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Professor C. Raj Kumar currently heads the Jindal Global Law School (JGLS). In this interview with Bar & Bench, Prof. C Raj Kumar talks about his journey from a New York law firm to building a law school in India, the reason why JGLS charges the fees it does, and his thoughts on Indian legal education, scholarship and research.
Bar & Bench: First a bit about yourself. You studied at Loyola College, Madras and then Campus Law Centre, Delhi. From there you won a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford and then Harvard. Then you started working at law firm in New York. When did you make the shift to academics and why the shift?
Prof. C Raj Kumar: This was in 2001, a year after working in a corporate law firm in New York. Essentially, the idea of joining academia was something which occurred to me after studying at Oxford and Harvard. I was inspired by what I saw there and I realised the importance of academia and knowledge creation.
After that New York was an important experience where I got to meet some interesting people at New York University where I was visiting Fellow. Then I got to go to Japan where I was doing some research and teaching in Tokyo. Thereafter, I got my full fledged faculty position in City University, Hong Kong in 2002.
Bar & Bench: And what were you teaching there?
C Raj Kumar: Well my core area of specialisation is in human rights. I was teaching a number of courses in Hong Kong. As a young law academic, you get to teach common law subjects such as tort law and contract law. But in addition to this, my area of interest and specialisation was human rights. So I taught a course on law of human rights and civil liberties. Another course which I taught to the JD students in particular, on human rights development and governance.
Bar & Bench: What triggered the interest in human rights though? Was it law school?
C Raj Kumar: Absolutely. The Law Faculty at Campus Law Centre had people such as Prof. MP Singh, Prof Pandey etc and they significantly shaped my own thinking about constitutional law, comparative law, human rights and the importance of law as an instrument of social change. At Oxford as well, I specialised in human rights. I took a course on comparative human rights, jurisprudence and political theory, and crime, justice and the penal system. These are the courses which shaped my thinking on issues related to human rights, criminal justice, and public law in general.
Bar & Bench: So how did you end up at a corporate law firm in New York?
C Raj Kumar: That’s a really good question (smiles). So after specialising in human rights at Harvard, I did not get a job! I was looking at human rights NGOs in the US and I could not get a single job. And the reason is very simple: In the US, in particular,jobs in the field of human rights and NGOs are very difficult for foreigners because they [the NGO] needs to sponsor the H1B1 visa which is expensive. But when it comes to NGOs, their choice is to either hire Americans or Green Card-holders, so it is a purely economic decision. So while my interest lay in the field of human rights, I could not get a job in this field.
Bar & Bench: But where would you fit in a corporate law firm?
C Raj Kumar: Well, so within the law firm I tried to work in areas where my interest lay, which is beyond the core aspect of corporate law. But that was why I was not a great fit; I quit in a year’s time. But even while working there I was thinking about how do we transform Indian [educational] institutions. After my Harvard and Oxford experience, I really felt that we are doing something fundamentally wrong in the way we are shaping our higher education institutions. And that fundamentally wrong aspect was connected to the fact that we have not been able to create institutions which inspire our students, institutions which can produce rigorous academic research, institutions which are engaged in the task of knowledge creation, and institutions which are involved in the building of a nation.
Bar & Bench: In 2001, these thoughts were already in your head-
C Raj Kumar: Well these thoughts were taking shape in 1998 during my time in Oxford but after graduating from these institutions, I began reading about higher education in the US. I wanted to understand the growth and development of some of the top universities in the US. I was particularly interested in Harvard, Yale, Stanford and NYU because all four of them were private universities created through philanthropic initiatives. And NYU was particularly interesting since it was not a very great university some years back. Within a span of 2-3 decades, the then-Dean (later President) of NYU, John Sexton and a number of others got involved in the transformation of NYU from a relatively mediocre university to one of the top universities in the world.
Bar & Bench: So back in 1998 itself, you were thinking of setting up a law school?
C Raj Kumar: I was dreaming. It was a pipe dream then.
Bar & Bench: But what was this pipe dream then?
