Photograph courtesy Vikalpa

Guest lecture delivered at the international conference, ‘Revisiting Social Responsibility in Contexts of Crisis: Challenges and Possibilities in Sri Lanka’ at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo, 17 November 2014

Vice Chancellor, the dean and colleagues, let me wish all of you a very good morning.

When the Dean, Faculty of Arts wrote to me some time ago and asked if I am willing to speak at this conference under the theme, ‘Revisiting Social Responsibility in Contexts of Crisis,’ I postponed responding to him. That is because I was quite anxious that this was yet another generic theme couched within a developmentalist and feel-good agenda. But after a reminder from him, and on a closer reading, I realized that the conference offered a certain obvious space for critical self-reflection on what social responsibility might mean, if one wanted to do so. This space is my point of departure.

Despite the conference’s focus on Sri Lanka, much of my reading comes from sources beyond Sri Lanka. My interest is to explore what social responsibility means within universities in difficult times rather than more generally. Of course, many countries have gone through socio-political upheavals for various reasons within which the notion of social responsibility has undergone significant transformations. In this context, I will present some of these situations to you with an invitation: what do these experiences mean when translated into local contexts?

If we accept that the university is a space for the generation of knowledge as well as innovation in thinking, what would happen when the fundamental intellectual space needed for the production of knowledge becomes ruptured under unstable socio-political conditions? What happens to larger issues of citizenship and social responsibility? Does the practice of such responsibilities become life-threatening?

I will attempt to answer these questions by taking the following route: 1) initially, I will briefly suggest what I consider to be academics’ responsibility to society. This will be followed by an outline of my own understanding of what a university ought to be; 2) Second, I will explore briefly through the thoughts of a few thinkers how the idea of the university has transformed globally, particularly with reference to human sciences; 3) thirdly I will outline how universities are officially situated locally; and 4) finally, I will see how social responsibility might seem like in these circumstances.

Who is an academic and what is a university? 

For me, “being an academic is not simply holding a job. It is a vocation; it is a way of life; it should be a passion; and above all, it is a responsibility. To be this, one needs a specific frame of mind in addition to training.”[1] To do all this, one also has to go beyond the classroom into the domains of broader social practice. To do this, one also has to go beyond the syllabus in the classroom itself. Even within the syllabus, one has move beyond the text and the disciplines to the discursive practices of the philosophy of knowledge, citizenship, justice and common-sense. This is not simply the responsibility of individual academics. It is also the institutional responsibility of universities to ensure the feasibility of this vocation. It may be obvious, what I have in mind as an academic with a responsibility to his society is not simply someone who is working within the ivory tower and is imprisoned by it. Instead, it must be someone who can travel with ease between society and academy without compromising the integrity of his vocation. In other words, an academic necessarily also has to be a public intellectual. This is particularly so in regions like South Asia where societies are burdened with multiple crises in which a rational discourse unshackled by religion, ethnicity and other sectarian tendencies is a necessity. Being the author of such a discourse is the responsibility of an academic. Admittedly, what I have suggested is a very subjective position. But then, responsibilities cannot be clinical positions understood in black and white. They are by definition subjective and inscribed with emotion, ideology and passion. My exploration of what social responsibility means will begin its journey from this subjective position.

The other side of this equation is what a university should be. S. Radhakrishnan has noted that “the ideal of the university is the promotion of liberty of mind or freedom of thought” and has nothing to do with promoting “conformity”.[2] With reference to Sri Lanka, Panduka Karunanayake suggests quite correctly that “the university is society’s intellectual compass – not it’s computing machine.”[3] It is also in such a context but much earlier in time that Rabindranath Tagore noted that “universities should never be made into mechanical organizations for collecting and distributing knowledge.”[4]

How has the idea of the university transformed, globally?

The consensus among many thinking people is that university education is experiencing numerous crises today. This is more acutely felt in the human sciences. It is by visiting these specific situations that we can assess what social responsibility of individuals in these systems might be, and how they might have changed. Terry Eagleton, in a recent essay titled Death of Universities focused on higher education in the United Kingdom observes that “what we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique.”[5] In this sense, the university is expected to be the space where the conscience of the society would reside openly and not in hiding. For me, this specific understanding of a university is the most crucial element in any structure of social responsibility as it impacts the academy. However, as Eagleton explains, in the case of the United Kingdom, “since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.”[6] But as we know quite well, the UK is simply one of the many countries where this situation currently prevails.

