Higher Education and its Disjunctures: An Interview with Professor Sasanka Perera

The following is an interview with Professor Sasanka Perera of the South Asian University conducted by Mr. Ranjit Perera of the Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka via Skype on 18th August 2012.

Ranjit Perera: Cyberspace and virtual reality are intertwined in the context of today’s communication technology; this came to my mind while conducting this interview. Any thoughts on that before we get down to more serious issues?

Sasanka Perera: Well, I am hesitant to get into a philosophical discussion on these matters in an interview meant for popular consumption. I guess we can have this chat separately. But briefly, yes. This interview would not have taken place across national borders if not for the internet and the fact that technology within it is accessible, cheap and democratic in its reach. But this is not virtual; you are there asking questions. I am here trying to answer them. The only issue is that the physical distance between us have been bridged because of the availability of certain technologies, which in this case is Skype. I can see that the internet and its technologies have been widely used in the context of the ongoing strike and related activities of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations. Its internet presence literally seems like that group has jumped almost overnight from what appeared to be pre-modern ages right up to postmodernity. That is one reason I can still keep up with what is going on even from New Delhi despite the misinformation routinely manufactured by state media and uncritical sympathizers of the regime.

Ranjit Perera: Let’s talk a little bit about your recent association with New Delhi. That was last year wasn’t it, soon after your fieldwork in Tokyo was completed?

Sasanka Perera: Yes. I undertook fieldwork in Tokyo while teaching there on sabbatical leave from about late March 2011. I arrived in Japan two weeks after the devastating East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami hit the country. I was one of the very few foreigners who came to the Hitotsubashi University where I was based at the time. My intention was to undertake limited ethnographic fieldwork focused on the Sinhala immigrants settled in Tokyo; some were very legitimate; but many were literally living under the radar. The second part of the research was supposed to be in New York in association with Cornel University. For that, I had already won the Fulbright Fellowship. My hope was to undertake the same kind of research in New York as it was a more established diasporic centre for the Sinhalas. This was supposed to be a comparative study to understand how home was recreated away from home and how a sense of cultural identity and affiliation was transformed or did not change in the context of migration and settlement in a new country; in a new city.  But the New York part of the research could not be undertaken as I ended up in New Delhi, and as a result, I declined my Fulbright Fellowship as well.

Ranjit Perera: How did this happen? Not too many people would willingly give up a Fulbright scholarship, and would opt to go to New Delhi instead of New York.

Sasanka Perera: May be you are right. But for me, New York is not some kind of an emotional site where I was dying to go. It was simply a research location just as much as Tokyo was, Katmandu was years ago and many locations in Sri Lanka, from Anuradhapura to Kandy and Kataragama. But from a research point of view, it was a pity I could not go to New York to complete my work as planned. As it is now, I have the material from Tokyo only. So either I have to write up my research based on the work in Tokyo or schedule to visit New York again sometime in the future to complete what was originally planned. But right now, it is very difficult for me to plan something like that given my somewhat hectic work schedule. From an ideological point of view, the diversion to New Delhi was not a difficult thing to do.

Ranjit Perera: You mean your affiliation with the South Asian University? How exactly did this happen?

Sasanka Perera: Well, many years ago a group of friends from across South Asia met at different locations in the region to discuss the possibility of such a university. I came into the circuit quite late. There were people like Imtiaz Ahamed from Bangladesh, Ashish Nady from India, Kanak Dixit from Nepal and many others involved in these discussions. It was grand plan to establish the university with different faculties in different cities. It was grand, intensely challenging and completely unpractical as I know now. So it fizzled out, and the people involved went in different directions. But for me, it remained an extremely interesting idea that was worth pursuing though in a more pragmatic scale. Years after all this, the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Man Mohan Singh came up with the same idea. But his was a more pragmatic idea, to create a South Asian University accessible to scholars and students from the region as a centre for producing cutting edge knowledge and base it in one city while the possibility of establishing regional centers in other cities exist in the present plan. This was a very powerful idea that had the backing of the Government of India and all other countries in South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation. All these countries except Pakistan at present fund the university; India spends an enormous amount of money on the construction of a new campus in New Delhi which has not started yet. We have about 100 acres of land. India also spends considerable funds for scholarships for students. Right now, the university is based in Akbar Bhawan, Chanakyapuri which is the diplomatic area of New Delhi.

