Time to walk the walk
Professor Hossain is at the helm of a university where the demand for an elected vice-chancellor is popular. Is it not a great occasion for him to make history by paying heed to that demand at the earliest before the court makes his counterpart in Dhaka University do so? Saifur Rahman Tapan asks
AS PROFESSOR Sharif Enamul Kabir resigned from the post of vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, President Zillur Rahman — also the chancellor of the university — appointed Professor Anwar Hossain, the president of the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association, to the vacant post on May 18. Professor Hossain took charge from Professor Kabir on May 20 amid an appeal made by leaders of the Jahangirnagar University Teachers’ Association to the chancellor to ‘reconsider [his] decision and appoint a capable teacher of Jahangirnagar University as the vice-chancellor.’ According to media reports, JUTA leaders opined that the appointment of a teacher from a different university to resolve the crisis at the university ‘has surprised and saddened’ them. However, the new vice-chancellor told a press briefing the same day that he would hold dialogues with representatives of teachers, students and employees gradually to restore ‘peaceful and progressive climate’ on the campus. Moreover, he is also hopeful of holding elections in various sections, provided teachers and students of the university cooperate with him. Most importantly, he vowed to lead the university in line with the University Act, 1973, the law that Jahangirnagar University and other three older universities — Dhaka University, Rajshahi University and Chittagong University — are supposed to abide by while conducting their activities — both academic and administrative.
Professor Kabir stepped down in the face of the nearly five-month long movement of teachers, which was later joined in by students of the university, against his alleged patronage of the perpetrators of the gruesome killing of Jubaer Ahmed, a fourth-year English department student, also tied to the university unit of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student front of the ruling Awami League, in a factional clash of the organisation. Additionally, the protesters also accused him of engaging in a host of irregularities, especially in recruitment of teachers.
One need to take note of the fact that, like the Chhatra League, since the incumbent government assumed office, JU teachers affiliated with the ruling party have allegedly been prone to factional feud over capturing influential administrative posts, including the apex one. Speculations are rife that, although the movement was initiated solely by a group of left-leaning teachers under the banner of Swachetan Shikkhak Samaj, the anti-VC faction of the ruling party-backed camp, along with their colleagues inclined to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, also played a significant role in strengthening their demand, particularly regarding the vice-chancellor’s ouster. Originally based on a seven-point demand, the movement eventually turned into a single-point ‘oust-VC’ one.
The delegation of JU teachers that met the prime minister on May 3 to persuade her to implement their ‘one-point demand’ included at least one who was found very much active in defence of the then vice-chancellor towards the end of the tenure of the previous AL government and, worse, accused of trampling students who lay siege to the vice-chancellor’s office in protest against hiking fees exorbitantly. Curiously enough, he was then reportedly tied to the BNP-backed group led by a well-known teacher who became the vice-chancellor during the BNP-led alliance government. Hence, it is little wonder that while the Swachetan Shikkhak Samaj hailed the appointment of the new vice-chancellor, the teachers’ association dominated by AL-backed teachers took exception to it.
A valiant freedom fighter, Professor Hossain is widely known as a successful teacher and a researcher in the field of biochemistry and molecular biology. Also as a professional leader, he has made significant achievements, which is, perhaps, why he got elected twice to the post of DUTA general secretary before becoming its president. In July 2002, he unflinchingly stood by the students of Dhaka University, who revolted against police atrocities on female students of Shamsunnahar Hall, even in defiance of the force’s brutality inflicted upon him. To remind you, the revolt eventually led to the resignation of the then DU vice-chancellor, Professor Anwar Ullah Chowdhury.
His decisive role in shaping the student movement in August 2007 during the immediate past military-backed caretaker government, which started over a brawl between a few students and military personnel in Dhaka University, but was essentially directed towards restoration of democracy, was indeed unique. Many, in particular the younger generation, will be, perhaps, surprised to know that he was once a firebrand revolutionary bent on bringing a radical change in society through arms struggle based on Marxist principles. Above all, Professor Hossain is included among the staunch proponents of the 1973 act. Thus, there are reasons to hope that he will stick to his commitment to its compliance while leading the university which he is currently at the helm of.
It need not be overemphasised that, notwithstanding some limitations, the University Act, 1973, which required an end to Pakistani colonial rule through a gory liberation war to come into being, has largely ensured Jahangirnagar University and the other three universities autonomy, crucial for any educational institutions, particularly for seats of higher education, when it concerns insulating its academic affairs — including research — from any outside interference, especially that of the government. In fact, all the universities, be those public or private, deserve such a right, for which conscious quarters — including educationists —have been, and rightly so, clamouring for long, but, regrettably, to no avail thus far.
In fact, the unique feature of the 1973 act relates to the appointment of the vice-chancellor of the university concerned by its chancellor ‘from a panel of three persons to be nominated by the senate’, a body comprising elected representatives of all the stakeholders like teachers and students of the institution. And accordingly, all the four autonomous universities, including Jahangirnagar University, had been run by elected vice-chancellors at least till early 1990s. But, worryingly, they now appear to have been relegated to the status of other public universities run all along by the vice-chancellors handpicked by the ruling quarters over the recent decades.
It has been observed that, apparently capitalising on the loopholes in the 1973 act, the vice-chancellor appointed for temporary period by the chancellor in the autonomous universities act like the permanent ones, clearly in violation of Article 11(2) of the act which stipulates the VC panel election by the senate, to make the post permanent as soon as possible. In fact, immediately with a change of government, a new vice-chancellor replaces the old one, in such temporary manner. Needless to say, appointment of a vice-chancellor in such a manner has so far invariably been followed by reshuffling of the university administration along the incumbents’ partisan line, endangering academic atmosphere.
In addition, as such kind of vice-chancellor by default remain accountable more to the ruling quarters than to teachers and students, two key stakeholders of a university, they have the tendency to deal with even the campus-related issues in a manner which is anything but democratic, giving rise to simmering discontent among the latter, in a short period after taking charge, which at times causes nagging instability in the campus and ends up, as seen in Jahangirnagar University recently, forcing the incumbent vice-chancellor to resign.
Encouragingly, the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association under the leadership of Professor Hossain has sought to come out of this vicious tradition of putting the university — generally regarded as a beacon of democratic practices — under an unelected vice-chancellor. According to media reports, in response to a petition filed by the incumbent secretary of the association, the High Court has recently asked the authorities concerned to explain why the failure or inaction of the incumbent vice-chancellor to call a senate session should not be declared illegal. Additionally, the court also asked the vice-chancellor to call an immediate senate session to select a panel to appoint a regular vice-chancellor.
Most importantly, Professor Hossain and his associates have lent support to this initiative. Now, he is at the helm of a university where the demand for an elected vice-chancellor is equally popular. Is it not a great occasion for him to make a history by paying heed to that demand at the earliest time before the court makes his counterpart in Dhaka University do so? After all, what applies to Dhaka University is applicable to Jahangirnagar University too. True, the vice-chancellor panel election is not all that matters when it comes to the autonomy of the university. But it is also true that replacing a vice-chancellor apparently imposed from outside with a one elected by the key stakeholders of the institution is a good start to this end.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.
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