not doubt that we will continue to scale new heights,” he said.

Stating that he had to engage very closely with the founders in building and fundraising for the university, he said these are inpiduals who have worked selflessly and tirelessly to build Ashoka into what it is today.

“Most of us were introduced to Ashoka by them. They have worked alongside us and seamlessly with us. Ashoka has a unique and unprecedented governance model that is collaborative but has natural guardrails to preserve academic integrity and independence,” he said.

Ashoka has been a place of many firsts and of setting new benchmarks, he said. “As the Chancellor, I see it as my duty that the core values as laid out above are unfailingly adhered to.”

“As Ashoka University overcomes these difficult times and moves forward. I hope you will stay unwavering in your support for our quest to build India’s greatest university,” he added.

Dhawan said the founders and trustees have always had the best interests of Ashoka at heart. “None of them have even an iota of commercial or business interest in the university.”

“We stand for free enquiry, academic freedom and intellectual independence and always will. We would not have come this far if that was not the case. Questions are meant to be asked, and I understand why all of you are asking them right now.

“I want to encourage you to continue questioning the world around you, including us. But, you should also know that we, as a University, will never intentionally let you down. You always have had and will have the freedom to express yourself,” he said.

Stating that he has known Mehta closely for over a decade, Dhawan said he was as saddened by the two departures. “I deeply regret any lapses that led to this situation – this was not something we had anticipated or planned.”

“I assure you that Ashoka is a space that aims to empower its entire community and build on its core values,” he added.

“I admit that the departures of Professors Mehta and Subramanian make us all feel a tremendous loss but there is nothing for you to fear. As an institution, we are committed to freedom in every aspect.”

Japan PM Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, resigns over worsening health

TOKYO: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving premier, announced his resignation because of poor health on Friday, ending a stint at the helm of the world’s third-biggest economy in which he sought to revive growth and bolster its defences.

“I have decided that I will step down as prime minister, with the belief that I cannot continue being prime minister if I do not have the confidence that I can carry out the job entrusted to me by the people,” Abe, 65, told a news conference.

He said he had decided to step down now to avoid a political vacuum as the country copes with its novel coronavirus outbreak.

“I apologize from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus,” Abe said. He similarly quit in 2007 after one year as premier, citing illness.

It was the second time Abe has resigned as prime minister because of poor health.

He has battled the disease ulcerative colitis for years and two recent hospital visits within a week had fanned questions on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as ruling party leader, and hence, premier, in September 2021.

As news of the resignation spread, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei average fell 2.12% to 22,717.02, while the broader Topix shed 1.00% to 1,599.70. The selling wiped $47 billion off Tokyo’s $5.7 trillion stock market value, which had more than doubled during Abe’s tenure.

The resignation will trigger a leadership race in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – most likely in two or three weeks – and the winner must be formally elected in parliament. The new party leader will hold the post for the rest of Abe’s term.

Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and former foreign minister Fumio Kishida both quickly expressed interest in the top job, media reported. Among others whose names have been floated is Abe’s close aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

Whoever wins the party poll is likely to keep Abe’s reflationary “Abenomics” policies as Japan struggles with the impact of the novel coronavirus, but may have trouble emulating the political longevity that may be Abe’s biggest legacy.

“The broad picture remains in tact. In terms of economic and fiscal policy, the focus remains very much on reflation,” said Jesper Koll, senior adviser to asset manager WisdomTree Investments.

“Longevity will be a struggle.”

On Monday, Abe surpassed a record for longest consecutive tenure as premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.

“As head of the ruling party he worked hard on Abenomics for eight years,” said Naohito Kojima, 55, a brokerage employee.

“There were various problems but if someone else had been leader, it’s questionable whether they could have maintained a stable government as long as Mr Abe. He did various diplomatic negotiations and I think the pros outweighed the cons.”

Abe’s resignation also comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between the United States and China and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

FALLING SUPPORT
The conservative Abe returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his “Abenomics” mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He also pledged to beef up Japan’s defences and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.

Under fire for his handling of the coronavirus and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels of his nearly eight years in office.

Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in virus cases seen elsewhere but Abe had drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.

In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.

Abe kept his promises to strengthen defences, boosting spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad.

In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two.

A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence or defending a friendly country under attack.

But Abe proved unable to revise the U.S.-drafted, post-war constitution’s pacifist Article 9, a personal mission that also eluded his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who quit as premier in 1960 because of uproar over a U.S-Japan security pact.

Abe resigned from his first stint as prime minister in 2007, citing ill-health after a year plagued by scandals in his cabinet and a huge election loss for his ruling party. He had since kept his illness in check with medicine that was not previously available.