[Groundviews was informed that this open letter was penned on 20 January 2010, before the presidential election. Tellingly, efforts to publish it in the traditional print media before the presidential election, we were told, had failed.]
The Official Government News Portal (www.news.lk) carried a news item, datelined 18 January 2010, that vice-chancellors of Sri Lankan universities pledged support to the President, with some of them asking the people of this land to vote him into a second term at the forthcoming elections – this letter is being written on 20 January 2010.
After a President is duly elected to office, the right and proper thing for all citizens to do is to pledge support to him, whatever their political affiliations. Most university academics, ourselves included, endorse this. What this means in practice is that, quite apart from our teaching and administration activities, we get involved in projects associated with national development, which are invariably fully consistent with the stated policies and priorities of the government. These range from poverty reduction & microenterprise development; through promotion of healthcare and information technology; to utilization of natural resources and engineering projects. Most of us focus our research interests on topics of national importance too. In our opinion, singing the praises of the President is not the most appropriate way for academics to pledge support.
Furthermore, the dateline for the news item is just 6 days before a presidential election – completely the wrong time for pledging support to an incumbent president – not because we should hedge our bets about the outcome of the election, but because we should maintain impartiality in our public pronouncements as a university community. If anyone were to pledge support either to the President or any other contender in one’s private capacity, that could perhaps be considered acceptable. However, the en masse promotion of the President by the top leadership of the Sri Lankan university system appears to us to be a betrayal of the very raison d’etre of a university.
In our opinion, a university is a place of unfettered inquiry, in the tradition of Socrates (if one wants secular roots) or that of the Buddha (if one wants religious roots) – this is why the most ancient seats of learning arose in Greece and India. The growth of knowledge has always been associated with challenging the status quo and questioning the dominant authorities (in the tradition of Galileo). As such, while most academics would prefer to be neutral vis a vis the political authorities, if it comes to a choice between endorsing and critiquing the state, we would generally advocate the latter. Even though our universities are funded by the state, we must strive vigorously to maintain their independence. This is our solemn responsibility by the people, to whom we are ultimately answerable since it is their money that funds us. Thus, what we should be doing before an election is to foster informed discussion of substantive issues, rather than to extend blanket support to any particular candidate.
Although this letter is critical of our vice-chancellors, we end by saying that we are appreciative of the leadership they provide in keeping our universities functioning within a highly politicized environment. We are especially proud of any vice-chancellors who did not participate in the press conference because they wanted to remain independent. We deplore any pressure or manipulation from any quarter directed towards any or all of them.
Priyan Dias, Ranil Abayasekara, Suresh de Mel, Shantha Fernando, Dileni Gunewardena, Rohini Hewamanna, Romaine Jayewardene, Rumala Morel, Dinesha Samararatne, Upul Sonnadara, Vasanthi Thevanesam, Shamala Tirimanne, Ruvan Weerasinghe, Carmen Wickramagamage