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The Choose Your Law School Sessions: Let’s talk about vice chancellors, baby (the good, the bad and especially the ugly)

Just imagine if this little guy was your law school VC...
Just imagine if this little guy was your law school VC...

The law school you choose should not just get you the job of your dreams but it also better give you an exceptionally nurturing educational atmosphere during your undergraduate years, considering the budget you are going to be allocating to it.

Legal education in India comes at significant cost at all national law universities (NLUs) and is even more expensive at some private law schools, such as JGLS Sonepat. It is comparatively quite cheap at some private law schools such as Amity Delhi and, by relative comparison, nearly free at some of the even older law colleges such as Delhi University and GLC Mumbai.

It is therefore paramount that the funds provided by you, as fees, are used by the university to give you the best of exposure, faculty, facilities and space for growth, and that the law school’s administration has your confidence in doing so.

These are some basic parameters on which the administrative quality of a law school can be judged.

The vice chancellor: Kings, queens and princes?

The quality of the vice chancellor (VC) of a law school (or the director, or dean in some cases) is usually inextricably linked to the quality of every aspect of law school life.

VCs will often have a hand not just in a law school’s infrastructural development (NLU Delhi), curriculum design (Nalsar) and other reform (NLU Assam), but also in quality of teaching faculty (NLU Delhi), availability (GNLU) of scholarships (Nirma), relaxing attendance and course requirements to destress students (Nalsar) and other good things happening for and around students. They might not be personally responsible all the time, but a good VC will create a culture where enterprising faculty members and students can make such changes.

However, the VCs managerial style may also be directly responsible for the law school losing exceptional faculty (NUJS) on account of undue authoritarianism or due to allegedly regressive policies (NLSIU). The VC may also diminish the credentials of a law school (Delhi University) due to inattentiveness (NLU Orissa), or due to dictatorial attitudes (GNLU), or through outright (alleged) corruption (NUJS).

That said, authoritarianism is not a bad thing, per se.

Given the tight budget (NLSIU) on which VCs have to run these islands of educational excellence (or mediocrity) it may be good for the law school to have a tough task master at the helm. Running a law school is like running a company, law firm or, often, worse. Someone has to be in charge, and doing everything by committee or democratic vote will end in disaster.

But the challenge before most VCs is not to abuse this power for the end of creating a personal fiefdom but to build the strongest institution with the best atmosphere possible for college students to become lawyers.

It often helps to have an enterprising and proactive VC (Nalsar) for a period that is long enough for a VC to familiarise themselves with the law school’s specific problem areas and to start coming up with solutions.

However, even without showing any performance, many VCs are inevitably able to pull political strings and their terms get renewed.

On the other hand there are universities, especially some new NLUs, where the political environment diminishes the will of successive VCs to stick it out at the place for even one term.

And arguably even a bad VC can be better than no VC at all for extended periods.

NLU Orissa (NLUO), for instance, is one such law school. Successive VCs have left its chair mid-term. GLC Mumbai, recently, became another one. Nuals Kochi, the newly founded Tamil Nadu NLS and the very young NLU Assam are some other examples. NLUO has also seen its VC appointments being in limbo, and so has NUSRL, as well as NLIU Bhopal which is one of the five oldest NLUs.

However, at the oldest NLUs the VCs ordinarily do not want to leave. VCs at NLSIU, NLU Delhi, HNLU Raipur, GNLU Gandhinagar, and even the younger DSNLU have had their terms extended and renewed.

Some new NLUs are still on to their very first VCs, such as NLU Mumbai which, like DSNLU, is also without a proper campus at the moment.

Transparency: A true test of greatness

In our opinion, the greatest testament to whether a VC intends to run a personal fiefdom or a good law school, is whether they have taken steps to create an accessible and transparent administrative system. Accessibility under the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, as well as accessibility to the media counts.

The administration should openly disclose facts about its management of the university coffers, its policies and measures taken for staff and students, and the incidents that take place on campus – especially when these campuses are situated in remote outskirts of cities. JGLS Sonepat's transparency with how it handled the Jat riots and a semi-evacuation recently, for instance, were laudable.

Such openness not just creates a system of checks and balances but also imparts confidence within parents who may have sent their undergraduate children away from home for the first time ever.

Until 2011, for example, NLIU Bhopal, HNLU Raipur, GLC Mumbai and ILS Pune absolutely and completely flouted India’s RTI law by not publishing any details of its public information officer and RTI appellate authority on its website. NUJS Kolkata, NLU Jodhpur and RMLNLU Lucknow had barely complied. NLSIU, Nalsar, GNLU and NLU Delhi were in total compliance.

While all of these law schools pretty much now comply with this legal requirement, at least on their websites, many have disregarded RTI applications in other ways several times over the years:

Late responses playing with semantics and dodged appeals at NLSIU, fudged responses at NUJS, opacity on examination rules at NLUO, are just a few of many examples.