C Raj Kumar: The pipe dream then was to create a Harvard or a Yale type university in India which would be multi-disciplinary, have a strong research focus, faculty from around the world, should be able to create knowledge, produce research etc.
Bar & Bench: And this was always limited to India? You were not thinking about, say South-East Asia?
C Raj Kumar: That’s correct. I always had India in mind. I am an Indian, born and brought up here, studied here and I connect to India. India leaves such a strong, indelible impression not only on those from outside the country but on us Indians as well. [India] might have all these problems that we have to deal with but precisely because of that you want to try and resolve it. And that is exactly what I wanted to do.
But back then I was not ready to come to India because I still wanted to explore other areas. I wanted to understand how [such universities] were built around the world. So after my studies and work in NYU, I moved to Japan where I was teaching. I was particularly interested in three universities in Japan: the University of Tokyo, the Keio University and the Waseda University. And here I saw same points which I saw at Oxford and Harvard: the importance of scholarship, publications and research; the role of faculty members and their own contributions in inspiring students and the classroom engagement and the importance of knowledge creation and that effecting social change.
And then the relationship between academia and industry, government, non-governmental organisations etc.
Bar & Bench: Like a policy-making institute or at least one which affects policy?
C Raj Kumar: Exactly! The institute should not only generate ideas but also create and cover new grounds. Because at the end of the day, the academic rigour and the academic framework that institutions have should be used for the advancement of society.
Now in hard sciences, in engineering and medicine, the impact is much larger and much easier to quantify. But the role of social sciences is something which we need to [work on]. Unfortunately, we have moved into a situation where there is mediocrity institutionalised across our social science institutions.
Bar & Bench: So in 2002, you shifted to Hong Kong. What happened to that pipe dream?
C Raj Kumar: So that pipe dream continued in the sense I was talking, engaging and understanding. Then I moved to Hong Kong in 2002 August as a faculty member in the School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong. And this was a transformative experience. The reason I say that is because instead of looking at different institutions, I was working in an institution.
Hong Kong is this small, little city in Asia with eight Universities, four of which are in the top 100 in the world and the rest are in the top 200. And of course Hong Kong is also unique in other senses of attracting people from around the world. It has an intellectually vibrant environment; it paid faculty members probably the highest salaries in the world. It had the probably the lowest tax base, so it was attractive for people from all around the world.
The point I am trying to make is that those years shaped my thinking about the idea of a global university in India. I began writing a paper in 2005-06 envisaging the idea of a global university with four different schools. Although the law school was the first school but the idea was to create a multi-disciplinary university with a business school, a school of international affairs and a school of government and public policy.
Bar & Bench: And eventually you met Mr. Naveen Jindal and things just worked out?
C Raj Kumar: See that is also a critical part of the story because I was looking to create a university within the private domain and India, private is pejorative. This is primarily because of the fact that over 90% of private institutions in India are largely mediocre, commercial, profit making endeavours.
Bar & Bench: But what is wrong with being profit making?
C Raj Kumar: Well I don’t believe that good education in any part of the world which is from the leading universities in the world could be profit making because what is fundamentally involved in a profit-making endeavour, what counts in a profit making endeavour is connected with volume and quality.
Bar & Bench: But Harvard, for instance, is one of the richest universities in the world.
C Raj Kumar: Yes but that is non-profit. See when we say non-profit; what we mean is that the income that is earned by the university cannot be divested by either the donor or the corporation. Harvard, like you mentioned is a private university. The donors are all people who have donated money through philanthropic endeavours.
The problem with a profit making endeavour is the fact that you measure things differently within an organisational context. For instance, faculty-student ratio is an important aspect for good institutions. But if you look at profit making endeavours in the context of efficiency, you have to look at fewer people who end up doing work. And that “more work” is measured in more student enrolments. But that is not how higher education ought to be assessed.
The impact that education has on the society at large to be able to liberate minds and to be able to create a society which values education is a hugely subjective aspect of a societal growth. This cannot be and should not be measured in those terms. So that is my problem with a profit-making endeavour.
