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Opinion: Ex-student bar association prez Arjun Agarwal on how not to choose a vice chancellor

Former NUJS Kolkata Student Juridical Association (SJA) president Arjun Agarwal argues that a lot of recent vice chancellor (VC) selection processes at national law schools have gone badly wrong, in large part due to the prevailing opacity in the processes.

Arjun Agarwal ponders on the arduous process of picking a VC (and how not to)
Arjun Agarwal ponders on the arduous process of picking a VC (and how not to)

New Vice Chancellor (VC) appointments or renewals at national law universities (NLUs) punctuate 2019. While NUALS Kochi and GNLU Gandhinagar got their new VCs recently, two NLU heavyweights viz. my alma mater, NUJS Kolkata and NLSIU Bangalore are in the midst of VC selections. Reportedly, Prof NK Chakrabarti has been recommended by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi for the position of NUJS’ VC recently and the Executive Council ratification in this regard is awaited.

Three other NLUs – CNLU Patna, HNLU Raipur, MNLU Aurangabad – are presently operating under interim administrators while renewals or new appointments are expected at NLU Odisha, NLU Delhi, NLU Assam and TNNLS Trichy in the latter half of 2019.

In recent years, VC tenures and appointments in NLUs have been contentious. Students ousted Prof SS Singh at NLIU Bhopal but the powers that be refused to learn and surreptitiously attempted to install a lowly-qualified [Ed: allegedly, according to students] academic from Allahabad University as the Director at NLIU. An alert and determined student body nipped this insidious attempt in the bud.

Although Prof Sukhpal Singh’s questionable second term as the VC of neighbouring HNLU Raipur was undone by the Chhattisgarh High Court, he was actively aided by the State Government in his last ditch attempts to cling on. The students prevailed when the then Chhattisgarh Chief Justice AK Tripathi stepped in to restore normalcy. As with NUJS, HNLU also got a retired HC judge as its interim VC.

I hope that HNLU does not go the NUJS way, where Justice (Retd) Amit Talukdar’s year-long tenure has been marked with deliberate inaction on the very issues that led to his predecessor Prof P Ishwara Bhat’s downfall. Others NLUs suffering unwelcome judicial overstay are CNLU Patna and until recently NUSRL Ranchi, which got a new VC, who reportedly faced students’ ire at DSNLU Vizag previously.

Broadly speaking, I can think of six systemic problems that have yielded regrettable VC selections in the recent past:

a. poor filtration and lack of due diligence by VC search committees;

b. highly limited pool of suitable candidates, including on account of ill-suited UGC eligibility norms;

c. opacity in the selection process leading to a complete lack of accountability;

d. non-completion of consequential inquiries against ousted VCs, ensuring that they get shortlisted/ selected elsewhere despite a questionable record;

e. closing of ranks by other VCs and influential academics, exchange of favours within legal academia, et al.; and

f. insidious influence of the state government and judiciary.

Poor filtration systems ensured that notwithstanding Prof P Ishwara Bhat’s chequered record at NUJS, he was appointed CNLU VC. Thankfully, Prof Bhat could not join after CNLU students intervened. What’s worse: despite his back-to-back exits from CNLU and NUJS, he waltzed into the KSLU hot-seat within three months. Interestingly, then freshly ousted NLIU Director, Prof SS Singh too had applied for CNLU VC-ship and has recently joined the NUJS Academic Council as the UGC representative!

Other egregious examples are the tainted ex-NLU Odisha VC Chandra Krishnamurthy, who made history at Pondicherry University before a belated resignation, and ex-RMLNLU Lucknow VC, Prof Balraj Chauhan, who was castigated by the High Court of Allahabad but subsequently wormed his way to NLU Jabalpur VC-ship and was also a part of the search committee that controversially chose Prof BP Singh for NLIU Bhopal.

NLUs will do well to remember what former NLU Jodhpur VC, Justice (Retd) NN Mathur has to say on the candidate pool. Paucity of suitable VC candidates is not only because enough suitable law school administrators do not exist or are not interested in what VC-ships at these institutions offer but also because the pool is severely limited by eligibility requirements such as 10 years of Professor-ship experience. The NLU Student Consortium may consider engaging with the UGC and the BCI on the prudence of such requirements and seeking necessary reforms. On his part, Justice Mathur correctly identified lack of understanding (in VC candidates) of the original intent behind the law school project and has stressed on the need to move away from stultifying UGC norms.

At NUJS, we forgot the cautionary tale of NUSRL Ranchi, which first experimented with interim judicial administrators. NUJS students had hoped that the Talukdar administration would ensure a swift and effective administrative rinse, but it has proven to be a disaster.

To ensure that past mistakes at NUJS and elsewhere are not repeated, the NUJS students made some wonderful suggestions, but were told that VC selection was not students’ business. The otherwise obvious suggestions made by the SJA invited focus to:

a. candidates’ familiarity and experience in administration/ teaching at NLUs and similarly-placed institutions;

b. mandatory submission of an undertaking of not having indulged in plagiarism and other academic misconduct;

c. mandatory requirement to submit a ‘Vision Document’ outlining each candidate’s credentials as well as vision for the University;

d. blind-coding and circulation of such ‘Vision Document’ for each of the shortlisted candidates to all stakeholders for the latter’s comments; and

e. inclusion of dedicated accountability mechanisms including disclosure of relevant details of each of the candidates at every stage of the selection process and video recording of personal interviews.

NLU VC selections are often shrouded in opacity (as seen at both NLIU and GNLU) and NUJS has not attempted to be any different. Earlier, I filed an RTI in this regard to the Supreme Court, which was later transferred to NUJS. Even though the obligation to furnish almost all documents concerning VC selections suo motu is well-established, the NUJS PIO, Mr Pritwish Saha wilfully dodged his obligation to provide the information sought. An Appeal to Registrar (Acting) Shikha Sen later confirmed her role in the denial of information in the first instance, thereby making the entire appeal mechanism shambolic. Aggrieved, I subsequently complained to the Executive Council seeking necessary action against Registrar Sen, which has reportedly instituted an inquiry. Opacity bolsters the absence of accountability, in turn, providing scope for questionable, even absurd appointments.

Successful second chances to NLU VCs with questionable histories are also guaranteed by the closing of ranks by other VCs/ influential academics and lack of any sort of blacklisting mechanism to tackle such tainted candidates. Illustratively, the grapevine has it that despite the well-known troubles at RGNUL, VC Prof Paramjit S Jaswal continues to be the front-runner for the top job at NLU Delhi.

Deliberate inaction on various consequential inquiries set up after the downfall of unpopular VCs is another factor that often contributes in the lack of any form of soft-blacklisting of such candidates. There appear to be many instances including RMLNLU, NLIU and, of course, NUJS. Perhaps, a strict, comprehensive disclosure policy would at least partially remedy the non-existent filtration mechanism.

One can only hope that the impending NLU VC selections will not add to this long history of blunders! As for NUJS’ fate, only time will tell...

Arjun Agarwal was elected President of NUJS’ Student Juridical Association for 2016-18, and presently works as an Associate at Trilegal, Delhi. All views expressed are personal.

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