Ranjit Perera: So the university invited you to join its staff?

Sasanka Perera: No, there was a letter that was sent to many universities in the region by the president of South Asian University. I got a copy of it directed to me by the Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, and I simply sent in an application. As I said before, I was already attracted to the idea in ideological and intellectual terms. Besides, the challenge of actually setting up a brand new institution for intellectual excellence for young people from our region was quite enticing. So I was interviewed while I was in Tokyo, again by Skype. Think about the world without this kind of cheap technology. It would be a very different place. This was in June 2011 I think. About a month after the interview, I was offered the job as Professor of Sociology at the new department that was about to start, and it was agreed that I could assume duties in late October or early November 2011 once my work in Japan was over.

Ranjit Perera: So you are the founding professor of sociology at South Asian University?

Sasanka Perera: Yes, but it is more complicated than it seems. Soon after I arrived numerous administrative responsibilities fell on me that I hardly had the time to breathe. These are the kinds of things that I very judiciously avoided in Colombo except for the last two years or so when I ran out of excuses and choices. So less than one year since I assumed duties, I am not only the founding chair of sociology but also the founding Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Strangely enough, I am also the chair of the Department of International Relations, a discipline I know only as a layman. This happened due to the lack of senior scholars to take over these responsibilities. But I think now the issues with the International Relations Department could be handled effectively as we have recently recruited many young scholars as well as two senior scholars who can lead the department. I think IR will now begin to grow. One of the things I have insisted on over the last 10 months or so and would continue to do so, is the need to introduce inter-disciplinary courses and approaches within the intersections of sociology and international relations as disciplines, and beyond. This is one of the things I would like to see happening with the induction of new people into both IR and Sociology Departments over the next year or so. As it is, I think the Faculty of Social Sciences and the two departments currently located in it are doing quite well. Already, we are capable of offering as good an education as any established departments. Sociology, I might add is doing particularly well within academic limits as well as with regard to extra-curricular activities. Personally, my interest was not to simply set up a little training shop, but to establish an institute that was worth its salt. Overall, this will take considerable time and effort. But already I can see the results of our efforts. It is good when one’s colleagues also share a common dream and are showing considerable enthusiasm. In Sri Lanka I was getting tired of having to work with people who could not see the difference between a vision and a hallucination which also frustrated many well meaning people within the university system, and many of them succumbed to that sense of intellectual lethargy.

Ranjit Perera: Is that why you resigned? Many people in the university system and not just in Colombo were very surprised at your resignation.

Sasanka Perera: No that was not why I resigned. I did not have any intention of resigning or leaving the country for too long when I applied for this position at South Asian University. My intention was solely to help set up a university for which tax payers of our country and seven other SAARC countries are contributing heavily, and return in five years or less once that institution had achieved some stability. On one hand, I was following a personal dream in trying to set up an institution that I thought would be a centre for academic excellence. On the other hand, I enjoy teaching. It is under a similar situation I resigned from the World Bank and came back to the Colombo University about 10 years ago when I was offered a permanent job in the World Bank.

Ranjit Perera: So at that time, you came from the affluence of the World Bank to the poverty of the University of Colombo.

Sasanka Perera: Yes. As many people said at the time, it was financial suicide. But Ideologically, I still think I made the right decision. But the poverty I faced at the University of Colombo was not only financial. It was also intellectual. But this is an unenviable situation one can see in all of our universities, and not just in Colombo. I never regret my decisions; it would simply a waste of time. Hopefully, some students benefited from my decision. But as recent events have clearly shown, obviously the university itself did not appreciate it nor had any need for my services. But then, who am I to question the collective wisdom of its entire governing board, which thought that I should not be given five years no-pay leave to set up a regional university which our country was partly paying for, but instead thought my resignation was more preferable.

Ranjit Perera: After nearly 20 years of service to the university and the country, the attitude of the University of Colombo must have made you very angry and bitter? I know you have quite a temper!

