Ailing academia

Never before has political meddling debilitated scholarship to the extent that it does today

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Bidushi Dhungel
In 1978, Dor Bahadur Bista, widely known for his controversial assertions in Fatalism and Development joined Tribhuvan University as the Executive Director of the then-newly established Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, better known as CNAS. He was politically appointed by the Panchayat regime under king Birendra and went on to become the head of the Central Department of Humanities and Social Sciences soon after. Interestingly, Bista didn’t have a PhD. In fact, he didn’t he even have an MA. Perhaps he wasn’t the senior-most professor and perhaps his academic competence was questionable, at least on paper. Still, a look at his work and anyone would vouch for his professional competence. As Executive Director of CNAS, and head of the Department, he pushed for indigenous and quality research conducted by Nepalis, including himself—a rare phenomenon even till this date. Bista wasn’t alone in this endeavour.

Professor Prayag Raj Sharma envisioned the need for a research body and was a founding member of the CNAS journal, Contributions to Nepalese Studies, which was established in the early 1970s, and produced world-class research articles. Notable Nepali figures like Mahesh Chandra Regmi and Lok Raj Baral contributed right from the beginning, while newer additions like Harka Gurung, Chaitanya Mishra and Pratyoush Onta contributed well into the 1990s. Further, notable international scholars like Father Stiller, Barbara Aziz, Gerard Toffin, Lynn Bennet and David Gellner were also staple contributors. Old copies from the 70s and 80s, up until the late 1990s, of the journal serve as testament to quality research produced in Nepal. From the mid-1970s till the mid-1990s, the CNAS journal was flooded with new ideas and approaches to looking at Nepali society, albeit more Anthropology-focused. The early Directors—Professor Prayag Raj Sharma, Khadga Bikram Shah (who happened to be the king’s brother-in-law) and Bista—were all political appointees. But that didn’t seem to affect the rigor of academia.

The Panchayat one-party system was treacherous on many counts, but the stability it offered in a country where academics and politics has always come hand-in-hand, meant that academia was sheltered from the on goings in society outside. Of course, the Panchayati rulers did systematically muzzle any academic dissent. What little dissent there was couldn’t find its way to the state-controlled media either.

Gradual decline
After the 1990 democratic movement Nepali society progressed, but Tribhuvan University witnessed the beginning of a decline. The Panchayat regime had kept those that were against it away from the university, often resulting in academics quitting or being thrown out. Those in favour of democracy, or who supported the Nepali Congress at the time, were not given any space in TU. In fact, the government would systematically oppose appointments of anyone with any hint of association with the NC, choosing to promote those affiliated with communist parties instead if there were no Panchayati takers. A tussle with the government had led the likes of Kedar Bhakta Mathema to resign from TU altogether.

But after 1990, all that changed. Mathema was appointed as the Vice Chancellor of the university in 1992 under an NC-led government. For a short period of time, TU became an NC domain. It was towards the mid-1990s when the UML gained strength that a level of “coalition politics” began to interfere in the university. Mathema was politically-appointed indeed, but had a reputation for not allowing “politics” to seep into the university compound. He recalls often having to deal with mass resignations and bitter quarrelling among faculty of different political dispositions. It only got worse. After the 2006, and open politics expanded, TU became a microcosm of national parties. Its positions and spoils have been shared by three big parties, the Madhesi parties and other fringe players. Providing space to all political players became the crux of all matters related to TU. Never before have the appointments been so debilitating for the realm of academia.

Unsurprisingly, today, the three top positions at the university, aside from the Chancellor who is the PM, the positions of Vice Chancellor, Rector and Registrar are distributed among the Maoists, NC and UML; the governing coalition in Singha Durbar finds a near-exact replica of itself inside the TU compound. The disarray and stalemate which has been the political reality of the past six years is reflected well in academia.

The way it is

Some may say that it is a universal phenomena in developing countries where academia is a field still evolving.  In India, reports point out that petty politics, not political science, dominates the campuses. That politics in universities has been around since the colonial times. This can’t be contested. However, India still manages to produce a decent level of scholarship. Some 2.6 percent of research coming out of India makes it into international academic journals of good standing. That is a low figure given the country’s size, but it’s enough to keep the universities functioning as knowledge-producing institutions as well as political hotbeds. The reasons universities in the West are so successful is not only because they have money—but because they function free from political influence as in the case of the US, or the political influence isn’t debilitating because politics is relatively stable, as in Europe.

In Nepal, it’s not that there haven’t been attempts to address the problems. Education reform reports (over a dozen) prepared by various commissions formed after 1991, and cost the state an estimated Rs 2 billion, have been prepared. But they’re gathering dust, perhaps in a corner of CNAS’ library. Competing political interests within the university today has meant that no programme or policy can be followed through due to hurdles put forth by political schisms. Even political appointments made by the same party are mired by intra-party factionalism, further eroding the ability for them to work towards resuscitating the university.

Some may argue that political interference in a deeply-politicised society like ours is but natural. It’s evident in the police, the bureaucracy and all state mechanisms and that singling out academic institutions may not be a fair deal. However, the strongest case for keeping academia out of politics is that it ultimately influences how we think as a people—the police and bureaucracy included, and not least, the media.

source: Dhungel,Bidushi(2012),"Ailing academia", The Kathmandu Post,4 Oct 2012

2012-10-04 | EducateNepal


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