Disappointment in Nagarbhavi

Written by  //  May 18, 2013  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  13 Comments

I apologise in advance for the ad hominem criticisms contained in this post. I was employed in a temporary teaching position at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in Bangalore between July 2011-February 2013 . While my services were terminated without any statement of reasons, I am quite convinced that this was a retaliatory measure taken in response to my open criticism of some decisions made by the institution’s Vice-Chancellor in the recent past.  While the immediate trigger for these criticisms was the imposition of a curfew on students (since loosened) following an incident of sexual assault in the vicinity of the campus in October 2012, I also flagged numerous concerns about the damage being done to the teaching programs at the school on account of opaque decision-making. In this post, I have reproduced the text of the e-mails that I had sent to the faculty, staff and students of NLSIU on December 12, 2012 (highlighting concerns about the curfew) and March 1, 2013 (reflecting on the inexplicable termination of my services).  I am doing so in response to feedback received from friends and well-wishers, many of whom have assumed that I lost my job solely due to an emotional outburst against the imposition of the campus curfew.  As the content of these e-mails will demonstrate, I chose to question my superiors on several issues, many of them touching on the preservation of the core characteristics of a publicly-funded academic institution. I used the forum provided by the internal listservs since the previously established practice of regular faculty meetings has been discontinued over the last four academic years. I hope that this post will compensate for the selective reporting of this matter elsewhere.

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Sent: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 5:42:09 PM
Subject: Re: Notification regarding restrictions on movement

Dear NLSIU community,
I am afraid that this latest notification comes across as a disproportionate and potentially counterproductive measure. Prof. V. Nagaraj (Registrar) had suggested the advancement of the permission time from 12:30 am to 9 pm in the faculty meeting that was held on November 8, 2012 i.e. a few days before the emergency meeting of the Executive Council on November 11, 2012. Yesterday’s notification indicates that the decision to implement this change is in pursuance of the deliberations in the Executive Council. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that both Prof. R. Venkata Rao (Vice-Chancellor) and Prof. V. Nagaraj can point to the minutes of the said meeting in order to defend this notification. However, the issue is far more complex than that.

In the faculty meeting, many of us had expressed our reservations about advancing the time for restricting the movement of students. At a very preliminary level, this measure has no rigorous causal link with the physical safety of students in general. While students have been and can be advised to avoid dangerous areas in the vicinity of the campus, imposing such blanket restrictions is an unduly paternalistic move. There have been numerous instances of sexual harassment and physical abuse of NLSIU staff and students in broad daylight. These problems cannot be eradicated with a simplistic measure such as constraining the movement of students after 9 pm. In fact such restrictions are likely to result in more students choosing to stay off-campus in the future, thereby escalating the risks to their physical safety. As the word gets out, it may also affect our attractiveness for prospective applicants, exchange students and visiting scholars among others. It is also quite foreseeable that not allowing students to enter after 9 pm may result in numerous instances where students can be left stranded in the vicinity. In addition to these practical concerns, there is a larger question of the symbolism inherent in the institution’s response. Given that these restrictions are clearly a knee-jerk response to a crime committed against one of our students, we are indirectly engaging in victim-blaming rather than addressing the root of the problem.

Another cause for worry is the opacity with which such a decision has been made. With all due respect, the members of the Executive Council are not well-informed of the ground realities of this institution. The constantly floating composition of these bodies and the relative detachment of their members is explicitly intended to ensure independent oversight over the affairs of the institution. However, they ought not to intervene in the day-to-day management of the institution. The role of the governing bodies is to make surgical interventions in case of a sustained pattern of institutional failure. Being an autonomous institution, the onus is on ourselves to keep our own house in order. In matters such as these, the leaders of the institution should have held meaningful consultations with all stakeholders, namely faculty, current students, parents and alumni before issuing such a notification. At the very least, the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar could have explained their respective point of view in an open meeting for the NLS community. It is very easy to selectively ask a few individuals for their opinions and make sweeping decisions that have adverse consequences for the immediate stakeholders. I am afraid that this is exactly what seems to have happened in this instance.

I do realise that being in a temporary teaching position, whatever I say can be summarily brushed aside by the Vice-Chancellor,  the Registrar and the senior faculty members. The larger point worth examining at the moment is the gradual erosion of democratic practices within the NLSIU administration and faculty members. Educational institutions are not expected to be democracies in the strict sense, since the relationship between teachers and students is akin to that of trusteeship. However, there are certain norms of consultation and deliberation that should be followed among the faculty members as well as the administrative staff, irrespective of claims of seniority or past experience. The last few years have witnessed the non-continuance of weekly faculty meetings (the recent one being an exception) and an unprecedented centralisation of decision-making both with respect to academic and administrative matters.

