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Conversation with Symbiosis Dean Shashikala Gurpur on receiving first Legal Education Innovation Award
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Conversation with Symbiosis Dean Shashikala Gurpur on receiving first Legal Education Innovation Award

Bar & Bench

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur, Director of Symbiosis Law School and member of the Law Commission has been awarded the first ever ‘Legal Education Innovation Award’ by Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF) and the Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training.

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur is a Doctorate in international law with 15 years of experience in graduate and postgraduate teaching, advocacy and research along with around 3 years of corporate and legal advisory experience.

Shashikala Gurpur was chosen for the award as she is one of those law teachers who, at a relatively young age got into a leadership position and used the opportunity to experiment, innovate and re-structure legal education to the advantage of generations of students under her stewardship.

A jury headed by former Chief Justice of India Justice J. S. Verma had selected Dr. Shashikala Gurupur for the award. The Union Minister for Law and Justice Salman Khurshid will confer the Awards in New Delhi on September 10.

Bar & Bench spoke to Dr. Shashikala Gurpur on her achievements in the field of legal education

Bar & Bench: Your thoughts on winning the first Legal Education Innovation Award, 2011.

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur: I feel great. My belief that compassion, perseverance and patience have their own sweet rhythm and beget their own rewards – is confirmed. A long lineage of Gurus, mentors and the people who permitted me to transform their lives – deserve gratitude. Like the sacred text on Gurus and Avadhoots state, we learn from everything in the surrounding – from the humble to the mighty. The joy also is trebled by the fact that I am selected for this honour by the ‘moral centre’ of this nation in Justice Verma, Dr. Madhav Menon and Lalit Bhasin among others and despite the odds of personal life I braved for nearly 4 decades to keep the flame of knowledge work in law glowing. The Symbiosis flagship has gained law alongside management. Really, it is fulfilling!

Bar & Bench: What inspired you to experiment, innovate and restructure the legal education for the benefit of students? 

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur Some people and moments deserve special mention: Dr Madhav Menon, Dr Mujumdar, my social worker feminist friends, the consumer movement, indigenous/’primitive’ peoples’ rights movement, the suffering lot of rural illiterate women whose sacrificial leadership was never sung praises about. I am the first woman graduate in my family in both sides. My mother always reminded as long as she was alive, that I should not be lost in routine of a woman’s life but make a career, speak and publish to give voice to women.

My father used the microcosm of rural, feudal farming background, to evolve one person justice mission in preventing and resolving disputes. My marriage (now altered to just a soul connection as just parents of our son Nisthula) to Dr. Tim Murphy – legal academic of Ireland exposed to hardcore legal scholarship and provided deeper involvement in UK and US based legal education standards. Involvement with Dr. Eshwara and Dr. Leela Rao in Manipal stint gave me interdisciplinary insights. The chance of meeting Dr. B.R. Shetty of Abu Dhabi gave me the opportunity to practice leadership in a corporate context.

Although I had serious differences with some of the private sector assignments, I realised that only a pragmatic efficiency with ethical determination in managing change could bring concrete results. Such a learning both in and beyond has been the key. Engaging with suffering,  introspecting it by distancing, critically absorbing all the ideas from the exposure to various contexts of legal education, synthesising them and jumping at  the first opportunity to realise them – have informed my approach. In Symbiosis, the possibility occurred because of enlightened leadership, a teacher working with a teacher with broad, liberal and accommodative vision.

Bar & Bench: What all initiatives have you undertaken to bring reforms in legal education especially at Symbiosis Law School?

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur: Striving for perfection in a constant and continuing manner; these initiatives taken have been a blend of social commitment and legal care with cutting edge, timeless and borderless expertise in emerging areas of law. Since April 2007, I took this opportunity at Symbiosis Law School as a challenge and service to orient legal education in service of human development. This is in terms of management, utilization and growth of human potential among students, faculty and staff, community and self.

