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.”