I am not qualified to comment on administrative matters such as construction and fund-raising but I do have serious objections to the way in which the academic programs are being handled. I have already expressed my opposition to the untrammeled interference with evaluation through the Grievance Redressal Mechanism contemplated in the rules for the undergraduate program. The manner in which this provision has been interpreted and enforced over the last two academic years is a direct assault on teacher autonomy and thereby violative of the structural features of NLSIU. While there is no principled opposition to the inclusion of such a remedial power, the nature of these interventions has severely distorted the incentives for students and teachers alike to apply themselves to their expected roles. Given the absence of regular faculty meetings on academic issues (the Undergraduate Council has not met even once in the current academic year), there has been no forum to question the interpretation and enforcement of the said rule. Likewise, there seems to have been no vertical or horizontal check on teaching standards for quite a while. Several courses have more or less collapsed since they have either been allocated to instructors with no previous background in the respective fields or poorly-performing instructors have been allowed to continue in their roles on account of extraneous factors. In some cases, instructors have a self-aggrandized view of their own teaching capabilities whereas their actual performance is far below what students expect in an institution such as NLSIU. The most surprising factor is that the recommendations of administrative staff are often given more weightage in decisions about subject-allocation as opposed to the views of faculty members who are directly engaged in teaching. I can of course go on with a laundry-list of complaints, but that would detract from the issues at hand. The main point is that unless we revive the channels for deliberation that had been developed in the past, we will continue to make suboptimal and potentially harmful decisions.

I appeal to the Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar among others to prioritize the school’s long-term interests. We are of course very fortunate that the school has received UGC assistance for expanding the physical infrastructure and our leaders deserve their share of credit for the same. However, an institution such as ours has gained prestige for its academic rigour and the stimulus for self-exploration that it provides to its students. At the moment, both of these features appear to be in jeopardy.

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From: sidharth chauhan <…>
Date: Fri, Mar 1, 2013 at 5:43 PM
Subject: Statement on my dismissal from NLSIU
To:  <…>

Dear NLSIU community,

As most of you would have learnt by now, my services as a visiting faculty member at NLSIU have ended. I had received a notice for termination of service on January 31, 2013 and since I was in a temporary teaching position there was no obligation on the employer to state reasons for the same. There is no administrative or legal recourse in light of the nature of the service contract. Accordingly, I have removed my personal belongings from the residential and office space that had been assigned since July 2011.

While it is open to the Vice-Chancellor to attribute my dismissal to the Executive Council, let us not keep up with any pretence. Those who were present at the emergency meeting of the Executive Council (EC) on January 13, 2013 have confirmed that there was a resolution passed in that meeting which authorised Prof. R. Venkata Rao to act as he deemed fit in my case. This was evidently in response to the tabling of the e-mails which I had sent to all of you on December 12 and 13, 2012 as well as a private e-mail sent to the Vice-Chancellor on December 17, 2012. Hence, it is not plausible to say that my dismissal is unrelated to these e-mails which were openly critical of some of the Vice-Chancellor’s decisions in the recent past. It is clearly a decision made by Prof. R. Venkata Rao in the exercise of his own judgment, albeit under the authority of the EC. Needless to say, it reflects a retrograde approach which is out of place in a 21st century law school. Institutions such as ours have evolved in an environment of self-criticism and open dialogue, both with respect to academic and administrative matters. However, the present incumbent has refused to recognize the instrumental as well as intrinsic value of deliberative decision-making, primarily by discontinuing the established practice of weekly faculty meetings. Furthermore, my dismissal comes across as a warning meant to discourage other members of the faculty and administrative staff from asking difficult questions. The head of the institution seems to have worked out a convenient strategy. He chooses to ignore the inputs and the opinions of the faculty members by refusing to call meetings and then hides behind the authority of the EC to push through ill-considered measures. Never mind that the EC has a floating membership that largely consists of sitting justices, practicing lawyers and civil servants who visit the school twice or thrice in an academic year and hardly have the time or the inclination to understand its inner workings.   