Sasanka Perera: I take these things in a stride. The temper you talk about comes and goes. But like a dangerous animal who must be caged, I have caged it quite well. It still comes out once in a way. But I throw it back in. So in this instance anger had no resonance in the feelings I had. I kind of expected the university’s attitude as I had watched quite sadly its intellectual caliber diminishing and mediocrity being entrenched in recent times. I may have been saddened, but not angered. As I said before, who am I to question the collective decision of such an august body like the governing board?

Ranjit Perera: But isn’t that denial illegal?

Sasanka Perera: No it is not. I was already on sabbatical leave, and it was to run out in June or July 2013. What I asked for was no-pay leave for a period of just over four years so that I could complete the work in New Delhi that I was planning to begin in late October. I made my application in July 2011. Up to today, this is August 2012, I never got a response to my request from the Colombo University. Perhaps the Vice Chancellor was very busy. But I know, legally the university does not have to give that kind of leave ordinarily. But this is not an ordinary request or an ordinary situation. This was a prestigious appointment and recognition conferred upon a scholar from the University of Colombo. In any civilized part of the world, any university would have perceived this as an honor that should be celebrated. In such climates, if the necessary legal frameworks or regulations did not exist, I think they would have done their best to find means to accommodate something like this. The bottom line is that I did not even get a response to my letter at least rejecting the request for leave. Our universities are very quick to offer unconditional leave that is annually extended if this was a political appointment. Here, this was an academic appointment of significant propositions. But unfortunately, no interest was shown in this matter whatsoever. So I had no option but to resign.

Ranjit Perera: So is Sri Lanka well represented in the South Asian University’s academic staff?

Sasanka Perera: No. I am the only professor and senior academic administrator. Sri Lanka cannot and will not be well represented if scholars with an interest to come to South Asian University from any Sri Lankan university have to undergo what I had to endure.  Unfortunately, it also created a very bad impression of Colombo University in particular and Sri Lankan university system in general in the minds of the many people who got to know about the incident. Compared to this very Sri Lankan attitude, I was very touched by the extent to which people in Delhi went to accommodate me even though they did not know me personally at all. They went that far only because of my qualifications and experience. Nothing else. I think this is something the university system and the Higher Education Ministry should look into. What this effectively means is that despite the enormous amount of money Sri Lanka annually spends on the South Asian University, country’ scholars will not be able to serve it unless they resign. If this happens, then the country will lose individuals which it can ill afford when the government is quite flippantly talking about creating a knowledge hub. Perhaps our politicians can create instead a gossip hub where mediocrity will reign supreme. Compared to this situation, individuals from all other countries have been given leave by their parental universities or other organizations on very flexible terms to come and serve the South Asian University and return if they wish. So it is not an accident that Sri Lanka is underrepresented among the academics of the South Asian University. And it will remain so.

Ranjit Perera: Well, even though you may not be appreciated by the powers that be, you are at the forefront of establishing a regional university of significant proportions. From that institution-building and intellectual perspective, what is your take on the status of Sri Lankan universities at present and the ongoing strike by FUTA?

Sasanka Perera: I have written about this many times focused on higher education in social sciences and humanities generally and about the status of my own discipline in particular. In general, universities started going into a decline since about the 1970s, and this is much more visible in the social sciences and humanities. It is also clear in medical education I think where an over-emphasis on the technical aspects of medicine has shorn the training given of the philosophical aspects of that profession. This whole issue is a separate discussion and I doubt of we have the time for it today. But by now, and particularly under the ruling oligarchy, higher education has seen incredible reversals in recent times. Today, amongst our vice chancellors, in my assessment there are only handful of people, if at all, who have the intellectual caliber to hold such positions. This is not a matter of having a PhD. That I hope everyone has. This is about having the intellectual sensibility, integrity and leadership qualities to be true leaders and innovators in the local academia. Instead of scholars with wisdom, we have petty politicians who owe their appointments and survival to the party in power. So their interest is not academic but narrowly and crudely political and self-serving. You can see this in the so called ‘voice cuts’ that many such people offered on behalf of the incumbent president and Sarath Foneska at the last general election. Meddling in party politics and peddling influence in local politics should not be the vocation of any academic yet alone vice chancellors. They can naturally vote for whoever they want, but they have no business getting into such predictably compromised positions while they hold office. Unfortunately today, most people interested in high positions within universities are not necessarily the best and the brightest. Given the entrenched pettiness in these institutes, many such people are those who are willing to compromise and who have no sense of self worth. Of course there are exceptions, but this is generally no longer the rule.

