‘Spineless’: Academics Slam Ashoka University Over Exits

Scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta and former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian recently quit Ashoka University.

4 min read
Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned as professor at Ashoka University on Tuesday, 16 March.

The resignation of Pratab Bhanu Mehta and and former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University has triggered an avalanche of reactions from the academic fraternity in India and abroad.

As the exit of the two high-profile professors snowballs into an image crisis for the University, professors and scholars have criticsed the administration for its “intolerance” and “spinelessness of trustees”.

While Mehta wrote that it was made clear to him that his writing “carried risks for the university”, Subramanian stated that the university’s failure to “provide a space for academic expression and freedom” is “disturbing”.

Academics including Ashutosh Vashney, Ramachandra Guha, Kaushik Basu, Amitabh Mattoo, Sheldon Pollock and Audrey Truschke expressed their disappointment with the University letting go of Mehta and Subramanian.

Political scientist and scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta tendered his resignation as professor from Ashoka University on Tuesday, 16 March. The university had avoided answering a question on whether the resignation was due to Mehta’s criticism of the incumbent government.

Economist Arvind Subramanian resigned from the University as a professor, two days later.

Mehta said that he was doing so after it was made abundantly clear to him that his association with the institution “may be considered a political liability.”

Mehta, in his letter, said that his public writing is perceived to carry risks for the university.

“My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the University. In the interests of the University, I resign.”

“It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka,” Mehta wrote. He also pointed out that a liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish.

“I hope the University will play a role in securing that environment,” he added.

Subramanian’s reason for leaving seems to be in protest of Mehta’s resignation, noting, “that even Ashoka – with its private status and backing by private capital – can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom is ominously disturbing”.

Following is a curation of what prominent academics and scholars from India and abroad have had to say about the controversy.

Ramachandra Guha

Historian Ramachandra Guha slammed Ashoka University and its trustees, accusing it of “spinelessness” and crawling “when asked to bend”, alluding to the curbs on freedom of expression during the Emergency in 1975.

In its journey thus far, Ashoka University had shown much promise. They may have frittered all that away by the spinelessness of their Trustees, who have chosen to crawl when asked to bend.
Ramachandra Guha
‘Spineless’: Academics Slam Ashoka University Over Exits
(Image: Twitter/ Ramachandra Guha)

Ashutosh Varshney

Professor of International Studies at Brown University in the US, Ashutosh Varsheny came down heavily on Ashoka, claiming that the university’s founders treat it as a company rather than an institution of higher learning because of the money invested in it.

Varshney said several leading universities were looking to partner with Ashoka, and this has been jeopardised by Mehta and Subramanaian’s exits.

He added that one of the lead founders of the university had approached him for a potential partnership. “Not possible anymore,” he tweeted.

If Ashoka founders think it was a company because they put so much money in it, let us now talk business. Many in the leading US universities were thinking of developing partnerships with Ashoka and a lead founder came to me for a partnership with Brown. Not possible any more.
Professor of International Studies at Brown University
‘Spineless’: Academics Slam Ashoka University Over Exits
(image: Twitter/Ashutosh Varshney)

Kaushik Basu

Former World Bank chief economist and professor at Cornell University, Kaushik Basu described the developments as “sad news”. In a tweet critical of Ashoka’s perceieved lack of tolerance towards views critical of the ruling administration, Basu stated that intolerance damages creativity.

“The ultimate loser is the nation--its economy and growth,” Basu adds as a cautionary note.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian quitting Ashoka University is sad news. The best minds are combative minds, critical minds. If we can’t tolerate that, we damage creativity. The ultimate loser is the nation--its economy and growth. There are enough examples around the world.
Kaushik basu, Economist and Professor, Cornell University

Sheldon Pollock & Audrey Truschke

US-based Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock, speaking to The Wire, said his “respect for the institution has been seriously tested” by Mehta’s exit.

Describing Mehta as “the university’s foremost scholar and public intellectual,” Pollock said that with his resignation ”my respect for the institution has been seriously tested.”

In a strong statement, he has urged Ashoka’s administration to “provide a full, public, accounting of whatever policies or pressures brought about the circumstances that forced Prof. Mehta’s resignation, and to offer an unequivocal, public repudiation of them,”The Wire reported.

If this is not done, and done soon, he said, “the stain on the university will be indelible, and the support of its most fervent admirers permanently lost.”

Dr Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, echoed Pollock’s statements and tweeted the The Wire report containing Pollock’s statements.

Tweeting a separate report on Mehta and Subramanian’s exit, she tweeted, “What happens when political ideologies are given space to infringe on academic freedoms and the pursuit of freedom and equality for all.”

Amitabh Mattoo

Professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University and in Melbourne, Australia, Amitabh Mattoo also said he concurs with Pollock and said that trustees of the university “must be held accountable and barred from running a higher education institution.”

I agree with Pollock! The trustees must be held accountable and barred from running a higher education institution. Every University lives and works with political pressure; a Vice Chancellor develops the spine to be resilient if her Trustees stand by her.
Amitabh Mattoo, professor, JNU

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