Interview: Sudhir K. Sopory, former VC, JNU

Sudhir K. Sopory: ‘Institutions like JNU should be nurtured’

Print edition : December 20, 2019

Sudhir K. So

Interview with Sudhir K. Sopory, former Vice Chancellor of JNU.

THE continued imbroglio in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) between the administration and the students and faculty, many feel, should have ideally been resolved using the established mechanisms for discussion. Among those who feel this way is Professor Sudhir K. Sopory, who was Vice Chancellor of JNU from January 2011 to January 2016.

As one with a long association with JNU, first as a faculty member in the School of Life Sciences for 23 years and then as Vice Chancellor for a full term of five years, Sopory says a dialogue with the stakeholders would have prevented the present standoff. As a Science and Engineering Research Board distinguished Fellow of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Sopory believes that public funding of education and research in a country like India cannot be dispensed with. Institutions like JNU should be nurtured and not demonised, he says. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Do you think JNU, its students and its teachers deserve the kind of treatment they are getting? A deliberate impression is being fostered in the minds of the public that JNU is a hotbed of anarchy and indiscipline.

I spent almost 23 years in JNU, starting as assistant professor in 1973, till 1996. I was JNU Teachers Association vice president and executive member too. So I have been looking at things from different angles, including as a Vice Chancellor. I look at JNU as a place where there is a high level of academic activity. Over 90 per cent of the students and faculty members are constantly involved in teaching and research. Many of them are doing front-line research in the physical or social sciences or arts and aesthetics. On convocation day, the Minister, the Chancellor and the Vice Chancellor too spoke very highly of JNU. So I cannot understand why there cannot be a dialogue.

From whatever parameters one looks at it, JNU has maintained high standards. The impression that teachers and students don’t work is not true. This is one university where exams have never been postponed in the last 50 years. Exams, semesters are all done on time. So if it was not because of the faculty, then who else? The administration only sets the framework. Their publication record is very good. Almost every day there would be a seminar. In my tenure, we started an interdisciplinary cluster. This perception of the public that “kuch kaam nahi hota” [no worthwhile work happens] is wrong. Lots of wrong things are spread.

The interaction of the administration with the stakeholders, be it students, teachers or karamcharis, has to be maintained on a one-to-one basis. The culture of JNU has never been a top-down approach. Many of the faculty members have expert knowledge of their fields. And the students are very bright. Every organisation has certain issues, and not every demand can be met. Lots of things get sorted out if the highest person in the organisation talks directly. I learnt a lot about other subjects from the interaction with all the stakeholders.

There is this perception that taxpayer money is being wasted on a privileged elite in an institution like JNU. How effective has JNU been in using public money to maintain academic standards and ensure diversity among students?

Whatever funds the university gets are distributed to various schools, research laboratories, the library [and used for] conducting seminars or symposiums and other academic activities. And some money is kept for maintenance. The money is not wasted. Everything in this country that is [state] run is based on taxpayers’ money. The issue is whether the government is giving enough to universities [so that they can] maintain themselves. That needs to be looked into. So the government has to work out what kind of a model of higher education it wants: one which is supported by students, their families or the fee structure or one that the government finances.

The hostel messes have to run on a low-cost basis. They are based on actuals. The university has to see if the room rent should be increased or not. The best place to discuss this is the Inter Halls Administration. Yet, students should not be burdened unnecessarily. It will be too much of a burden to put the cost of maintenance and other charges on students. If other rules and regulations have to be formulated, they should be discussed. Most students come from very poor backgrounds. I know of a student who got through IIT Roorkee, but he couldn’t join as the fees were high. He joined JNU as it was affordable. But it is not only the financial but the social background of these students.

As Vice Chancellor, how did you deal with the financial pressures?

If the university is not getting enough funds from the government, then it is best not to start new courses or expand faculty. The funds for the existing schools and centres cannot be cut. It also should not be at the expense of the students. There are many poor students. We give them merit-cum-means scholarships. They simply cannot afford a raise in fees. This university must stay relevant for those people who cannot go to other institutions.

Can one run a university by routinely taking punitive measures against teachers and students?

I don’t think that just for raising an issue, one should be charge-sheeted. But if one is involved in sexual harassment, financial irregularities, not taking classes, then they should be talked to and told it is not acceptable. We have suspended a few. Talking and raising an issue is not an offence. Lots of problems in universities get sorted out if the highest authority talks it out. Such punitive measures will affect academic standards.

As a leading researcher in your field, do you agree that there is a need for public universities to be supported so that they can carry out research?

This country needs to support such public universities as far as possible as future careers are being built. It can be argued, as is being done, that why should “antinationals” be encouraged? The reality is that 95 per cent of the students are devoted to academics. I don’t think we are at a stage where we can go in for privatisation.

In private institutions, the opportunities of research are not there, and many bright students would not like to go there. There is a need to support public-funded universities, especially the top universities which are classified by the government itself as top-ranking. If financial support is withdrawn, academic standards will get affected. Universities are the places where new knowledge is generated.

Is it undesirable for students to be political?

No, not at all. Everyone should be aware of what’s happening. One has to be aware of the self and of the surroundings, and surroundings are social, political, economic. A student will be fully developed if he knows what milieu he or she is in. In JNU, they learn this awareness outside the classroom.