In India, a lot of lip service is paid to building world-class universities. However, very little is done in practice. This is especially true for legal education. While several new law universities including National Law Universities (NLUs) have opened in recent years, most are struggling to acquire high-quality faculty, the most important human resource required to build universities.
The liberalization of the Indian economy in 1991 created several new opportunities for law graduates. The boom in corporate practice with hefty pay packages and the emergence of new areas of law saw several bright individuals flocking to study law, ditching traditional streams like engineering, medicine, and commerce. Consequently, new law schools - public and private - mushroomed. These law schools started to offer a five-year law degree, right after school, unlike the traditional three-year LL.B. programme that was pursued after completing a graduate degree. However, the qualitative improvement in the students did not witness a corresponding qualitative growth in the faculty.
The proponents of the NLU model believed that the only task of faculty members was to impart certain vocational skills and information to young law students to enable them to earn a living. The idea that a university is a place for the pursuit of knowledge, which not only imparts skills and information to students but also engages critically with the existing body of knowledge through cutting edge research, was lost to a large extent. The task of law schools became to teach mechanically and encourage rote learning, not to challenge and push the existing boundaries of human knowledge. Consequently, there was no investment in faculty or trying to attract high-quality talent towards teaching.
This viewpoint continues to dominate even today. However, in the last two decades or so, a few individual leaders of law schools have made a brave effort to break away from the model of rote learning and mechanical teaching by endeavouring to allure high-quality faculty members with proven credentials.
The NUJS experiment
Professor Mahendra Pal Singh (popularly known as MP Singh), an internationally acclaimed academician and one of India's foremost constitutional law scholars, became the Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) – one of the top-ranked NLUs - in 2006. NUJS was barely seven years old then. Prof Singh's worldview about legal education was very different from the founders of the NLU model. He believed in making universities intellectually vibrant places. Prof Singh was convinced that no university can become intellectually energetic till it has in its ranks bright and committed minds who would excel in both teaching and research.
Thus, he worked on a mission mode leaving no stone unturned to recruit good quality faculty. He believed in allowing younger people to shine. He recruited the late Prof Shamnad Basheer and Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy as full Professors in 2008 and 2009 respectively when they were in their early 30s. Shamnad was already a very promising name in the field of intellectual property (IP) law in 2008. But those who inhabited the statutory bodies of NUJS had misgivings about him, not because of his qualifications but his age and alleged lack of experience! In Indian academia, the conventional wisdom is that knowledge and skill are directly proportional to age, not to intellect. Prof Singh convinced them that Shamnad, who at that time was yet to complete his PhD at Oxford University, was a terrific scholar. Moreover, the University Grants Commission (UGC) rules allow appointing established scholars as full professors. Thus, Shamnad was appointed as the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) Chair Professor of IP law at NUJS.
He did the same for Sudhir, who at that time was an Assistant Professor at National Law School of India University Bangalore (NLSIU). Eyebrows were raised at the fact that an Assistant Professor was directly recruited as a Professor. But Prof Singh was convinced about the academic qualities of both Shamnad and Sudhir and thus batted for them. Time has proven that he was right. Though the cruel hands of death snatched Shamnad away from us, he is fondly remembered by the entire world as one of the most distinguished scholars of IP law. He also played an instrumental role in bringing diversity to the elite NLUs by unlocking their doors for students from underprivileged sections. Sudhir, at a young age, has become the Vice-Chancellor of NLSIU and is recognized as one of the leading legal academics in India.
Prof Singh often used to talk of VKRV Rao, the visionary economist as well as institution builder who established and built the Delhi School of Economics (DSE). People like Jagdish Bhagwati and Manmohan Singh were made full professors at DSE when they were in their late 20s or early 30s. These gentlemen are today household names, but that was not the case when they were young. Yet, someone with vision saw the spark and ability in them and gave them a platform to prove their worth. Even Prof Upendra Baxi became a full Professor at a very young age.
Prof Singh also recruited several other young academics. Time, once again, has proven that he was right in his decisions about the ability of these young academics. These include Pritam Baruah, Saurabh Bhattacharjee, Chinmayi Arun and Vishwas Devaiah. The students of NUJS who sat in the classrooms of these young academics would vouch for not just their high-quality teaching but also the profound impact these teachers had on their lives and careers. Unlike a typical Vice-Chancellor of a public university who is wedded to bureaucratic technicalities, Singh stood out as a VC who believed in headhunting and actively looking out for bright, talented, and hard-working faculty members.
The establishment of JGLS
Private law schools have generally been perceived as teaching shops. However, the establishment of Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) completely changed this perception. Prof C Raj Kumar, the founding Dean and Vice-Chancellor of JGU, following the footsteps of Prof MP Singh, gave opportunities to bright, young, and talented individuals to serve as faculty members. And these bright and young faculty members haven’t let him down. The contribution of Jindal’s faculty has played a big role in ensuring that JGLS is today ranked 76 in the world and the number one in India by the QS world rankings.
Today, we are witnessing a kind of repeat of the MP Singh model in faculty recruitment at NLSIU. Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy took over as NLSIU's Vice-Chancellor last year and in no time has assembled several rising and established stars of Indian legal academia under one roof. Profs Mrinal Satish, Arun Thiruvengadam, Nigam Nuggehalli, Aparna Chandra and many others are now part of NLSIU. These new faculty members will enhance the academic reputation of NLSIU further with the students being the biggest beneficiary.
In addition to these gallant efforts, the role of Prof Ranbir Singh, the former Vice-Chancellor of National Law University Delhi (NLUD) also needs to be mentioned. He too worked in the direction of bolstering the faculty strength by recruiting some very good academicians – Anup Surendranath, Arul Scaria, Yogesh Pai, and Daniel Mathew to name a few.
Barring these few efforts, the story of Indian law schools when it comes to faculty recruitment, especially in the last two decades or so, has been that of institutionalized mediocrity. While several faculty members are individually doing excellent work at many law schools, the problem lies in not having visionary leaders. Law schools will have to invest massively in faculty recruitment, in their growth and development, and in incentivizing research by streamlining their teaching load, or else India's law schools will remain at the margins of the global legal education ecosystem despite tremendous potential. In the Hindi language, there is a famous saying: "Heere ki parakh sirf johri ko hoti hain" (loosely translated, it means ‘only a jeweller knows the true assay of a diamond’). In Indian legal education, there are several such unpolished diamonds. But sadly, there are very few jewellers who can polish them and ascertain their real worth.
The author will soon join Jindal Global Law School, OP Jindal Global University as a Professor and Vice Dean. He served as a faculty member at NUJS from 2007 to 2009 during the Vice Chancellorship of Professor M P Singh. Views are personal.