NUJS alumnus discusses reasons for the petition to CJI; Says Review Commission must examine “sordid state of affairs” at the law university
Apprentice Lawyer

NUJS alumnus discusses reasons for the petition to CJI; Says Review Commission must examine “sordid state of affairs” at the law university

Anuj Agrawal

Graduates from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS) have petitioned the Chief Justice of India, who is the ex-officio Chancellor of NUJS, to look into the “abysmal fall in standards” at the University. The online petition, a stinging critique of current Vice Chancellor Prof. Ishwara Bhat, also requests the establishment of a Review Commission to look into the administration of the law university.

The petition highlights four alleged lapses on the part of the current administration, including the faculty attrition, failure to effectively deal with charges of sexual harassment made against a member of the administration, and inadequate infrastructure.

In this interview with Bar & Bench, Ashish Arun (Class of ’10) and one time President of the Student Juridical Association explains the reasons behind drafting the petition, the need to build a stronger alumni network, and what current students at NUJS can do to improve the university.

Bar & Bench: Let’s cut right to it. Do you think the Vice Chancellor alone is responsible for the perceived decline in standards at NUJS?

Ashish Arun: While it will be naïve on our part to say that the current Vice Chancellor alone is responsible for the current turn of events at NUJS, however we maintain that he is to be blamed the most. Who else can you blame for refusing to interact with Partners of foreign law firm when they had come to visit NUJS? After all they are sponsoring your moot court competition for four years and you don’t even want to meet them?

Same is the case for research projects. Many alumni members lobby hard for prestigious research projects being sent to their alma mater. And the VC does not even reply to their emails. These projects then go to other national law schools. This is sheer callousness. Then again, in the sexual harassment matter, the victim verbally complained so many times to the VC but then the VC did nothing. When she filed a formal complaint, the VC asked her to reconcile. These things are ridiculous and no one but the VC is to be blamed.

The major part of the petition dealt with faculty with excellent credentials leaving. Now, tell me, if a faculty publicly blames the current VC that he is leaving because he has lost trust in him since he misrepresented his work before the Executive Council, then whom will you blame? Then, there is the fact that [the VC] himself sat on the interview panel to select his own students as Assistant Professor and Associate Professor. These are irrefutable facts.

B&B: Did you contemplate petitioning the Executive Council or the General Council?

AA: This petition will be sent to the Chancellor and all members of the Executive Council and the General Council. The petition prays for immediate appointment of a Review Commission under section 14 of the WBNUJS Act, 1999 [Act 9 of 1999]. Students, alumni, faculty, staff and even the VC can depose before it. Everybody will get a chance to air their views. The VC can defend his actions before this commission.

B&B: Apart from the faculty attrition, one of the problems you have highlighted is the inadequate infrastructure in the girls’ hostel since 2012. What has the administration’s stance been on this for the last two years?

AA: The girls’ hostel issue demanded immediate redressal. The funds from the UGC had already come when the current VC assumed office in late 2011. If construction would have started in 6 months from then, things would have neared completion by now. However, every time we get to hear new stories from current students. Once, they say that the VC has promised a new hostel altogether and now he seems to have promised additional floors over the faculty quarters. Batches graduate out but the situation remains the same.

B&B: Apart from this petition, do you plan to take any other steps?

AA: Through the petition, we are only requesting the Chancellor to form a Review Commission. As concerned members of the alumni, we believe that we are only asking for a mechanism that is fair and reasonable. As per the NUJS Act, a Review Commission is to be set up after every five years. NUJS was set up in 1999. Till date, no Review Commission has been set up. So, we are only seeking enforcement of an unutilized provision, nothing else.

B&B: Do you think the alumni should be taking a more proactive role or is it better to let the current students decide the method of dealing with the current administration?

AA: Any institution that has risen to prominence today has done so on the basis of the contributions made by the alumni. Unfortunately, the national law schools (and most certainly NUJS) have not been able to effectively tap into the vast pool of talent and other resources that alumni can offer. Funds, mentorships, networking, connections – alumni is instrumental in varied things and it all depends on dynamic leaders to know how to utilize them. However, alumni associations are the weakest links of all NLUs’ and hopefully, a common cause like this will strengthen the alumni network and provide for a better engagement with the university in the future.

To answer your question directly, when it comes to matters of day to day administration, the current students are better placed. But with long term policy matters, the current students will be benefited by the wisdom of their seniors who have graduated and are now in the profession.

Bar & Bench: While the Review Commission may or may not take be constituted, do you think there is anything that the current students can do to improve the situation?