For me, the profit-making endeavour is not connected to the fees that one charges although that is connected to access to education. But profit-making is connected to the fact that whatever money that any donor or philanthropist contributes cannot be taken out of the University. Whatever income generated through the university ought to be reinvested for the growth and development of the university including its faculty, its students and its staff. That is what is non-profit.
Bar & Bench: So with these ideas you met Mr. Jindal. What did you tell him?
C Raj Kumar: So basically I spent a year persuading Mr. Jindal. I essentially told him that I wanted him to do three things: First of all, I wanted him to give Rs. 500 crore, secondly I wanted him to do that in a non-profit manner and thirdly I wanted him to give me academic freedom, functional autonomy and operational independence. I could connect with him and talk to him in a very candid manner. And he is very sharp. I basically wanted him to be the John Harvard of India, the Leland Stanford of India. I told him about Li Ka Shing and the South-Asian experiences which shaped philanthropy in higher education. And towards the end of 2007, he was convinced about it and he said “You know what? I will do all these things. Come over and take this over”.
Bar & Bench: In January 2008, you shifted and started working on the University. And your first batch of law students was accepted in?
C Raj Kumar: That was in 2009. Between April 2008 and December 2008, we were acquiring land, doing the land conversion from agricultural to institutional, formulating the course curriculum, the structure, faculty recruitment, research agendas, launching journals and recruiting students etc. We had to get the Haryana government to pass the required legislation, go through 10 different committees within the legislative process, obtain permission from the Bar Council of India etc. All of that was done in a span of 6-8 months.
Bar & Bench: When you planned the timeframe for this, did you ever look at it and have a bit of a laugh?
C Raj Kumar: Yes (laughs). You are absolutely right. When we were putting the timeframe in March 2008, we had many versions of the timeframe and even the most ambitious timeframe showed that there was no way that we would have a campus built and students and faculty/staff with classes expecting to be starting in 2009. It was crazy, it was outrageous, unbelievable. It was just not supposed to happen.
Bar & Bench: That is probably why it did happen.
C Raj Kumar: I guess so. I mean in the normal course of things, in the logical framework within which things could happen, even in a fast track manner, this was, I would say, magical.
Just to give you an idea: without the legislation, we cannot recruit the faculty, get students or even begin construction. But then for that legislation to happen, we need to do so many things. In every permutation and combination; it was just not supposed to happen.
But then, as I said, I am even more convinced that nothing is impossible and that if you really want to work towards an objective, there will be a lot of people who will come together and help you get there.
Bar & Bench: In 2009, you started with 110 students in the law program (both 3 and 5-year programs). Why did you choose to offer both the programs?
C Raj Kumar: I was looking at different models [of legal education]. The US model of offering a JD has become the norm and increasingly law schools around the world are adopting the graduate model. So Melbourne University, for example, scrapped their LLB undergraduate program and started a JD program. Now this is a 100-year old law school. We have law schools in Hong Kong, UK, Australia etc. are moving towards JD either as a graduate only degree or along with their undergraduate degree.
Bar & Bench: So do you see the 3-year program becoming more preferred?
C Raj Kumar: The answer to that question is “It depends”. We are creating a new found-interest among people who have studied sociology, political science, economics etc. These are people who have done their undergraduate and now want to do law. And this is a new area which we are building.
I mean pedagogically, one of the big challenges for any 5-year program is unfortunately the enthusiasm of our law schools to begin the study of law early on. In my view that is not good because of the fact that [I think] law in any society ought to be studied in a social context.
Bar & Bench: But that was why the LLB was combined with a BA degree. Do you think this is ineffective?
C Raj Kumar: Well, let us be very fair about this. The “BA” component of the BA LLB degree is not what it ought to be and nor can it be what it is expected to be.
Bar & Bench: Well that is a bit of a diplomatic answer-
C Raj Kumar: No, look at the reality of it. A person is studying 3 years undergraduate and you need 3 years of dedicated study of law. So that is a total of six years.
In fact I have spoken to Professor Menon about this, and he is absolutely clear on this that the BA LLB was never envisaged to be a BA plus an LLB. The BA degree was part of the regulatory framework to ensure a smooth connection between the undergraduate and the law degree.