Many such thinkers are talking about the transformation of universities from a space for critical reflection and production of knowledge into simple technical institutions. It is precisely this situation that Tagore lamented about so long ago in his essay, ‘An Asian University.’ He noted, “we are provided with buildings and books and other magnificent burdens calculated to suppress our mind. — All this has cost us money, and also our finer ideas, while our intellectual vacancy has been crammed with what is described in official reports as Education.”[7] He was talking about colonial education in India. But he might as well be talking of the present situation in higher education in many Indian institutes as well as ours.

How are universities officially situated in Sri Lanka?

If the ideal of the university and its current transformed self globally can be summarised as above, let me now briefly describe how universities in Sri Lanka have been understood by the guardian of the system, namely the Ministry of Higher Education. It is within this official reality you have to teach and would also have to define what social responsibility might mean. On its website, the Ministry of Higher Education presents the following sentiment as its ‘vision’: “Sri Lanka to be an international hub of excellence for higher education by 2020.”[8] Surely, such a hub of excellence in any sense should be an oasis for free thinking where social responsibility would be a natural and essential partner. In itself, this vision does not contradict the ideal of a university as I have described earlier. The ministry’s ‘mission’ explains how this hub would be achieved in the following words: “To Delight Students, The Industry, Staff And Other Stakeholders Of The Higher Education System Of Sri Lanka By Formulating And Implementing Results Oriented Policies & Strategies And To Deliver Results In An Effective And Efficient Manner Through A Participatory Process To Produce The Best Intellectuals, Professionals, Researchers, Entrepreneurs To Deliver Innovative Solutions To Make Sri Lanka “The Wonder Of Asia.”[9] Clearly, the Ministry has carved out as its mission to create a large and throbbing comfort zone filled with happy people. The manner, in which I described social responsibility within higher education earlier, would necessarily fit into this scheme of things. Universities cannot produce “the best intellectuals, professionals, researchers and entrepreneurs” and make Sri Lanka “The Wonder Of Asia,” without seriously engaging with social responsibility.

Seen in this sense, this official position seems to indicate that the country’s higher education sector is keen to create a vibrant knowledge production system within which there ought to be ample space for the production of knowledge within a discourse of social responsibility. Nevertheless, despite this seeming availability of space for innovation and free thinking in Sri Lankan universities, what is more clearly manifest is the promotion of a very different set of institutions which vary considerably from the original idea of what a university was supposed to be.

Much of these pronouncements also have to do with the state’s understating of ‘research.’ There is considerable consensus among the guardians of the university system, captains of industry and many university academics that the responsibility for meeting the national research requirements should be borne by the state universities and their academics. Research understood in this manner is supposed to fuel “industrial development and economic growth,”[10] and nothing more. This sense of research squarely locates it within the ambit of ‘profit.’ Similarly, some streams of human sciences have also become vibrant service providers for industry and international and local civil society. That is, research is no longer about seeking knowledge and understanding the human condition. Instead, it is about ‘delighting’ the ‘industry’ and other stake-holders as the Ministry of Higher Education’s mission very clearly proclaims.

What we are seeing is the enforced disappearance of the university and the emergence of technical colleges in its place. This is merely the local manifestation of a trend that is already evident in other parts of South Asia as well as beyond the region.

How can social responsibility be understood in these circumstances?

What I have outlined so far are the conditions that have ruptured university education in general and human sciences more specifically. However, this has not always happened under conditions of political upheaval and violence. Often, these changes have taken place under conditions of general socio-political change and specific economic reforms that have followed the global embrace of the neo-liberal agenda. Situations of war, generalized violence and dismantling of democratic practices invariably exert much more pressures on universities as zones of freedom. Edward Said, in his essay, ‘Identity, Authority and Freedom’ suggests that in the post-independence Arab world, state universities were seen as extensions of the national security states, which had become a norm in state formation after independence in the Middle East. In this context, Said makes the following observations about the Arab academy:

Alas, political conformity rather than intellectual excellence was often made to serve as a criterion for promotion and appointment, with the general result that timidity, a studious lack of imagination, and careful conservatism came to rule intellectual practice.[11]

As all of us know quite well, Said’s description of post-independence Arab academy describes equally well the prevailing general situation in Sri Lanka as well as the broader South Asia region. In Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, Vice Chancellors are appointed by the President or the Prime Minister of the country. Appointments to similar positions in regional universities in Pakistan and India are made by provincial governors. In all cases, these are acutely political appointments where academic credentials have little relevance. What is of relevance is an appointee’s proximity to political power. In Sri Lanka, this state of affairs has come about as a result of the state’s relentless intrusion into universities since the late 1960s. This has happened in the backdrop of institutionalization of political violence in the country, out-migration academics to the greener pastures of the West, experimentation with neo-liberal policies of governance, the long-term impact of war and political violence on the practice of democracy and so on.

When crucial appointments such as these are made on the basis of narrowly defined political ends, what does it mean with regard to social responsibility of both academics and academia? Doesn’t ‘social responsibility’ of academics appointed to these positions transform into an ‘individual responsibility’ for political survival? Can they be guardians of a system whose original goals were far greater and much loftier than the self-interests of the political dispensations which appoint them? The way to survive in these circumstances is to ensure that the university is no longer a space for self-reflection and responsible critique as it was once thought to be, but merely a training ground with defined techno-political goals delinked from larger issues of citizenship, democracy and justice.   It is in a similar situation that Prof Romila Thapar made the following crucial observations: “There are more academics in existence than ever before but most prefer not to confront authority even if it debars the path of free thinking. Is this because they wish to pursue knowledge undisturbed or because they are ready to discard knowledge, should authority require them to do so.”[12] Prof Thapar made her observations not only in her capacity as one of the most erudite contemporary scholars of history in South Asia, but also as a person with a pronounced track record in public engagement at the height of her career at great personal cost. It seems obvious that the relative silence and lack of public engagement academics in our part of the world have imposed on themselves have nothing to do with their interest in pursuing knowledge undisturbed. Rather, it has everything to do with survival and self-preservation in times of crises coupled with the institutionalization of mediocrity in the academy as referred to by Said. If the broader public engagement of academics is discouraged and stifled, such a situation would transform universities into sterile spaces devoid of the morality of social responsibility. Closer to home, it is in view of what universities had become in Sri Lanka that Prof Gananath Obyesekere in a letter to President Rajapaksa in 2012 suggested, “there is another challenge for a wise leader, and that is to bring back the universities to its early glory by supporting them at every level because a world bereft of intellectual life will end up as a dreary world.”[13] It appears that we unfortunately have a serious dearth of wise leaders in public life.

However, the transformation of the academy into a technical space without its moral authority is not something that the state has done on its own. It has considerable support from within academia as well as the public. In the Sri Lankan context, can we think of any significant and sustained public debates on the nature of universities? Most parents who send their children to Sri Lanka’s universities actually seem to want what the state wants to give them: a technical education that might offer their children a placement in the labor market as a docile service provider. Who can blame them in circumstances where the creation of a philosopher who might possess the moral conscience of the world might mean nothing if he cannot bring home a pay check at the end of the month to satisfy the hunger of his family. In this context, is the argument for universities as a space for reflection and responsible critique as a key element of social responsibility be justified any longer? Or, perhaps what is more relevant is what most people seem to want. This is quite simply a basic technical training with the guarantee of a job. Hopefully in the near future, some of the many survey-taking sociologists and economists this system has abundantly produced can conduct a survey and inform all of us what our people actually want. If they also want what the state subscribes to, which is entirely possible, then our moral authority to describe universities’ and academics’ social responsibility as I have done so far, will have to be radically re-thought and changed. Our responsibility then should be to create a space of technical knowhow which also imbibes a sense of conformity. I think to a large extent this post-Orwellian brave new world has already arrived. In this context, let me again refer to the words of Professor Thapar: “it is not that we are bereft of people who can think autonomously and ask relevant questions. But frequently where there should be voices, there is silence. Are we all being co-opted too easily by the comforts of conforming?”[14] In this sense, conformity and relative silence in India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South Asia have come about as a necessity for survival. In fact, it seems silence and conformity might well be the new form of social responsibility understood strictly within a discourse of personal survival.

