The incontrovertible truth about higher education in the country today is the depths to which it is relentlessly being pushed. Teachers are by and large politicized, with the sad result that scholarship has suffered and continues to suffer. Student politics, which once was an instrument in defence of national interests, has dwindled to levels where it has become blurred with violence, with hooliganism as it were.
The biggest damage being done to education at our universities is the partisan way in which politically appointed Vice Chancellors have been carrying themselves, to the detriment of the future of the thousands of young people whose guardians they are expected to be. When the young at our universities begin to demonstrate a lack of respect for Vice Chancellors, when they accuse Vice Chancellors of committing wrong, there is a case that needs hearing here. The burden of proof ought not to be on the young. It ought to be on the system of justice, on the law, for there are ample reasons for the state to delve into the allegations, to investigate, to come up with results.
Professor Farzana Islam, the beleaguered Vice Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, may feel at ease now that the Prime Minister has served a warning on those wanting the VC’s departure to come up with evidence of guilt against her or face the consequences. That does not detract from the fact that the VC’s recent actions have not exactly endeared her to the country. For an academic who not so long ago complained about the pressure brought to bear on her by student leaders demanding their ‘share’ of money from funds earmarked for development projects at the university, it is now rather a matter of disbelief hearing her celebrating the very organization to which these students belong as people who caused a mass upsurge in her defence the other day. For Prof Islam, when Chhatra League activists went into action beating up teachers and students demanding her resignation, it was a popular uprising she perceived in the act.
Just in case the VC has got her understanding of history wrong, here is something we could go back to in terms of political realities as they have been made in Bangladesh. Back in 1969, it was a mass upsurge, a gono obbhutyan, which united the people of this country in defence of democracy and in the national mission of forcing a long-entrenched dictator from power. The mass movement, based as it was on the Eleven-Point demands of the students and in support of the Six Point movement of the Awami League, had as a prime objective the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from incarceration and the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case.
Place that defining episode in history beside the brutality which students allied to the ruling party exercised against the academics and students gathered before the residence of the Jahangirnagar University Vice Chancellor. In 1969, those who took part in the mass movement against the Ayub Khan regime --- and it was an entire nation involved in the struggle --- did not go around beating up people. It was the police and the army which did the shooting, leaving a number of people --- teachers, students and common citizens --- dead.
And let it not be forgotten that a mass upsurge too it was when the nation forced the Ershad autocracy from power, after a nine-year struggle, in December 1990.
We would not want to inform ourselves that Prof Farzana Islam does not know the meaning of a mass movement. That would hurt us all. No one is remotely suggesting that she is guilty of what she is being accused of. That is a matter of investigation to be conducted at the level of the state. But what precedent informs us is that once the integrity of Vice Chancellors comes into question or once they feel conditions will not allow them to carry on doing their job to the best of their abilities, they should take the respectable way out, through resignation. That Prof Islam has opted not to take that road raises the hard question of how she plans to function with all those forces arrayed against her, especially in light of her failure to disassociate herself from the recent acts of the Chhatra League.
There is all the nobility associated with many of the Vice Chancellors we have known. They were all individuals whose patriotism was beyond question, whose scholarship remains a defining comprehension and underpinning of the heritage of this country. Justice Muhammad Ibrahim’s is a glorious name in the history of higher education in Bangladesh; Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury did not flinch from turning his back on the Yahya Khan regime when it went into murdering his students at Dhaka University; Prof Khan Sarwar Murshid and Prof Zillur Rahman Siddiqui were icons whose intellectual prowess ensured for them places in the academic canvas of history. Dr Azizur Rahman Mallick, the two Shamsul Huqs at Dhaka University and Prof Fazlul Halim Chowdhury were educationists whom teachers, students and student leaders respected from deep within their hearts. Bose Professor Abdul Matin Chowdhury, known globally for his achievements in science, demonstrated not an iota of partisanship in his days as VC of Dhaka University.
That was then. That was ages ago. We speak of now.
When we hear, in disbelief, the Vice Chancellor of Jagannath University publicly making it known that if the Prime Minister asked him to take charge of the Jubo League, he would happily vacate the office of VC and go into reorganizing the youth wing of the ruling party, we know of the unhappy state we are in. When the Vice Chancellor of BUET does not think it necessary to act immediately on hearing of the murder of a student at the hands of other students, when he waits forty hours before coming forth with an explanation behind his behaviour, we wonder where quality in academia has gone missing. The BUET VC will not resign because he feels he had nothing to do with the murder. Of course he had nothing to do with the crime, but there is such a thing as taking moral responsibility for the commission of a sinister act on one’s watch.
If this were an ideal world, if we were privy to sophisticated living, we would see the Vice Chancellors of Jahangirnagar University, Jagannath University and BUET taking responsibility for all their infractions and taking a gentle, commendable way out of office.
But we do not live in an ideal world. We do not have scholars for Vice Chancellors; we do not have research programmes that will lift our universities out of the morass they are in and revitalize them in the way they used to long ago; we have teachers whose loyalty to political parties, under the banner of so many panels, goes on striking grievous blows at higher education in the country.
A Vice Chancellor should be an individual before whom every citizen of the country --- politicians in office and aspiring to office, civil servants, military officers, journalists, businessmen, students and so many others --- must stand erect in profound respect, for Vice Chancellors are emblems of wisdom, are scholars who imbue the young with knowledge, are people who inspire young men and women with an insatiable desire of exploring the universe in the recesses of their imagination and in the classroom.
Where such Vice Chancellors are absent or not permitted to be, the lights keep going out in the sky. The moon assumes a strange pallor. Darkness casts a long shadow across the land.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad and writes on politics and diplomacy.