So that is why it is extremely problematic as an idea that you study 3 years of BA LLB and then get a BA [degree]. That doesn’t make sense at all because you actually studied law in your BA LLB from the 2nd year onwards. That means for 2 semesters you are studying BA and that also, I can tell you, many law schools are trying to infuse law even earlier, as if it is actually good. And even the so-called BA is taught within the context of law.
Bar & Bench: How is JGLS different?
C Raj Kumar: Well, we are part of the larger system. We need to follow the rules and mandate of the Bar Council of India. To the extent that it is possible, we deal with this issue by adding electives. Another area where we do a lot is to take our non-law subjects very seriously. Unlike most law schools we treat our non-law faculty in par with our law faculty.
Bar & Bench: What kind of students would you like JGLS to produce?
C Raj Kumar: Well frankly I would like our students to be well grounded in the study of law but at the same time, we want them to understand the law in a social context. I do believe that we cannot build great lawyers in this country if we do not have a social context. But there are a number of smaller projects that we are initiating. One of the things which we are trying to address is, and I don’t know how much successful we will be, how can we diversify the legal practice. If you look at the top law schools in this country, statistics show that over 80-85% of the students, are essentially going to corporate law firms or jobs connected to transactional work-
Bar & Bench: But that is not necessarily a bad thing is it?
C Raj Kumar: Absolutely not. I do believe that students should make their own choices when it comes to their careers and they should be able to go wherever they want to.
The issue that I have is [in India] we have approximately 1.3 million lawyers, with nearly 1,000 law schools producing around 60,000-70,000 law graduates every year. Now there is a very strong opinion that the quality of the Bar and the Bench, over the years, has deteriorated significantly. This deterioration is primarily due to the fact that there is a lot of mediocrity that is coming into litigation. How can we expect to improve the quality of the Bar and the Bench if the quality of the lawyers does not improve?
And how can that happen if the best and brightest of our graduating class across the top law schools of the country (over 80% of them) are not entering into the legal profession of litigation? At the same time, we need to provide liberal education which means that students make their own choices. So what we are trying to do is to try and inspire our students to the extent possible, that there are a lot of such opportunities. Now I strongly believe that law schools can play a very significant role in this.
Bar & Bench: Why did you choose LSAT as an entrance exam?
C Raj Kumar: When we call ourselves a “global” university or a “global” law school, we were very conscious of the fact that we wanted to formulate a selection process that is trans-national in nature. In the years and decades to come, we see a situation where students around the world are in a position to be able to come and study here. For that to happen, one of the primary issues is the admission or selection process.
We cannot afford to have an admissions process that is parochial in nature, which looks at only one country’s situation. So one of the major problems of most other tests is the fact that they only look at Indian history, Indian law etc. This, in my view, is a very myopic in nature to say the least. So what was attractive about LSAT was that it was trans-national in nature, the questions were connected to analytical reasoning, English language where a student situated in any part of the world can take the test and come here. That was the main reason why we decided to use LSAT.
Bar & Bench: The law program at JGLS is quite expensive even when compared to other law schools. Do you think that is a fair statement to make?
C Raj Kumar: You know any discussion about fees should be based upon objective criteria. So if you look at, for example, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad which charges approximately Rs. 27 lakh for a 9-month program. We charge approximately Rs. 5.2 lakhs for one year for the law school and [a law school such as] NLU-D would charge probably half of what we do.
We are totally outside the governmental framework and we do not get any funds from the government. The infrastructure that we have here is expensive. We provide significantly higher salaries to our faculty, our expenditure is greater.
If we were to charge a fee that would take care of our expenditure, we should be charging fees similar to that of ISB. But we are charging five times less than ISB because of the fact that we are subsidized. However, we also believe that we need to, in due course, become self-sufficient as an institution and not depend on any particular donor and that is why it is important to charge a fee that is reasonable in nature. But we also realise that these [high] fees affect access to education-
Bar & Bench: How do you plan to address this issue of “access”?