The initiatives include setting up Community Legal Resource Network and collaborating with NGOs, continuing revision of the curriculum providing options for inter-disciplinary studies to the students, proposing clinical legal education, introducing international legal studies and academic audit system with a view to improving performance and assuring quality.

We further developed EU Study Centre to provide Certificate Courses in EU legal studies, worked on faculty improvement schemes, faculty selection process through demo teaching and faculty exchange programmes and trans border development of resources and scholarship. These are just few of the initiatives or strategies employed towards academic excellence apart from many more.

Bar & Bench: How difficult was it for you to implement these measures and did you always have the support of other faculty members?

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur: It was all about change management, after carefully studying, considering and weighing the existing strengths, putting together points for improvement, spreading them to a yearly plan, assessing and auditing improvement based on general global quality parameters and legal education in particular. Luckily, it coincided with the NAAC preparation at the University level and quality conscience in the private sector.

Initially, I had to use the classic carrot and stick approach, a healthy and often overdose of some parts of Panchatantra (it is not easy to achieve in a totally new surrounding). Strategic mix and use of combative and peaceful approaches, showing results to feel them for themselves, managing symbiotic links, culture and communication with the team, careful and calculated use of legal and human resource management approach with spiritual aid of meditation with the team, addressing the subtle needs of the team and stakeholders and filling the gaps – required data-driven and analytical decision-making.

Harvard business review once published a study on poor vision in women leaders. That kept me on toes and propelled to constantly review and improve. The lack of support in junior colleagues was set off by wholehearted support from top management, the visionary Dr Mujumdar.

When you know that you are right, the cosmos conspires with you, contacts come without invitation, ideas move in the right direction and the people are convinced. I went to classes, set standards for teaching audit, peer mentoring, academic stewardship and followed those meticulously despite the administrative pressure. You walk the talk, work on ground level and people follow you because they feel for you and respect you.

The global success of China and the perfect law and order in Singapore alongside the centre-staging of human rights in the west have inspired me – that the efficiency could wed ethics in a confluence of affirmation, follow-up, enforcement and consensus.

Creating a students council with their own constitution, engaging them as opinion leaders and gatekeepers of quality was one such strategy of inculcating an all-round understanding of best management techniques. Creating a bridge between the best and the average among both students and staff by accountability and incentives created a cultural of mutual respect and appreciation.

I learnt that this is the microcosm for me to prove a vision of leadership that despite being strongly communitarian, we in India and Asia require that civic sense, sense of belonging and connectedness to be internalized and institutionalised beyond the polemics, conjectures and poetry of our scriptures. This is the key to our pressing problems of corruption, large scale poverty despite affluence, arrogance/greed despite excellent education and other contradictions in public life.

Bar & Bench: Your role as a member of the Law Commission.

Dr. Shashikala Gurpur: Being the only woman member of the commission, at once has been very responsible and privileged. Privileged because the team does not exclude you from major consultations such as judicial reforms in various high courts or law reform of special pertinence to women. Responsible in the sense of a challenge that you think differently reflecting the reality of rural, marginalised silent lot but the strongly patriarchal underpinning of the legal world takes time to melt. Often I was dubbed as the ‘fire brand’, especially when 498A related debates were going on, when there was proposal of making it bailable and compoundable.

Another commendation was about ‘rational’ approach that I always advocated in terms taking interdisciplinary data and studies into consideration while mooting law reforms. This is thanks to my personal engagement with community NGO network and close involvement with such women’s plight across social segments has stirred my mind, which I often forcefully present in the deliberations. As an academic, I often feel lost in the ‘black letter law’ discussions yet make an effort to keep the critical sense alert. A different paradigm evolved from the deep understanding and engaging synthesis of  legal theory, global justice, gender and human rights – motivate my responses whether in case of reform debates of the Law Commission on Euthanasia issues or age of consent or sting operation or land acquisition or reforms of justice deliverance system through best practices.