In any democratic society, it is inevitable that political and democratic institutions, governing the country will decide certain level of appointments to various positions. To assume that all these appointments will be guided by the political philosophy in power at that time is fraught with tremendous risks. Since many of these positions are tenurial, one cannot change the heads of the institutions every time the government changes. The other alternative will be to make the life of these position holders so difficult that they are forced to resign. Ideal situation will be when constitutional processes are trusted and through various norms of accountability, a fairness is maintained. An individual faces several existential dilemmas. If she agrees to be guided by a particular ideology, she may fail those who expect her to be unbiased and fair to various viewpoints. But if she doesn’t, she may be charged with lack of loyalty towards the ideology in power. Institutional stature depends upon the social and ethical capital it commands through its actions and outcomes. Any meritocratic institution has to maintain an objectivity and unbiased decision making system so that it continues to command respect in the eyes of society. Almost all institutions of excellence have had a reasonable degree of fairness in the discharge of their duties. Meddling with them on any ground is to shake the foundation on which excellence and relevance rest. It is possible that some of these institutions have not solved as many social problems as was expected. The academic institutions are expected to produce quality research, students and other outcomes such as extension or policy advice. A large number of institutions which are under almost complete state control, have succumbed to various pressures. They could not earn social respect enough. In such circumstances, to increase the state control will invariably spread mediocrity and conditions for similar compromises. What is the choice?
If we look at the top academic institutions in any discipline, these are invariably public institutions. Not one private institution has yet reached the top. It is obvious therefore that public funding is completely compatible with achievement of excellence. To argue that funding should also be accompanied with greater control is obviously misplaced because of the results so far.
Only autonomous institutions have excelled. Though not all autonomous institutions may have excelled equally. No dependent institution run through bureaucratic interference has achieved excellence. The reason is not that excellence does not exist among civil servants. In fact, there are a large number of successful policy initiatives, which have been triggered by the innovative public servants given freedom and confidence by the ruling party. However, such officers know the worth of autonomy. They are unlikely to interfere. But, those who have had less distinguished records can only deliver results to the political masters through interference. We have seen that over last so many decades. A panel comprising very distinguished experts was constituted to select chairman of UGC some years ago. The panel chose a very capable academic who they had to persuade to accept the offer if made. The panel was scrapped by the PMO and the rest is well known. So interference in academic institutions is not a recent development. Time has come when the concept of navratnasamong public sector units should be extended to the other public institutions of excellence. They should be run through an MOU.
One area where concern has arisen justifiably is the concentration of autonomy at the board level and not enough percolating down to the directors and from the directors to the faculty. There have been instances when excessive power in the hands of the board and the director may have led to autocratic tendencies. At the same time, too much power in the hands of the faculty in some universities has led to too light a load and much lesser productivity. There has to be a balance between the respective powers of each of the key link in the responsibility chain. To achieve this balance, a creative tension has to be there. If we take each other too much for granted, we lose each other’s respect. If we cannot take each other granted at all, we cannot ever maintain a relationship. An optimal taken-for-grantedness is necessary. This requires trust, reciprocity and collectively evolved norms of sanctions [some applied from within – ethical capital] and some applied by third party within institution [institutional and social capital] and some by third party outside the institution [extended social capital]. One way in which society sanctions the behavior of institutions is by withdrawing its support. The best students or faculty stop applying for an institution in decline. This happens without any administrative or political sanction. On the other hand, if best of the minds tend to gravitate towards certain institutions and not others, isn’t it a very objective statement about the social returns from a public investment. What else should the state demand?
In fact, the state should demand that best of the students and faculty from around the world should gravitate towards Indian institutions if Indian leadership in the world of ideas has to be achieved. This obviously cannot be achieved through micro management or through pliable leadership of such insitutions. The strength of any leadership can be gauged by the extent to which it can not only bear with but encourage dissent. If it fails in that function, it ceases to access open, unbiased or critical and biased feedback. Without feedback, neither learning is possible nor excellence. I hope the institution builders will reflect and ask themselves as to what other indicators should choose to ensure that the societal respect invested in institutions of excellence is duly reciprocated through relevance and social transformation.