C Raj Kumar: We have come up with a number of measures. One, almost 70% of our students are studying with some form of scholarship or the other including some 100% scholarships.
The significant amount of scholarship is also connected to our founding vision. When I went to Oxford, I did not spend one rupee to study there. When I went to Harvard, I did not spend one rupee to study there. I have a number of friends who went to these institutions and who could go there because they were given scholarships.
I personally think that it needs to be both. For those who can afford it, the institution should charge them and those who cannot afford it the institution should be able to provide support.
Bar & Bench: You gave the example of Harvard charging high fees. But now in the US there is a growing concern that you do not get your “money’s worth” from an expensive legal education.
C Raj Kumar: That is a good point. For instance when Elena Kagan was dean of HLS, one of the big things which they did was precisely to address the issue you just raised. They started a very innovative scholarship scheme: the third year of tuition is entirely waived off if you are ready to make a commitment to be engaged in public service for 5 years after graduation.
Far too many students are coming out of these schools with huge loans to pay, the jobs they get are not necessarily helping them pay the loan or if they are, then they are very much corporate centric, law firm jobs which may not be the interests of the student and also may not be in the best interest of the institution.
So they end up in a situation where these law schools decided “We want to promote public interest, we want to promote pro bono work”-
Bar & Bench: Do you see something like that happening at JGLS as well?
C Raj Kumar: Absolutely.
See ultimately, society has to bear this burden. Education is expensive. We want to reach a stage, at least in the next ten years, where say 30 or 40% of our students don’t pay anything. The ideal situation in, say a 100 years, the entire student body should not pay even a single rupee to study here because society has to bear it and for that philanthropy has to expand.
Bar & Bench: What is a typical day for a student at JGLS?
C Raj Kumar: To begin with obviously, the core aspect of an educational institution such as ours is teaching. So students are involved in the classroom context from the morning. But then the classroom itself takes quite a dynamic process. Of course we emphasize a lot on the study of Indian law through the lens of both international comparative and foreign law. Given the fact that nearly 40% of our faculty are foreigners, the nature of teaching that takes place in the classroom is quite different.
Our faculty is encouraged to provide electives, which start from the second year onwards, which provide knowledge of law from a much broader perspective. For example we have a faculty member who teaches an elective called “Revenge”. Even if you look at the regular electives in most institutions, these electives are an extension of the core papers.
We have taken efforts to develop electives which are much beyond the regular courses. And that means our students have a much broader perspective. We offered an elective called “Psychology and Law”. We offered an elective on American law where a professor from Yale Law School spent an entire semester teaching here.
Bar & Bench: I am guessing that the readings for such courses must be quite a bit?
C Raj Kumar: Oh definitely. I must tell you that while we expect students to read and come prepared for these classes, like every other institution, our students don’t read as much as they should. It is a work in progress.
The classroom exercise becomes an enriching experience if you come prepared for the class. I have to be very frank with you on this issue: our students, like those in other institutions in the country, have to do a lot more than they are currently doing. Of course, some students do read and come but there are some students who don’t. They are hoping that the effective teaching that takes place within the classroom can take care of the course, which is not a good thing to do.
Bar & Bench: Are students encouraged to research and publish?
C Raj Kumar: Absolutely. This is something we need to develop here in India and we cannot afford to just talk about volume; we need to have a stronger academic rigour.
There is something fundamentally wrong about the fact that some of the leading journals in this country are not part of an electronic database. I mean when we launched Jindal Global Law Review, we were the only law journal in the whole country which was part of the Lexis Nexis electronic database.
Why are prestigious institutions such as NUJS not part of Lexis Nexis? Now why is this important? How would the community of scholars around the world refer to, cite, and be able to connect with the institution. If someone in Pappua New Guinea wants to know about an aspect of Indian law, where would s/he refer to?
Bar & Bench: With respect to your students, what is your opinion of them?
C Raj Kumar: Well like any new institution, in the first year, the quality of the students will have a more diversified framework. But I must say that in the last 3 years, I have found our students, in terms of overall diversity and their own ability to think independently, quite extraordinary. But what I also noticed is that those students who joined us in 2009, who have gone through the rigour, have also significantly advanced in their own perspective.
