Why Ashoka Must Introspect — and Follow Proven Liberal Arts Models

What is the way forward for Ashoka University, given the current circumstances? Professor Amitabh Mattoo weighs in.

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When the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel wrote his widely-read book, What Money Can’t Buy?, he was seeking answers on how to prevent markets and their questionable morality from intruding into every sphere of our life.

India’s Ashoka University today represents a case study for a future edition of this short but remarkably accessible book. And ironically, Sandel himself is signatory to an international petition from a large number of accomplished academics expressing distress at the manner in which Ashoka University’s ‘star’ Professor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, was forced to resign from his position.

As ‘whistle-blowers’ begin to leak details, evidence suggests that Mehta’s departure may only be a tiny part of the rot that seems to have set in, in this almost brand new university.

Ashoka University’s Rise In Eminence

Setting up a private university is never easy, and outside of the Ivy Leagues and the private liberal arts colleges in the US, most higher education institutions — even in the West — are public-funded. Apart from higher education being seen as a public good, there is no real timeline of a Return on Investment (RoI) in a university. Thus, almost all private initiatives in India, with a few notable exceptions, have floundered or are run by fly-by-night operators.

But founded less than ten years ago, Ashoka University’s rise in eminence has been spectacular, as it projected itself as India’s leading private liberal arts university: where students would eventually become critical thinkers and real leaders of change, and where the holistic education provided would compete with the best in the world.

Indeed, Ashoka attracted star faculty from all over the world, with handsome salaries, and charged fees (unimaginable in India even a few years ago) from parents desperate to gift their children the possibilities of an Ivy League education (at still a fraction of the cost).

The founders, we were told, were mostly self-made Indian millionaires wanting to give back – a philanthropic tradition suggesting that they wanted neither name nor fame nor money for investing in this dream project for the future of India.


Ashoka’s Moral Limits & Business Model

With the proliferation of university ranking systems (almost competing with the TRP ratings of TV shows), and with cleverly-designed marketing strategies (which — to paraphrase Bob Dylan — could make you believe ‘that you could win at Ashoka what's never been won’), it did seem that the university’s founders had struck gold in the arid margins of an ever-extendable National Capital Region (NCR).

Tragically, however, the moral limits of Ashoka were slowly becoming evident to discerning academics from public universities.

Ashoka was no higher education equivalent of Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s Rishi Valley, steadfast in its commitment to the founding principles of a great thinker, but set up by hard-nosed business men and women who knew little or nothing about higher education — especially the liberal arts — but knew a lot about balance sheets and private sector HR practices.

Its teaching staff had the illusions of tenure but worked on a hire-and-fire model; the founders had not just given a carte blanche, but wanted a sustainable business model; and the jury was still out on whether its alumni were really as competitive or innovative in the real world as the best from other universities (after paying more than 10 times what they would pay at say St Stephen’s or Miranda House).


Resignations at Ashoka Uni — An Epiphany, An Awakening

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation was however an epiphany: an awakening that Ashoka was a little more than fine brick-and-mortar built on the fragile claims of academic power, but basically operated on a daily wage-contactor model.

Without getting into the details that have been splashed all over the media, the mirage is over.

Why Ashoka Should Follow Time-Tested Liberal Arts Education Models In India

The reality is that Ashoka has to be rescued from its own founders. 

And the only way forward for it is to follow the time-tested models that contemporary India’s two most successful liberal arts institutions have to offer. They are Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the research-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Two very different, yet very similar institutions.

JNU was set up at the unique moment of Indira Gandhi’s intellectual flirtation with the Communists; and CSDS was set up by a small group of remarkably innovative thinkers, led by the political scientist Rajni Kothari, who had only one idea in common: the search for alternatives, which they thrashed out every day at lunch in the small garden of the office at Rajpur road.


The JNU Model

Both institutions thought big and talked small. JNU was the ultimate exercise in ‘Vipassanā’: it dressed you down to your soul. You questioned all orthodoxies, even your own self, until you became a family of seekers. No one talked about the quality of hostels, food, library or other infrastructure. The family of teachers, students and staff debated ideas seamlessly from classrooms, to the wilderness of the Aravalis, without inhibition or hierarchy.

Ashoka’s faculty and promoters need to demonstrate that they are engaged with the world of ideas, rather than providing the ‘best teaching’ and state-of-the-art infrastructure to an elite group.

JNU set trends, created an intellectual fashion that did not follow a Sorbonne or a Berkeley. It grew organicaly like the ideas that germinated within the campus. There were leaders and dissenters who helped to create genuine social diversity and ideas for change (that influenced, for instance, the JP movement and the fight against the Emergency) — not just elite coolness.


Why Ashoka & Its Leaders Must Continue to Introspect

Universities need academic champions who are convinced about the whole philosophy, and this has to percolate eventually to all, even the contrarians. They have to grow together.

Ultimately, Ashoka and its leaders have to continuously introspect and evolve. That is the only way Ashoka can redeem itself and keep the faith. If only building an academic institution was as easy as selling a product or an internet application.

(Amitabh Mattoo is a Professor at JNU and the University of Melbourne. Until recently, he was the Chair of Miranda House, University of Delhi. He tweets @amitabhmattoo. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Delhi University   JNU   Pratap Bhanu Mehta 

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