19 September 2014

Academic pawns in political chess games

Elections bring out the worst in people, we are compelled to conclude.  Perhaps, following from that oft-quoted quotable-quote ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’, both power-aspirant and power-holder are either corrupt or are just a shade off corruption that a touch here and there is too tempting.    Naturally, incumbents, having tasted power, fight to keep it.  Their ‘bad’ is more visible and therefore comment-attracting. 

A few years ago we had the Vice Chancellors of several universities openly supporting a candidate.  There’s nothing wrong in this.  Politics is not taboo to academics.  They vote or choose not to vote; and both options are political.  They have their ideological predilections.  They have outcome preferences.  What is wrong is when they let their office be abused or prostituted by political parties and candidates.  That’s what happened four years ago.

None of the Vice Chancellors made it clear that they were offering opinions in their personal capacity.  It was incumbent on them to do so simply because their designations were mentioned. 

They did not correct this error, if indeed they considered it ‘error’.  In that erring they clearly prostituted themselves to the candidate and party of their choice.  We have to conclude, ‘for pragmatic reasons that had everything to do with either gratitude for fillip in career advancement or in anticipation of the same.’  As I observed on that occasion, there’s nothing wrong in furthering career, but it is astounding that many who do “advance” or seek “advancement” are unaware of or ignore the fact that good and solid work is necessarily an impediment.’

Some academics howled in protect on that occasion.  Even a cursory glance at the list of objectors would show that their intentions were as ignoble as those of the said worthies.  Academics endorse parties, candidates and programs.  Nothing wrong in this.  It’s when they add the weight of designation to support extended that things start to smell foul.

 Just the other day we had a ‘repeat’.  It was an event that was marketed in a way that it didn’t scream ‘propaganda’.  It was about the UPFA’s Chief Ministerial candidate in Uva, Sasheendra Rajapaksa.  It was about his contributions to develop the education sector in Uva.  It was not a political rally.  It was more seminar-like.  Among the speakers was the Vice Chancellor, Uva-Wellassa University Dr Premalal De Silva.  De Silva sang the candidate’s praises.
Now, on the face of it, an honest assessment of any program designed and implemented by anyone, is fair game.  However, this was not a random monitoring and evaluation exercise.  It took place in Colombo and therefore one can say ‘it had nothing to do with Uva,’ except of course that the moment an event is covered (all media were invited) and reported on and the ‘news’ hits Uva, it becomes propaganda whether you like it or not.  This was arranged hurriedly.  It was held in the middle of a heated election campaign.  Claiming that this had nothing to do with the Uva election would prompt even the most naïve political commentator to retort ‘go tell it to the mountains!’ 

This is not about whether or not the claims had any base in reality.  Sasheendra’s track record is best known by the electorate and true-assessment will manifest itself in election results.  Early indications are that the development work carried out by the Provincial Council and the Central Government is appreciated.  People are naturally a bit down on account of the drought, but that’s beyond a politician’s control.  The problem is that for all claims to the contrary offered by Prof Ranjith Bandara of the Sri Lanka Foundation and by party stalwart Dullas Alahapperuma, this was a political stunt.  The people of Uva would know what the Chief Ministerial Candidate has done for the education sector if the province; there’s absolutely no purpose in bragging about these to a Colombo audience – not from a purely academic point of view anyway. 

Why only Uva, one could ask.  Why not an overview of all the provinces with all incumbent Chief Minister’s given opportunity to say their respective pieces?  Is this the first of a series that covers all provinces, will the organizers tell us? 

Elections prompt people to use whatever means at disposal to secure whatever advantage there maybe for the taking.  One would be surprised if Sasheendra didn’t avail himself of all opportunities to promote his candidature.  Indeed, that’s what all candidates in all parties do, bar perhaps the JVP which traditionally plays down candidate in favor of the party. 

Sasheendra is not out of order.  He hasn’t broken the law.  Neither have the organizers.  Neither did Dr De Silva.  And yet, all of them have individually and collectively struck a blow against academic integrity, no one as perniciously as Dr De Silva.  He is no baby.  He would have recognized this for what it was: cheap propaganda.  He could have dropped ‘Vice-Chancellor’ so to speak and saved himself some blushes but that is a thought that would cross the minds of only the blush-averse.    

Dr De Silva could have stayed at home.  He might have taken a hit later on if indeed the contention that appointments to high posts in the university system are essentially political decisions, in which case we have just rung up the wrong number.  But one is required to assume certain things about academics, especially Vice-Chancellors given rhetoric about the importance of independence from the dirty politics of parties and electioneering.  In this sense, Dr De Silva has not covered himself in glory.  That’s putting it mildly. He looks puny.  Like a pawn.