What is so great about a situation where the best of the best are coming into an institution and they graduate with flying colours? What have you done in impacting their lives and their perspectives?
Bar & Bench: In terms of faculty, you give them complete freedom in terms of course development. Do you see this changing at any point in the future?
C Raj Kumar: Well academic freedom is the hallmark of any great institution-
Bar & Bench: But don’t you think that too much freedom is a bad thing?
C Raj Kumar: I was going to come to that. All freedom comes with responsibility. So we have a faculty board within which we have a teaching allocation committee. It is a faculty led effort whereby the teaching allocation committee, in consultation with the Dean of Academic Affairs, determines the entire framework.
Bar & Bench: What do you think attracts good faculty?
C Raj Kumar: I think if I were to identify why some of the best minds come and join us it is because there are a good number of people who are strongly interested in academia and in contributing to teaching and research. Unfortunately in our country, we have not been able to do enough to not only inculcate that interest but also to promote, capitalise and support that interest.
We spend a lot of our time in identifying people and to share with them our vision and our ability to make an impact and then once we bring them here, to encourage them in teaching and research. We also think that one of the biggest challenges in Indian higher education and more so in institutions of legal education, is the inability of the leading institutions to be able to attract very good faculty.
If you look at some of the top law schools in the world, a good number of the professors would have been graduates of that particular school. And that is part of an academic culture which prevails in the US where even the best and brightest of graduates of that institute would like the opportunity to work in that institution.
Bar & Bench: But do you think that will work in India? In the US the professors must have completed their LLMs from that law school while over here it would just be the LLB
C Raj Kumar: No, that is not true at all. In fact I think that is part of our myopic vision. At Harvard and Yale, the professors whom I am talking about are not those who possess an LLM or a PhD. They are all JDs just like our LLB’s. The academic rigour that these people have gone through and their own commitment to scholarship positions them well [for a career in teaching].
We somehow think that degrees will be enough to assess merit. So it does not matter whether a PhD can write even two sentences in flawless English, it does not matter whether this person can actually contribute to scholarship. The simple having of a PhD or [passing] a test; that is not how the best universities select faculty.
B&B: Why do you think I should I study law?
C Raj Kumar: Well I mean the answer to this question varies hugely. Now historically many of us were inspired to study law, or at least I was, because I felt that law is an important instrument for effecting social change-
Bar & Bench: Isn’t that a bit idealistic?
C Raj Kumar: Not really. If you look at the founding of our country; it is no accident that the leading figures of our freedom movement were lawyers. The reason they were lawyers and they went into the freedom movement was that law provides a framework to understand issues relating to fairness and justice unlike many other disciplines –
Bar & Bench: But the fight for freedom took place six decades ago. Haven’t things changed since then?
C Raj Kumar: That is exactly what happened. Post-freedom movement, if you look at the importance given to legal education and the attractiveness of career options, it was not law. People ended up becoming doctors and engineers and that continues to be the most dominant and the rise and growth of the new education initiatives including the national law schools was connected with the economic growth and development of the country and the opening of the markets which resulted in attractive jobs. To me, establishing a rule of law society and providing access to justice to the people is imperative.
Bar & Bench: Say I am 16 or 17 years old, and not really aware of the “Rule of Law”. Why should I study law?
C Raj Kumar: You may not know Rule of Law but you should be in a position to be able to appreciate the importance of a society that respects law. You might not understand the rule of law but the need for respecting law and to avoid chaos, stability and violence is something which one can appreciate much earlier. To avoid that, we need to invest in legal education and that is one of the reasons which ought to motivate people to study law.
But listen, that is one view. People can study law because they can hope to make a lot of money and there is nothing wrong in that. The only proviso I will add is that while making money you need to be committed to honesty, ethics, and integrity.
That is another huge problem that we are facing not only in the legal profession but also in business and all walks of life: there is a huge ethical deficit that we are facing. The need for believing in that idealism is still critical for education. If we as educationalists, stop believing in that idealism, there is absolutely no hope for society.