Ashoka University’s real issue is the clash between ‘suits’ that fund and ‘boots’ that run it

Praveen Chakravarty
August 18, 2023

The tight ‘suits’ that adorn Ashoka’s governing body will do well to shed them for looser kurtas. The management’s submissiveness became the discussion point rather than the merits of the paper.
Representational Image | X: @AshokaUniv

Representational Image | X: @AshokaUniv

The future of one of India’s leading liberal arts institutions, Ashoka University, is in peril. This is not hyperbole. Ironically, it was a hyperbolic research paper authored by one of its assistant professors, Sabyasachi Das, that has brought the university to its current perilous state. But, at the heart of this issue is not the credibility of its research; it’s the clash of culture, ethos and purpose between the ‘suits’ that fund a liberal arts university and the ‘boots’ that run it.

Titled ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, the working research paper by Das, analyzed unique and creative datasets from Indian elections using established research methods. But the analysis revealed nothing new or substantive, let alone evidence of manipulation in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Anyone with reasonable knowledge of election data and research methods could have easily surmised that the young professor got carried away with analysis, losing the larger picture.

If the goal was to provide evidence of ‘democratic backsliding’ in India, all that the professor had to do was to talk to one of us in the opposition for concrete examples and incidents, without having to resort to such contortions of data. Establishing that Indian democracy is being suppressed under Narendra Modi is as easy as establishing that President Donald Trump subverted institutions in America — it doesn’t need complicated analysis.

Paper didn’t need Ashoka’s intervention

The research paper’s exaggerated title attracted social media ‘eyeballs’ and spurred acerbic debates. Predictably, members of the ruling BJP, who monitor social media conversations like a hawk, sprung into action and presumably bullied the management of the university to react. The businesspeople that mainly fund and call the shots at Ashoka University through its governing board expectedly crawled when asked to bend, just like the ‘suits’ of India Inc. have done over the past nine years.

The university waded into this debate by issuing a pusillanimous statement distancing itself from both the professor and his research. There was simply no need for this. It triggered a maelstrom of events where the departments of economics, English, political science, and sociology at Ashoka University are publicly protesting against the management, advocating for greater academic freedom. That is, the professors in India’s leading liberal arts university are asking for greater liberty from the ‘suits’ that govern them.

The research paper would have been judged and evaluated in the ‘academic reputation marketplace’ through peer reviews and critiques from other scholars. In a reasonably efficient ‘reputation market’, Das’ paper would have been deemed sensational, and the professor’s academic credibility may have been at stake. By getting bullied into interfering in this natural process through a statement, the management of Ashoka university triggered perverse incentives and shifted the goal post for evaluation of the research paper. The management’s submissiveness became the discussion point rather than the merits of the paper. It was a classic corporate response by businesspeople. A seemingly sensitive issue that attracts needless political attention must be immediately resolved — either by distancing oneself or apologising (as the case may be) — is the standard operating procedure of corporate communications. Except, this SOP does not work with a liberal arts university.

Loose kurtas must replace tight suits

Efficiency is the innate virtue that is at the core of most decision making in the corporate sector. Corporates or firms are organised around the principle of efficiency. Efficiency is achieved through conformity and obedience, dictated by processes and rules. Any speck of non-conformance or disobedience threatens to disrupt the prevailing equilibrium, and hence its efficiency. Which is why, corporations have historically resisted unions because it represents organised disobedience, which is anathema to efficiency hunting. This also explains why most corporations are loath to be drawn into social issues or take strong positions, which is seen as a deviation from their efficiency path. Any semblance of such a deviation and the immediate temptation for ‘management’ is to hammer it back to the established path.

This is fundamentally at odds with the purpose of a liberal arts university, which encourages dissent, disorder, deviance, and disagreements, allowing for the ‘thought market’ to arrive at a certain equilibrium, rather than dictating it through processes and rules. To say radically different things or to challenge convention is a daily ritual in a liberal arts university. Of course, all these have to take place within the larger imperative of preserving peace and social harmony. This clashes with the innate penchant for obedience, conformance and efficiency of corporate management.

This is not the first time that Ashoka University finds itself in the crosshairs of liberty and obedience. Famously, the university’s former vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned due to similar reasons of suppression of freedom of expression. There have been repeated instances in the past of student protests against management over the issue of ‘liberty’ on campus. While Ashoka’s governing board may have justifiable grievances about faculty and students using the university as a stepping stone for personal ambitions or popularity, it doesn’t warrant corporate-style ‘management action’ against disobedient ‘employees’. Faculty members at a liberal arts university are not employees of a ‘firm’, nor is a university an organisation in the corporate sense.

The university’s management must resist the temptation to intervene and ‘set right’ every seeming act of deviation, unlike in the corporate world. Sadly, through repeated interventions, the management of Ashoka university has sent wrong and worrying signals about the university’s future to its faculty, students and aspiring students.

To be clear, the founders of Ashoka university and its management deserve immense kudos in building an institution of such repute and rigour in a very short span of time and making India proud in the global academic world. Their efficiency motto may have been the driving force behind this stupendous achievement. But perhaps, the time has now come for them to recognise the limitations of corporate virtues in managing a liberal arts university. The tight ‘suits’ that adorn Ashoka’s governing body will do well to shed them for looser kurtas.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Congress party. He tweets @pravchak. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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