But this state of affairs poses yet another problem when perceived from the point of view of social responsibility. If the responsibility of the system is to create conformist labourers for the larger marketplace, how equipped are universities to deliver even this limited goal? Medical, computing, engineering and other allied disciplines have been fulfilling precisely this goal of offering a technical education devoid of larger issues of ethics and justice over a long period of time. Compared to this long-term reality, what can the human sciences offer the market? Have the relevant academic departments begun training their students directly for the market as willed by the state with the tacit support of the populace? Or by swimming against the tide, have they created within their courses the space for self-reflection by introducing cutting-edge knowledge from each discipline available in different parts of the world, and by creating the necessary space to go beyond the syllabus creatively? Or are they happy with repeatedly transmitting received wisdom? Happily, I am no longer part of the system and am not privy to the answers. Unhappily, you are very much part of the system and are quite aware of what the situation is. So where does this leave us in terms of social responsibly? Either we need to accept that our responsibility lies in training workers for the market and have no civilizational responsibility beyond this simple utilitarian role. Or, we have to accept that our responsibility is to ensure that we offer a broader education within which technical education is also possible. But are we doing either of these things right?

Mind you, I am not hostile to the government’s agenda for a technical education. Given the expectations of our people, we have a responsibility to offer such an education to some degree. And I emphasise the words, ‘to some degree.’ But if I am to define my responsibility to society as an academic, it simply cannot be the mere offering of technical competence to the young people who come to my classes. I believe my responsibility to society also includes the creation of a sensibility among them which might hopefully make them sensible citizens. That would remain my conviction irrespective of the contrary agenda of the state and the wishes of the people.

In the words of Rabindranath Tagore, “I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom – freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communications with the human world.”[15] Personally, when I cannot do this, it is time for me to look for another vocation. When I cannot do this, I know I will not be able to carry out my responsibility to society and to myself. On the other hand, what you do is entirely up to you, and when the future arrives, the writing on the walls will tell our younger generations how you dealt with your sense of social responsibility and what you did with your conscience.

I thank you for your time.


The author is a Professor at the Department of Sociology and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi.


[1].–dean-faculty-of-social-sciences-of-south-asian-university (last accessed on 16/10/14).

[2] Quoted in Panduka Karunanayake, 2011, ‘Promoting Research in Our Universities: A Critical Examination.’ In, The Island, (last accessed on 22/10/14).

[3]. Quoted in Panduka Karunanayake, 2011, ‘Promoting Research in Our Universities: A Critical Examination.’ In, The Island, (last accessed on 22/10/14).

[4]. Rabindranath Tagore, 2004. Selected Essays. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.

[5]. Eagleton, Terry. 2010 (17th December). ‘The Death of Universities.’ In, The Guardian, (last accessed on 02 10/14).

[6]. Eagleton, Terry. 2010 (17th December). ‘The Death of Universities.’ In, The Guardian, (last accessed on 02 10/14).

[7]. Rabindranath Tagore, 2004. Selected Essays. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.

[8]. (last accessed on 03/04/14).

[9]. (last accessed on 03/04/14).

[10]. Panduka Karunanayake, 2011, ‘Promoting Research in Our Universities: A Critical Examination.’ In, The Island, (last accessed on 22/10/14).

[11]. Edward Said, 2001. ‘Identity, Authority and Freedom.’ In, Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays. London: Granta Books.

[12]. Romila Thapar, 2014. ‘To Question or not to Question: That is the Question’ (Third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture, 2nd November 2014). New Delhi (; last accessed on 03 November 2014).

[13]. Gananath Obeyesekere, 2013. In, Tissa Jayailaka ed., Letters to Our Presidents by Sri Lankan and US Alumni of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission 1952-2012. Colombo: US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission.

[14]. Romila Thapar, 2014. ‘To Question or not to Question: That is the Question’ (Third Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture, 2nd November 2014). New Delhi (; last accessed on 03 November 2014).

[15]. Rabindranath Tagore, 2004. Selected Essays. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.