If there were indeed some other reasons behind this decision, those reasons should at least have been informally communicated to me before the issuance of the notice. Were there serious inadequacies in my own teaching? To the best of my knowledge, the feedback received from students has largely been on the positive side. My performance in the five regular courses that I have engaged so far has not been assessed either by the Undergraduate Council or the Academic Review Committee, which are the competent bodies in such matters. The deliberate neglect of these bodies is another issue that deserves comment elsewhere. I must also reiterate that I willingly took on teaching responsibilities for two regular subjects in the July-September 2012 trimester (Legal Methods with first year students and political theory with second year students). Barring a couple of exceptions, instructors at NLSIU have not taken on such a workload in more than a decade. Perhaps I had outlived my utility and the University has identified better qualified teachers for the subjects that have been assigned to me over the last two academic years. In the interest of the learning process, I request the Vice-Chancellor to share the names of the instructors who will now fit into these roles.

As I had tried to explain in the e-mails that have ostensibly led to my dismissal, we need to address the larger questions about the core features of NLSIU and its future as a site for meaningful teaching and research. Debating these questions is doubly important since there are at least fifteen autonomous law schools that have been established on the same pattern, with more likely to be set-up in the coming years. The present administration’s emphasis on construction and publicity may create a positive impression in the minds of occasional visitors but insiders can vouch for the marked decline in the taught programs. The ordinary incentives for students and teachers to apply themselves to their expected roles have been heavily distorted by the untrammeled interference with evaluation. Under the guise of the ‘Grievance Redressal Mechanism’ introduced in 2009, the present Vice-Chancellor has used his personal judgment to change grades in almost all subjects at the end of the academic year in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively. While these have been described as remedial interventions, they have given short shrift to accepted considerations of process such as revaluation by instructors with experience in the relevant subject. It is now evident that most of these interventions have been made by Prof. R. Venkata Rao alone. I must highlight that he has not taught a single course since the start of his tenure in May 2009 and his second-guessing of the subject-teachers’ evaluation is even more questionable since he is not involved in reviewing their performance through any formal channels. Under these circumstances, a section of the student body has also become accustomed to the liberal use of the ‘Grievance Redressal Mechanism’ with some of them openly questioning the need to apply themselves to their studies, perhaps in the belief that the Vice-Chancellor will protect them at the end of the academic year. In short, a remedial provision has been interpreted and enforced in such a manner that it has undermined the autonomy of the teachers as well as the integrity of the learning process.

It would have been far better if the Vice-Chancellor had confined his attention to administrative matters such as the organisation of events and fund-raising while leaving the academic decision-making to those who actually teach. It is difficult for any self-respecting instructor to work in the environment that prevails at present. It has also emerged that two of our most experienced faculty members chose to leave NLSIU in the recent past since decisions made by them (while holding the Undergraduate Chair) were frequently ignored or overturned by the present Vice-Chancellor. When one faculty member privately questioned the Vice-Chancellor about the irregular interference with evaluation, he vaguely referred to some directives of higher-ups in the Union Government and went on to caution that a high rate of failure could lead to unnecessary distress among students. While I agree with the broad proposition that the existing examination rules should be interpreted in a manner that is sensitive to the needs and interests of the students, it is difficult to justify the unprecedented manner in which the judgment of subject-teachers has literally been thrown into the bin. Such reasoning totally undermines the foundational characteristics of the institution. NLSIU was designed so as to be insulated from the pressures of partisan politics and short-term thinking that could undermine academic pursuits. Its’ autonomous character not only signifies independence from undue influence by external parties but also a certain degree of autonomy for its faculty and staff. While a centralized style of functioning maybe appropriate for some settings, it has no place in an academic institution that claims to be the national leader in the field of legal education. In the school built by Dr. N.R. Madhava Menon, the faculty, staff and students have a duty to constantly ask questions about their immediate environment so as to collectively work for its improvement. Building an academic institution is an arduous process and consolidating it is even harder. In the twenty-fifth year of its teaching programmes, the school can profit from more robust questioning of its own workings. By dismissing me and seeking to silence his critics, Prof. R. Venkata Rao is desperately trying to undermine the deliberative ethos of the institution. What is even more serious is the evident lack of communication amongst the faculty members. Given the absence of regular faculty meetings, there now seems to be a presumption of distrust among several factions as well as a reluctance to collaborate in meaningful pursuits. As outlined above, this is contrary to the culture of open minded discourse that we seek to inculcate among the students.