AA: The current students can do a lot to remedy the situation by being more vocal about their issues. By this I mean not only the Student Juridical Association, but also students who don’t hold any position in the student body. For instance, the issue regarding the Vice Chancellor being silent about the sexual harassment charges against a staff member could have been resolved easily if the students would have been more vocal about its demand. Similar is the demand for good faculty who have the experience of learning in leading universities abroad. If students in unison do it, their demands will be heard sooner. The administration sits up and takes serious notice when students in unison approach them. It will be student activism at its best. Law students in most leading NLUs’ have been quite meek when it comes to challenging authority and the status quo. We expect the current students to do much better to stand up for their rights. First, they need to stand up to mis-governance as a matter of principle – after all, it is their institution. Second, any protest like this one is also purely in their self interest – if NUJS’ reputation dips, it affects their future very directly.

Apart from this, students should demand for permanent positions in the Executive Council, Academic Council and the Finance Council of the University. Alert students should also point out that Review Commissions be always constituted after every five years as per their normal course as mandated by the NUJS Act.

You can see Prof. Bhat’s response below:

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The full text of the petition is given below:

To

The Hon’ble Chancellor of NUJS and the Chief Justice of India,

Respected Sir,

Subject: Loss of confidence in the Vice Chancellor and request for urgent redressal

We introduce ourselves as the alumni of the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata. Out of immense concern for our beloved alma mater, we request you to intervene on a matter of serious urgency and concern.

Of late, you may have seen several media reports which point to various instances of unrest at NUJS. After speaking with several recent graduates, few faculty members and current students, we have verified many of these reports and are compelled to write to you about the sordid state of affairs in our alma mater. Unfortunately, we can no longer remain mute spectators to the abysmal fall in standards of our beloved University. The present set of circumstances lead us to seriously doubt the efficacy of the current leadership in retaining the academic edge that NUJS had built over the last several years.

Although there are a multitude of compelling reasons for us to seek your intervention, we restrict ourselves to a few of the most important ones below;

Faculty Retention and Fresh Appointments:

In the immediate aftermath of the change in leadership at NUJS (the current VC took charge on 01.12.2011), a disturbing trend of faculty attrition has been observed, owing to which current students have been deprived of learning from reputed and highly qualified faculty members. Over the past two years, more than ten distinguished faculty members have either left their positions for other offers or are on leave for higher studies or other commitments. We annex herewith a list of faculty members that have effectively left the University (including those on leave) and this list (link available at bit.ly/1dCZGuJ) is marked as ANNEXURE A. Not only are our students deprived of high quality education, as promised to them, the University’s reputation has also taken a severe beating with this high level of attrition. The recent hires at the University do not match up to the earlier hires, in terms of quality or reputation. Illustratively, a chart demonstrating the difference in the quality of intake of faculty during the tenure of the earlier Vice Chancellor (Prof. M.P. Singh) and the present Vice Chancellor (Prof. P. Ishwara Bhat) is outlined (link available athttp://bit.ly/1eKPhzn) in ANNEXURE B.

The response of the current leadership to this mass exodus of faculty has been a nonchalant “Wherever higher positions are available, [faculty] will go. That is something that cannot be prevented.” (The link is available athttp://bit.ly/1dgbAzQ).While this is true and is something that may not be prevented unless a faculty has other compulsions to remain there, however there are many instances where teachers have left NUJS for the same positions elsewhere or even lower to which they were holding. Illustratively, an Assistant Professor recently resigned to join NLU Delhi without pay protection. Given that he joined NUJS in 2009, foregoing pay protection and seniority at NLU Delhi essentially means that he would have to start back at the bottom of the academic pecking order. More recently, a Chair Professor, who is renowned the world over for his contributions in the field of Intellectual Property law, was severely victimized by the current Vice Chancellor (VC) for questioning his various policies and taking issue with the fall in academic standards. His leave application (on grounds of his fathers’ terminal illness) was vehemently opposed on a misrepresentation by the VC to the Executive Council. He therefore put in his papers, without even searching for an alternative job. We attach his resignation letter made public by a legal blog (link available athttp://bit.ly/1ahe12L) as ANNEXURE C.

This apart, during the last round of faculty recruitments, one promising Indian scholar from Netherlands had applied for the post of Assistant Professor. Subsequently, he requested for a Skype interview since he could not travel to Kolkata at a short notice. This request was turned down and thereafter he joined IIT Delhi. In his defense, the VC has stated that a Skype call could not replace a classroom (demo) presentation and hence he rejected the proposal. However, during those round of faculty interviews, there were no classroom presentations given by any of the candidates and what is worse, the past practice of presenting a paper before the entire faculty was also discontinued. Without casting any aspersion, it is pertinent to note that while this scholar from the Netherlands was not considered for the post (since his Skype interview was refused), a former student of the VC was appointed as Assistant Professor. The profiles of both these candidates are attached herewith asANNEXURE D (link available at http://hss.iitd.ac.in/content/dr-naveen-thayyil) andANNEXURE (link available at http://nujs.edu/faculty/mp-chengappa.html). We are also given to believe that the Hon’ble Vice Chancellor sat in on the selection committee which appointed two of his former students (to whom he served as PhD guide) to the position of Assistant Professor and Associate Professor. We are given to believe that he failed to disclose this conflict of interest to the Executive Council which ratified the appointments.

