Prof Sarath Chandrajeewa, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Visual and Performing Arts, has been removed from his post by the President of Sri Lanka. No explanation has been offered.  In a letter to Prof Chandrajeewa dated September 18th 2019, the Secretary to the President says, “please note that His Excellency the President has decided to remove you from the Post of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Visual and Performing Arts in terms of section 34 (1) (C) of the Universities Act No. 01 of 1995 with immediate effect.” And that’s it. The professor’s well-wishers have started a number of online campaigns including a petition addressed to the President, which I too have signed based on principled considerations.  I do not know professor Chandrajeewa personally and have not read any of his scholarly work.  However, I have seen and admired some of his sculptures.  But what I have to say today has nothing to do with Prof Chandrajeewa’s qualifications as a scholar, his competence as an administrator or his personal appeal as a person.  Instead, it has to do with the mode of his removal.  Any human being, and particularly those in public service, deserves to know on what grounds he has been removed from a particular position when the state itself has appointed him to that position. It is a matter of ethics and decency if not a matter of law.

The President’s action is not an isolated act.  A few months ago, Prof Ratnam Vigneswaran was similarly and unceremoniously removed from the position of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Jaffna.  As in the case of Prof Chandrajeewa, there was no inquiry; and no statement of reasons for which the President believed the professor had to be removed from the post. If such office bearers are guilty of malpractices of any kind, their removal must be preceded by due process by ensuring that charges are presented, a formal inquiry is held and an opportunity given to the accused to defend themselves. After all, the country too has the right to know what these colleagues are guilty of – if they are guilty of anything at all. In both these cases, nothing of this kind has happened.

But there are patterns in these cases that Sri Lankan academics and the public in general need to recognize, which in the long term are detrimental to the entire university system.  For example, when Prof Vigneswaran was arbitrarily sacked, there was hardly any public introspection, public anger or demand for justice in so far as public discourse in southern Sri Lanka was concerned.  It almost seemed that our natural ability to be outraged had vanished. Compared to this, however, there is far more activity – at least online – in support of Prof Chandrajeewa initiated by some of his colleagues, and rightly so. With regard to Prof Vigneswaran’s removal, a number of colleagues from the University of Jaffna, N. Sivapalan, S. Arivalzahan, P. Iyngaran, N. Ramaruban, M. Thiruvarangan and Prof Rajan Hoole formerly of the University of Jaffna, wrote to the Sunday Observer on 15th September 2019 outlining what this removal means to academia and to them.[1]  That was the only substantial public intervention on the matter I have seen. However, to their credit, the Federation of University Teachers Associations, in a meeting with the Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education, noted that the procedures adopted in the removal of the Jaffna University Vice-Chancellor went beyond the powers of the UGC as enshrined in the Universities Act.  However, according to information from the Jaffna University colleagues referred to above, the Minster had noted, “the entire process was purely based on national security and based on clear evidence received.”[2] If there was such overwhelming evidence, it should have been presented to Prof Vigenswaran, and he should have been asked to provide an explanation, first.  Besides, the UGC seems irrelevant in this matter, since the removal is the result of a presidential decree.

More importantly, the Jaffna University colleagues note, in their intervention, “this decision, which has not been discussed adequately in public forums or by the academic community in the country, has serious ramifications for the University of Jaffna and grave implications for the entire public university system in Sri Lanka.”[3]  As I noted earlier in this essay, this kind of public discussion or debate has not really happened, and Prof Chandrajeewa is merely the second victim in this chain of recent unethical events.  Perhaps there will be others, as it appears that we have opted not to be outraged.  My friend Prof Rustom Bharucha, who was professor of Performance Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, notes in a statement condemning the removal of Prof Chandrajeewa, “I can only express my deepest regret and dismay that the internal codes of democratic decision-making, which are so vital in any academic context, have been thoroughly flouted by the dismissal of the Vice-Chancellor.”  It seems he is also writing with the benefit of reflection on the unenviable political interference currently playing havoc in his own former institution, the Jawaharlal Nehru University.  As he further perceptively notes, “at a time when academic, cultural and social institutions in South Asian region are increasingly under attack by parties with vested interests, one needs to protest that such violations of academic norms are deeply counter-productive for the life of the nation at large.”  It is precisely this consideration that is lacking in the larger body politic in Sri Lanka – if the lack of outrage regarding these matters is any indication.

There is a greater issue here than the removal of these two professors that Sri Lankan academics should take up more seriously.  And that has to do with the process of appointing Vice-Chancellors to Sri Lankan universities.  The ultimate appointing authority of a Vice-Chancellor in Sri Lanka is the President of the country.  One has to assume that if the President can appoint a Vice-Chancellor, he can also fire him.  It is a different matter that many procedures take place at the levels of the university and University Grants Commission prior to the final list of potential candidates being presented to the President for approval.  Ideally, if we take university autonomy seriously, such appointments should have nothing to do with the President or the political process of the country.  This politically compromised system of appointing Vice-Chancellors is in place throughout South Asia, and it is hardly surprising that the region’s higher education sector is in crisis. As I stated in a keynote address at the Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo in November 2014, “when crucial appointments such as these are made on the basis of narrowly defined political ends, what does it mean with regard the social responsibility of both academics and academia? Does not ‘social responsibility’ of academics appointed to these positions transform into an ‘individual responsibility’ for political survival? Can they be true guardians of a system whose original goals were far greater and loftier than the self-interests of the political dispensation which appointed them?”[4]  At least a partial answer to these questions suggests, if Vice-Chancellors stray from the political paths laid out for them by their political sponsors, they have to take the risk of inviting their wrath. Besides, in the kind of unstable political circumstances as evident in Sri Lanka, all the President needs is a modicum of gossip, garnished with innuendo and spiced with outright lies to fire a Vice-Chancellor without due process.

Since there have been no formal charges, no inquiry and no evidence presented, we have to assume both these firings are mere political machinations out of the game book of a lame-duck President desperately trying to update his political CV with supposedly ‘heroic’ deeds of cleaning up the messy political landscape.  In this scheme of things, the likes of Vice-Chancellors are soft targets and safe targets from whom there is unlikely to be any political backlash.

And we still refuse to be outraged.

Sasanka Perera
South Asian University
New Delhi