What is the purpose of universities?

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Prothom Alo illustrationThe story goes like this. The government set up a university in a backward district to give the promising young boys and girls there a chance to avail a solid education in science and other branches of knowledge. The people were thrilled. There was an influx of academics to the university, new buildings were constructed, all sorts of equipment arrived for the laboratories, employment was generated for the local people, business flourished.

A vice chancellor was appointed and his arrival heralded hope. The people respected him and placed their trust in him.

Many universities were set up in this manner over the past decade. Unfortunately, the vice chancellors of these universities have failed to live up to expectations, often making unwarranted statements and becoming embroiled in all sorts of controversial activities. Not only did they stir up controversy, but have also done damage to the institutions.

The vice chancellors of the old and established universities have been no better. Newspaper reports over the past week are enough evidence of this. The vice chancellor of Dhaka University has been accused of facilitating the admission of a few dozen Chhatra League activists without any admission exam. They were later elected in the controversial DUCSU and hall union elections. This appears to be blatant bias, unabashed appeasement of the ruling party and its student wing. Then there is also the question of the senate manipulating the results of the VC panel election.

Then there was the ‘bloodless coup’ in Jahangirnagar University over the issue to paying student leaders regarding development work. Vice chancellor Farzana Islam claimed that the now expelled president and general secretary of Chhatra League had demanded a 5 to 6 per cent commission of the project which entailed an expenditure of over Tk 10 billion. She also let this cat out of the bag when a certain telephone conversation was leaked out. The conversation indicated that she herself had distributed the money among JU unit Chhatra League leaders. The vice chancellor said the telephone conversation was concocted to demean her and her family. Her self-defence was weak and flimsy, prompting the former vice chancellor of Dhaka University, Arefin Siddique, to say that the incidents of Jahangirnagar University were taking place elsewhere too. Perhaps he was speaking from experience.

It will not be possible to bring up the issue of each and every one of the offending vice chancellors, the list is perhaps too long. A few days ago there was a news report about the corruption of the vice chancellor of Barisal University. The teachers and students demonstrated against him, but he was sent on leave so as to save him from resigning before the end of his term.

The vice chancellor of Rokeya University functions from Dhaka, spending much of his time rather with his NGO and the media. His predecessor was accused of nepotism in appointments at the university. The present vice chancellor is also accused of corruption in appointments. Similar controversy arose about the Comilla University vice chancellor.

The vice chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman University of Science and Technology, Khandakar Nasir Uddin, has surpassed all the others. He is the second vice chancellor of the university. He could never stand being questioned in any manner. Anyone criticising him would be expelled. He perhaps had assigned someone to monitor the social media. He expelled six students for expressing annoyance on Facebook about the unclean classrooms of the university. He was furious with Fatema-tuz-Zohra, a student of law at the university and also the university correspondent of the Daily Star, for raising questions on Facebook about the university. She had questioned the purpose of universities.

An audio was leaked out of Khandakar Nasir Uddin speaking in a most unbefitting manner over telephone to Fatema-tuz-Zohra. He had said, “You’ve just got a chance to study because I opened this university, or else you would be roaming the streets.” He even questioned whether her father had ever even studied at a university.

He held a press conference on Tuesday to justify his expulsion of Fatema-tuz-Zoha. He said she had made untoward comments about the teachers on Facebook. He accused her of hacking his Facebook ID. It is ironic that he had never complained about this before, making it obvious that he was simply trying to prove her to be a criminal.

The question is whether such extreme action can be taken just on the basis of allegations. There was no investigation, no chance for the accused to defend herself.

Prior to this, on 15 May, vice chancellor Nasir Uddin issued a show-cause notice against 14 students for taking part in a human chain demanding fair rice prices. They were accused of using anti-government and anti-establishment placards and festoons. He was obviously on a drive to quell all anti-government views. He has grown even more intolerant now.

In a democracy, universities are the seat of nurturing knowledge and free thinking, where there are no limits to questioning, where debate and discussions raise a storm. The authorities and the regulations cannot restrain the teachers and students. But we are going down the opposite path.

Just as democracy and rights are being restricted in the state system, it is the same in the universities too. A group of teachers are nothing but opportunists and students see them as role models. We now must all raise the question like Fatema, what is the purpose of universities?

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

 

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