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Dr. Hemalatha Devi is the Dean, Faculty of Law at the ICFAI Foundation for Higher Education University at Hyderabad. In academia for close to four decades, Dr. Devi has been at ICFAI since 2011. In this interview with Bar & Bench, she talks about her education, her passion for teaching, her experience of being a member of institutions like the UGC and NAAC and her goals at ICFAI.
Bar & Bench: Can you tell us a bit about your early years?
Hemlatha Devi: I hail from a village in Nellore district, Andhra Pradesh and did my schooling there. For my pre-university course, I studied science at Padmavathi Women’s College in Tirupati.
B&B: Why science?
Hemlatha Devi: When I was in Secondary level , our school had an inspiring teacher, M. Radhakrishnan Murthy. His very good teaching and my basic interest made me to take up science.
Both my father and my grandfather were teachers. Even in those days, my father used to encourage us to go for higher studies. There was no bias between sons and daughters. He used to respect our ideas, and was my guru.
In my village, lot of people questioned my father sending me for further studies. He would say, “Girl or boy, what is the difference? If my child is interested in studies, I will educate her.” For all his encouragement and after spending so much money on my education, he did not expect a single pai. He never pushed me to get a job and support the family. Anyway, I then enrolled for the B.Sc. course. I wanted to become a scientist and applied for my masters but I narrowly missed the seat.
B&B: Which is when you started studying law?
Hemlatha Devi: At that time, a private law college was started in Nellore. I must admit that I never had any zeal to do law but people used to say law would suit me because of my reasoning, analysis and my arguing capacity (laughs). It was not my nature to just nod my head; I always had an opinion.
We would visit courts during college, and I realised that I may not become a good lawyer; I thought that I would not be able to insist that my clients pay. Above all, I was inclined to the teaching profession, so I went on to do my masters in law from Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati. I studied Constitutional Law and International Law as Specilisation
B&B: And you immediately started teaching?
Hemlatha Devi: I got married around that time and my husband was workingin Tirupati. Those days, there was a scarcity of law graduates and I would have had to move out of Tirpuati to teach. My family was against my moving, so I registered for Ph.D at Venkateshwara University itself. Eventually, in 1982, I started teaching at a law college in Nellore and three years later, I got an appointment in Venkateshwara University’s P.G. Department of Law.
B&B: In those days, the masters course used to be quite challenging.
Hemalatha Devi: It was not like it is now. It was very difficult to get a first class and we used to study 12 to 14 hours per day. Every answer would have to be supported by references from Indian and foreign journals.
In the first phase of my life, it was my father who encouraged me. In the second phase, it was my husband. He made me free from the household work, and encouraged me to publish articles and present papers in seminars and conferences in India and abroad. Even when I did not want to travel, my husband would say, “It will help you develop your career, and build your academic track record.”
B&B: You were on the UGC Law Panel for three years. Do you think the UGC provides enough support for researchers?
Hemalatha Devi: Yes. In my experience, the UGC has been extremely supportive. I think the opportunities are there, we just have to use them. At the UGC, we used to discuss about the curriculum of Indian legal education at both the graduate and the post graduate level.
B&B: As Dean of Law at Venkateshwara University, did you find it difficult to balance teaching and administration?
Hemalatha Devi: No. I would go to class, and then immediately go to the office to attend to administrative work. I believe that the more responsibilities a person is entrusted with, the better he or she becomes.
B&B: You were also a member of the NAAC. What are the things that a good college should focus on?
Hemalatha Devi: First, the infrastructure should create a good environment for students to study. Second, there should be good faculty. Third, we need updated and contemporary curriculum. This not only creates interest in students but also increases employment opportunities.
B&B: What got you to ICFAI?
Hemalatha Devi: I am really very happy for getting this assignment. Unfortunately, I lost my husband in 1998 and at that time both my sons were studying. I made sure they completed their education. During their childhood, I did not give them enough time. But now I had to become both mother and father. I did not want to fail in my duties towards them.
I also began to approach the retirement age although this was retirement by age and not a retirement of the brain. When the elder one was getting married, I got the invitation from ICFAI to join them. In August of 2011, I came here and have been working with utmost interest and enthusiasm. My previous academic and administrative experience of more than three decades has been really useful in enabling me in developing this institution.
B&B: What are the differences you see between government and private institutions?
Hemalatha Devi: In the government institutions I worked in earlier, the major decisions were not taken at the department level. Most of the decisions especially policy decisions would be taken by the Vice Chancellor or the registrar or the principal of that college. But here, the major responsibility lies with the Dean along with academic freedom. So there is academic flexibility here. That has allowed us to come up with something like our BBA LLB ( Hons) program.
B&B: When you first joined, what was your goal?
Hemalatha Devi: When I joined here, it was barely a year old. I wanted to bring it to the heights of the National Law Schools because here we have the infrastructure, flexibility for designing the curriculum, freedom to get quality faculty etc.
B&B: But isn’t there a shortage of good faculty?
Hemalatha Devi: No. Maybe some teachers have more teaching experience than others, but I don’t think there is any dearth of good faculty. Including me, we have five doctorate holders in the faculty.
B&B: And what about the high fees that these newer institutes charge?
Hemalatha Devi: In traditional colleges, you don’t get these many facilities; so that is the reason why the fees are higher. Students prefer us because the BBA LLB Hons course is a rare combination that not many law schools offer. Also, here we have a business school so we get teachers from there. Moreover, this course widens recruitment opportunities.
B&B: What are the improvements you would like to make?
Hemalatha Devi: The first batch will gradaute in 2015. So we are concentrating on their placements along with the faculty recruitmants, improvements in Curriculum , enrichment of Faculty Library etc.
B&B: Wouldn’t you prefer students opting for academia?
Hemalatha Devi: In traditional legal education, the openings were too narrow. Those interested in teaching would do a masters. But now things are different. Some want to do higher studies, either in India or abroad. Some want to be attached to a law firm and start practicing and many aim at corporate placements. We also plan to start offering a one-year LLM course.
B&B: Last question, why should anyone study law?
Hemalatha Devi: Your question is too short but my answer is too long (laughs). Ignorance of law is no excuse. My experience says that law helps in developing interpretational values and understanding complex problems. Law graduates can visualise the same problem in different ways and are aware of the legal repercussions of one’s actions. I don’t say law is superior to other courses but it is useful for any and every profession.