From the perspective of students, the culture of extracting concessions from the head of the institution now includes repeated and inexplicable extensions of term paper deadlines, condonation of attendance shortages and the conduct of special repeat examinations for flimsy reasons. The easy availability of such concessions translates into shoddy classroom engagement and obvious deficiencies in writing skills, even among the students in the advanced years of their studies. Perhaps these concessions are handed out to ensure a certain degree of popularity with the student-body. However, the net consequence is a serious dilution of the quality of education that is expected by those who seek admission to the NLSIU. In the long-run, this is bound to have a negative impact on the employment prospects of students graduating from this school as well as its hard-earned reputation. While some may yet make a comprehensible argument for such populism, it is difficult to ignore the myopic thinking reflected in some other academic decisions such as those of allocating subjects to instructors with no previous background in a given area. Subject-allocation in such an inexplicable manner has adverse effects on the learning outcomes for students while also being an imposition on the hapless instructors who are forced to teach subjects that they are not familiar with. Unsurprisingly, it is younger instructors in temporary positions who usually find themselves in such situations. Such working conditions are perhaps a harsh reality in poorly funded colleges located in remote areas. However, there is absolutely no excuse for the continuance of such practices in a supposedly elite institution.     

My motivation for taking up a teaching position at the NLSIU had germinated from my own experience as a student here a few years ago. The five years spent in this school helped me to move on from past failures and opened my eyes to a culture of open dialogue and self-reflection. The opportunity to interact with immensely talented peers was truly transformational. The initial discomfort with seemingly irritating questions about one’s own interests and background can easily morph into a life-long commitment to rational argumentation and lateral thinking. Not only does every student who passes through this school learn to overcome cultural stereotypes but there is also the sometimes unconscious inculcation of respect for diversity. Ten years after having started as a student, I can claim to have visited my friends in almost all parts of the country and even beyond, learning something about their culture along the way. I had decided to pursue a career in teaching by the time I reached the final year, primarily owing to close interaction with several faculty members as an office-bearer of the student body in 2006-07 and the opportunity to act as a teaching assistant in 2007-08. Even the decision to pursue a judicial clerkship after graduation was geared towards a teaching career.

While I am thankful to Prof. R. Venkata Rao for giving me the opportunity to teach at my alma mater for the last twenty months, such gratitude cannot be inflated to blind obedience. Please note that I am not loosely invoking philosophical anarchism. As participants in institutions, we are bound to hierarchies, but they must serve constructive and beneficial ends. If hierarchies function in an opaque manner, it is our duty to ask questions of those who claim power over us. Hopefully this is not the endgame for me at the NLSIU and there will be a chance to return on the other side of a doctoral degree and more importantly a leadership change that will see the restoration of the deliberative ethos of this institution. For now, I am in talks with another institution for possible employment in the next academic year, proceeding in the hope that the idea of an autonomous law school is not a lost cause.


13 Comments on "Disappointment in Nagarbhavi"

  1. Vipul May 19, 2013 at 5:55 am ·

    Everyone knows what happened to you was unfair. Some aspects of it were not so well-known, and I think your post goes some of the distance in clarifying things. It’s important to set the record straight and do what you think is right before ‘moving on’, as life25 might be exhorting you to do (in a not very polite manner, I might add).

    You’ll be sorely missed and always be dear to the NLS Community.

  2. NLS Student May 19, 2013 at 6:51 am ·

    We want Chauhan Back!

  3. Sanjay May 19, 2013 at 9:10 am ·

    Sad that people like Rao who are incharge of NLS don’t care two cents about the quality or the future of education at the school. He’s just some guy who made it to the top kissing feet and adhering to status quo. Obviously Chauhan was too much of an independent thinker for his liking. While this will hurt the institute, a “babu” like Rao cares little about that. I hope he is questioned and forced to explain his stance at any public forum he goes to. He needs to be shamed in public for being the idiot he is.

  4. life25 May 19, 2013 at 9:10 am ·

    Word of advice: stop your whining and move on. Shit happens, Iching, adapt. Confronting the past is a way of not making progress. The most useless thing is that which you have left behind

  5. Sidharth Chauhan May 19, 2013 at 10:53 am ·

    @Life25, the purpose of posting these e-mails here is not to ‘whine’ about the past. I have quite a few things to do and a lot to look forward to. The bigger concern is about the damage being done to the education and prospects of students who are currently enrolled in this institution. Since many of them are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation, it is important to start a conversation about the problems with the present incumbent’s style of decision-making.

  6. Shantanu May 20, 2013 at 9:50 am ·

    It was an extremely courageous decision to go back to teach there, bro. The targeted edging out of faculty members who did not fit into the scheme of things has happened before and will probably happen again. But news of bigger, better things has already hit Facebook! Congratulations. 🙂

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