Ranjit Perera: So you consider FUTA’s struggle a just one even though the regime says it is playing with the future of the younger generation. And academics deserve a pay hike?

Sasanka Perera: Well, you need to take different things in their specific contexts. Personally, like many other citizens I know, I have no doubt it is a just agitation. I also think, it is an overdue agitation. As you know quite well, academics in our country have hardly resorted to serious and sustained industrial action, and this is certainly the case over the last two decades or so. Asking for six percent of the GDP be set aside for education and requesting that they be consulted in decision-making that has to do with the education sector are not only reasonable but necessary. The issue is that it has taken this much time for academics to get their act together to make this and other related demands. As for the salary increase, I think most people in Sri Lanka except politicians need a salary increase. If it does not come as a process of regular policy-making, then it must be acquired. This is what is going on now. If anyone is playing with the future of the younger generation, it is the ruling oligarchy for its singular inability and lack of interest and vision to deal with the prevailing situation.

Ranjit Perera: One could always say you are over sympathetic to your former colleagues and that you do not see their faults? After all, you have been involved in the academic trade union system for quite some time.

Sasanka Perera: Unenlightened people can say what they want as they have many times before, and as they will many times in the future. It makes no difference to me. When I joined the University of Colombo in the early 1990s, I became the secretary of the University of Colombo Teachers’ Association. At that time, the president was Chanadana Jayaratne from the Faculty of Science.  When the Arts Faculty Teachers Association Colombo University was initiated a few years ago, I was the founder president; most of my time was taken up trying to get a constitution formulated. Compared to the activism of teachers at present, my involvement was marginal. But none of this means that I am incapable of seeing the failures and fault lines of the system. As I mentioned a little while ago, a dangerous mediocratization and politicization of universities have been going on for quite some time. It would be naïve to assume that the negative processes in the wider society would not be reflected in universities. Whatever is wrong in our society is also visible in the universities. So given this situation, there are many individuals who should never have been in universities. But they are there due to the failures in the system. But right now, as a trade union collective, it is not within FUTA’s mandate or that of any other university trade union to look into this matter. It is beyond help. What can be done is to ensure that at least in the future more stringent entry requirements are imposed for university recruitments. But to encourage good people to come into the system, they have to be attracted with a decent salary and better working conditions which means academic freedom among other things. That is one of the demands of FUTA which I fully support.

Ranjit Perera: Then you would support any program that is put in place to attract competent scholars from other countries to Sri Lankan universities?

Sasanka Perera: Naturally, I would. I have heard that there is some interest at UGC to lure back some of our own people who left the island for greener pastures. I do not know the authenticity of this story. But if the government’s demonstrated attitude and marked hostility towards FUTA’s demands as well as the public vilification of its leaders and blatant threats against them are an indication, I guess this is a mere story with no substance. I doubt if the university system or the government and its agencies are capable of attracting anyone of significant caliber from oversees to our universities when they cannot even keep the ones who are already here in place. My own recent experience demonstrates this quite well. The slogan of creating a knowledge hub that the government is repeating like a manthra amounts to nothing other than a series of words that does not make sense. To do this kind of thing, not only the universities but associated services as well as the nature of the public sphere itself and forums of cultural and intellectual production have to radically transform.  I don’t see this happening, and I also do not see anyone in the oligarchy or the bureaucracy with the imagination to even think of such things. Some academics on the other hand can help do this, even though their voices are constantly stifled.

Ranjit Perera: Let’s get back to the South Asian University. I have heard from some people in the diplomatic circle that the decision to establish the university in New Delhi came about as a result of arm-twisting by Indians and that it would have been better if it was established in a more neutral place like Kathmandu or Colombo. What is your take on that?

Sasanka Perera: Well, I am not privy to all the diplomatic intrigue and discussions that might have preceded the establishment of the university. But there was a clear agreement that New Delhi should be the location for the university though there are provisions for regional campuses in other cities in the region. Where else other than Delhi would you be able to set up something like this? In cultural and intellectual terms and in terms of the availability of facilities such as libraries, Delhi clearly is the best place. Naturally, Colombo is a more functional city where everything works relatively well; but intellectually and culturally it is dead, and on top of that we are encumbered with a regime that has not shown any vision when it comes to higher education. In my mind, that disqualifies Colombo. If Sri Lanka was given the option, the university might have ended up in Hambantota and might have been named after the president.