Although some vacancies were filled up, the widespread feeling that one gets is that the teachers currently recruited are no match for the ones that have left. This has led to severe resentment amongst the students. Further, NUJS’ reputation in the legal circles, particularly potential recruiters where many alumni members now work has taken a huge beating. It is therefore no surprise that many teachers who were slated to join NUJS have refused to do so. For instance, a DPhil graduate from Oxford University who was supposed to join NUJS after coming back from there joined NLU Delhi in stead of NUJS. In his interview to Times of India, he has stated, “Initially, I accepted the offer but my conversation with the present authorities did not assure me of the kind of teaching-learning freedom that NLU Delhi was willing to offer me, so I decided for the latter.”A news item documenting this is attached herewith asANNEXURE F (link available at http://bit.ly/1gFEybp). Seeing the state of affairs, those who were on study leave, have also refused to come back to their parent institution.

Due to the vacancies, existing teachers are compelled to double up for courses that are not their area of specialization or are overburdened with too many courses. Further, LLM candidates are also being forced to teach full courses. This is further hurting the students’ interests and the larger goal of providing world-class legal education.

Infrastructure:

In early 2012, the student body drew the attention of the Executive Council of NUJS to the plight of the students living in the girls’ hostel, where they were cramped into extremely small spaces without adequate infrastructure. The administration had promised swift remedial measures in the form of construction of additional floors. However, till date nothing has been done and money sanctioned by the UGC has not been put to use.

Dealing with Charges of Sexual Harassment:

In a recent case involving an allegation of sexual harassment by one employee against another, the victim accused the VC of being soft on the complainant, as her repeated verbal complaints were ignored. In her letter to your office and to all EC members, she stated that she had verbally complained 4 times to the VC. This was also documented in a recent media report in India Today (media report available athttp://bit.ly/19f9oaK and also annexed as ANNEXURE G) wherein the victim detailed out the difficulties she faced in getting the accused to book. As a head of a national law school teaching gender justice, swift and effective redressal of the dispute should have been the norm.

Non-Responsive To Emails and University Guests:

An annual moot court competition on corporate law sponsored by a prominent international law firm was instituted with the help of several alumni members. However, owing to the shoddy manner in which the partners of this law firm were treated by the Vice Chancellor when they visited NUJS, the budget for this moot was effectively halved. This not only affected the moot court competition but also NUJS’ image in the international law firm circuit where members of the alumni have over the years built a strong and credible reputation. On enquiry, it was learnt that similar instances of shoddy treatment were meted out to different organizations that were keen on offering research projects to NUJS. Many of their emails were not even responded to by the VC. This led to these projects being offered to other national law schools.

Most of the above mentioned information was obtained after a rigorous enquiry by several members of the alumni to ascertain the veracity of the various reports in this regard. It is indeed sad that an institution as reputed as NUJS which attracted some of the best faculty, students and recruiters in the past is fast losing its edge. The perception gaining ground is that other national law schools with dynamic and visionary leaders are fast catching up, while we are losing ground.

Right from its inception, NUJS had always been led by pioneering legal luminaries such as Prof. Madhava Menon and Prof. M.P. Singh. The past Vice Chancellors’ had the required academic vision and capability to attract leading faculty the world over by offering appropriate incentives and creating a stimulating research and teaching environment. Little wonder then that within a short period of 10 years, NUJS rose in prominence to take its place as one of the best law schools in the country today. Unfortunately, it took a mere two years for the current leadership to plunge NUJS into a free fall of decline. This tenure has been marked by an alarming exodus of good quality faculty and a drastic fall in academic standards

It is for these reasons that we humbly request your urgent intervention As a first step, may we please request you to initiate an enquiry into the present situation at NUJS and propose immediate redressal measures.

May we also request you to please appoint a Review Commission under section 14 of the WBNUJS Act, 1999. The Review Commission contemplated under the WBNUJS Act states that such a commission should be set up after every five years by the Chancellor. To the best of our knowledge, no such Review Commission was set up in the more than fourteen years of NUJS’ existence.

Lastly, we request you to please direct the VC to convene a meeting of the Executive Council at the earliest, to examine these matters with the urgency that they deserve.

We are extremely hopeful that being the Chancellor, you will initiate urgent remedial steps to stem this steep decline in quality at an institution widely acknowledged as a leading site of legal education and scholarship.

Thanking you,

(On behalf of the below mentioned alumni of NUJS)

Yours sincerely,

[Your Name]

Cc: All members of the General Council and the Executive Council

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