And the NLUs part of the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT) tried to hide its founding memorandum of understanding last year – an instance which though it doesn’t directly affect current students, it speaks volumes on these NLUs’ attitudes on transparency.

And earlier this year Legally India requested the VCs of all NLUs part of CLAT 2016 to answer a questionnaire about their law school, for the benefit of CLAT candidates. Sadly, Nalsar VC Faizan Mustafa was the only VC to respond to this request, despite several reminders sent to the other VCs by phone, messages and email.

This lack of transparency and willingness to allow sunlight into their affairs, leads to serious problems of accountability.

Accountability: Where?

Every law school’s VC has huge amounts of cash, mostly by way of government funds, at their disposal, some more than others. So, to be fair, the problem of a lack of accountability in utilising these funds extends beyond Legally India’s reporting, so far, of financial and other mismanagement at law schools in the few years of our existence.

Nevertheless, as per our reporting at least NUJS, Nalsar and Nuals Kochi have existing external committee reports on their financial irregularities and GNLU was once stamped with a critical report by NLSIU’s founding VC Prof Madhav Menon, the conclusion of which was spun to the media after long procrastination. Usually these law schools have tried to bury (Nalsar) damning reports.

Apart from finances, there are other areas in which a lack of transparency and accountability can snowball into a dangerous situation for the law school’s students. At NUJS, for instance, the administration had almost stonewalled a student’s not insignificant complaint: the student was slapped by a faculty at the law school.

And Nalsar received media attention for irregularities in the fee reimbursements of students from the scheduled category of reservations at the law school.

These law schools, being public institutions, are accountable to the public and the biggest force keeping this check on them ought to be the law school’s student body.

Student body: The true strength of a law school

A strong and vocal student body generally makes a law school a safer place to be.

Students can make the most of their time at law school by directing it towards direct personal growth through academics, competitions, research, debates and discussions. But crucial to sustaining such an atmosphere is to pull up the law school’s management for its actions that hinder it.

Some instances where pressure from the student body – through boycotts or other measures – took place recent years:

NUJS students had taken the administration to task for a lack of infrastructure and faculty, and had demanded the registrar’s resignation for sexual harassment; at NLSIU students made sure professors know they can’t pass sexist remarks at students with impunity; at RMLNLU students resolved infrastructural issues through meeting the chancellor; at HNLU Raipur students went on hunger strike for the law school’s poor campus placement efforts and for lack of a permanent campus, and both aspects gradually saw improvements; at NUSRL students boycotted exams to protest the administration’s apathy; Mumbai University was pulled up by a student, through his RTI, for its outdated courses.

Students sometimes work with the administration against external forces – at NUSRL Ranchi students won a land dispute against the local land mafia and helped the law school move to its designated campus, for instance. And 500 law students from various colleges pressured the Bar Council of India to intervene and better the circumstances at their law schools.

And sometimes the demands are innovative and practical, if a tad unrealistic to achieve: NLU Assam very recently students went hunger striking to demand a refund of four years of college fees in lieu of deficient facilities.

The student body can sometimes behave destructively as well: Panjab University students went on hunger strike to lower attendance requirements, GLC Coimbatore closed after its students locked the principal out, and NLSIU once experienced a homophobic incident of students defacing faculty noticeboards.

Discipline

To allow space for students’ growth, the administration needs to balance the concerns of safety and security of its students while simultaneously avoiding subjecting them to absolute tyranny.

Private law school JGLS Sonepat – which is situated in Haryana and is more prone to riots and gang violence, as well as one gang rape accusation, and bullies on campus, against whom strict action was taken – enforces exceptional security measures such as fingerprint sensors, among other things, and routinely earns student flak for being too draconian. It previously also imposed heavy fines on students, but has now abolished many of those to steer a middle-course on discipline.

Parents clearly need to be reassured that an administration is doing all it can to keep their kids safe on campus, but walking that tightrope between sufficient and not enough security is very hard.

And often the balancing act and perspective is lost.

GNLU, has repeatedly been lambasted by the Gujarat high court for its dictatorial policies such as mandatory “goodness marks”, and general disregard for students’ basic human rights.

NLSIU effectively resorted to victim-blaming when it reacted to the rape of its student in the Nagarbhavi forest area in its campus’ vicinity, by imposing 9pm curfews on students wanting to go in and out of campus.

It is a truism that every law school is unique and there is no one-size fits all approach. But likewise, students should also realise that they are all unique and should start demanding environments and administration that treat them as adults and soon-to-be defenders of our laws and rights.

And that has to start from the very top at a law school.

Also read:

The Choose Your Law School Sessions: Recruitment performance through the ages

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