Ranjit Perera: So in your own mind, this is the right thing to do?

Sasanka Perera: Absolutely. It is a brilliant idea. But it is not a fairy tale. There are a lot of problems. These are not intellectual problems but procedural ones. For instance, as a foreigner, despite my five year special visa, I had a tough time opening a bank account and it is quite difficult to send money home in an emergency. Getting  a gas cylinder for cooking was quite an operation. Visa itself was a painfully slow process at the Indian embassy in Colombo. Even when I finally got it, an endorsement was placed on my visa and that of my wife’s saying that we had to register with the police each year. This is despite an act of Parliament passed by the Indian Legislature trying to make this a smooth process.  Finding accommodation was very tough and the university itself offered no help in this regard. These kinds of situations would clearly discourage foreign academics coming to the university. Naturally a lot of things need to improve. But then, it has only been in operation for about two years.

Ranjit Perera: Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude? It has been good talking to you after quite some time.

Sasanka Perera: Not really. I have already talked too much. But I don’t believe that in our region and in our country or for that matter, anywhere else in the world, regimes should be allowed to shape our realities, dreams and the future beyond a point. This is particularly so when it comes to situations where regimes have failed their moral authority to govern. Citizens have to take decisions that would shape their own destinies or at least they must try.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Congratulations Prof Sasanka Perera on your challenging appointment. It is customary when a staff of a University is given an opportunity to advance his/her profession and to advance the field of study and university education the Home University gives an extended leave of absence.

    As a person who was associated with establishing a university in Sierra Leone, for 10 years in the sixties and seventies, a University of Science and Technology in Nigeria in the early eighties, I can assure you that you made the right decision that would contribute to the establishment and expansion of the South Asian University. I hope you would have competent deputies who could do the work that the university bureaucracy requires, leaving you to focus on curricula, research and student staff interactions.

    As a Cornell Alumnus I understand what you gave up to accept the appointment with South Asian University. But I am sure you will be in touch with colleagues and continue the research you started in Japan.

    Universities in Sri Lanka unfortunately is like concrete poured long ago has hardened for ever. I am sure you will build in the South Asia university the system that encourages change as it grows. Academic concrete once poured hardens forever.
    Wish you all the best.

  • walter

    This is a great enlightening interview. I salute Prof.Sanka Perera.
    I always knew that this Country has educated, upright people.
    However these citizens have been driven away, the rest have been weighted down by corrupt politics.
    The handful of intellects and academics we have are now diminishing in quantity and quality.
    This disease started with Ranasinghe Premadasa now moving very fast downhill.
    This is because our Politicians cannot keep pace with academics.

    CORRUPTION HAS ENTRENCHED SO DEEP INTO OUR FABRIC THAT SOME ACADEMIC’S OF YESTERYEAR LIKE G.L.PERIES, SARATH AMUNUGAMA AND EVEN TISSA VITHARNA AND DEW GUNASEKARA HAVE NOW CHANGED FROM THEIR ORIGINAL CONTENTIONS.
    THIS MAY BE BECAUSE THEY HAVE LOST THEIR ORIGINAL GLAMOR AND GRIT, AND HAVE BECOME PRAGMATIC FOR THE SAKE OF A COMFORTABLE SURVIVAL.

    Strangely I see in today’s papers that a lady Professor criticizing the F U T A and says that it’s leadership is in the wrong hands.
    So what Prof. Sanka Perera says that some of the academically educated have also fallen below the ranks of real academic’s.
    The names I have mentioned also fall into this category.

  • Ranjith

    I think Prof. S. Perera’s comments on our university system represent the views of most of our excellent academics who have already left and who are planning to leave this country. Intellectuals leave this country not becasue they do not want to serve this country but there is no academic freedom here. Our VCs are slaves (shame to the universities they have studied and got their certificates). Becasue they cannot make decisions on university administration. This is the main reason to collapse our university system.