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It has been far from smooth sailing, but students of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) finally got “their VC” in September this year. More than two decades after he graduated from NLSIU, Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy has taken charge as its Vice-Chancellor, amidst tumultuous times for the country’s first national law university.
In many ways, the appointment of Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy is seen as the beginning of a new era in the life of NLSIU. At 44, he is far younger than VCs of other NLUs, and is expected to (and intends to) bring in fresh ideas.
In the first of this two-part interview, Prof Krishnaswamy reveals what his immediate plans for the University are, how he plans to address issues that have been plaguing NLSIU of late, and more.
Aditya AK: More than 20 years after you graduated from here, you have taken over as Vice-Chancellor. How does it feel?
Prof Sudhir Krishnaswamy: If you walk around the administrative block, you will notice that not much has changed over the years. The first year classroom where I met the first years just a while ago is virtually the same. So there is a sense of familiarity. I know a good number of my colleagues. I don’t know any of these students, so that is new to me.
When I was studying here, NLSIU was a fledgling law school; I was part of the sixth batch. It was barely beginning to make its mark back then. Today, it is regarded as a pioneer in the legal education sphere, so student motivations and expectations are very different.
At no point was I thinking this would happen; I would say it is a fortuitous combination of circumstances that brings me here.
AK: How different was the role of Dean at Azim Premji University compared to the VC of NLSIU?
SK: The Azim Premji University is larger than NLSIU. Back there, I led the School of Policy and Governance for the better part of eight years. The programmes there were diverse, but smaller. In terms of the way it was organized, it is very different from NLSIU. The job there was to get together a new faculty team and get students to come to us, and we did that fairly well.
This is a 30-year-old institution; it has been doing these things for many years. My role is completely different; it’s about taking an institution that has some great things going for it as well as some recent difficulties, and then trying to sort things out and do better.
AK: Does being a relatively young VC pose its own set of difficulties?
SK: Too early to tell, I am all of eight days old. As a young Vice-Chancellor, I have a lot to learn. Someone who is more experienced may have a sense of familiarity with the role. I guess the upside is that I can be relatively fresh about ideas. I can discover new ways of working to get things done.
I don’t know how the students feel about having a younger VC, but maybe they can reach out to me with a little more ease.
AK: Perhaps they see you as one of their own.
SK: I don’t know about that (laughs), but maybe they see me as being more accessible.
AK: Are there any academic reforms you have come across during your career that you plan to employ here?
SK: My role in these early days is simply to restore. We were doing some things reasonably well in the early decades of the University, but for various reasons, we have not been doing those things as consistently.
My immediate priority is to focus on the academic programme. We state in our brochure every year what we will deliver. Do we really deliver that? The answer is more or less yes, but in many ways, no. I want to start with getting that right, and along the way, work with my colleagues to iron out difficulties.
We want to make sure that study materials are handed out in time, and the academic calendar is reasonably predictable, so that there is no unnecessary anxiety that students or others face. The programme should roll in a predictable way, and for various reasons, that has not happened over the past few years.
AK: What is on your agenda that requires immediate attention?
SK: As you know, there was some long-running, simmering discontent with the student strikes and so on. There are a range of issues that need to be addressed – from sexual harassment and academic regulations, to hostel life and internet. Each of these things are legacy issues and are complicated. So, my effort in the first month is to sort some of these legacy issues out.
We can’t solve all of them immediately; if internet facilities have been weak, we suddenly can’t snap a finger and set things right. We need to procure the right level of services and then deliver. The same is the case for many other things. These issues will be focussed on during my first month. I think of this year, and maybe some of next year, as transition years.
My first priority is to rebuild the community of learners and teachers which share mutual respect and engage each other with civic grace. This is the foundation on which substantive change can be built. Without this, the University will forever be stricken by daily strife which will constrain what is possible.
Next, we must rebuild the academic programme to deliver a strong curriculum in engaging and challenging ways. By restoring the primacy of the classroom and bringing back excitement to the learning process we will restore the basic purpose of this University.
These are the fundamental challenges we have before us.
AK: The Student Bar Association (SBA) recently came out with a report highlighting the mental health of students on campus. The negative impact of year losses was specifically brought out. What do you think are the solutions to this?
SK: As far as the year loss issue is concerned, it has been ducked and dodged for almost three years now. All sorts of adjustments have been made to the academic rules – some ad hoc, and some more structural ones. My colleagues and I are trying hard to clean that up presently. I spent much of last evening going over some of these individual cases with my colleagues.
The question of mental health is a bigger issue. Academic decisions like year losses are only a part of it. There is a tendency to collapse the two. My counsel is not to do that; mental health involves a wider range of issues. We must first start thinking about wellness on campus – people doing a wide range of activities that young people ought to be doing.
The second thing we must ensure is that we have good counselling services on campus. We do have good services presently, but we might have to look at the scale. Questions of referral for people who need more serious medical attention also need to be considered.
A lot of people tend to focus on extreme cases that require medical attention. But 70-80% of the mental health issue revolves around wellness. So peer-to-peer counselling and a rich and vibrant campus life is where my focus is on. If we get that going, the number of counselling referrals will go down, with students feeling that they belong. In my mind, wellness is the most ignored part of campus life here.
AK: There have been a number of protests across different NLUs in the recent past, most of which have been created due to a breakdown of communication between students and the administration. How does an administrator ensure that this doesn’t happen?
SK: In my first week here, I spent 30-40 minutes with each batch. Not that I had a specific agenda on my mind, but I had some general directions and expectations that I wanted to communicate to them. In terms of speaking, the split as 30-70; they took more time than I did. I think we’ve got to do this when engaging with young people. We’ve got to give them time to ask and answer questions.
Looking ahead, I want to keep this up. I want to ensure that I meet them at a cohort level at least once a term, and in smaller groups, consistently through the term. We are trying to put in some arrangements that can make that work. There is no single solution to preventing a communication breakdown.
The willingness to engage is a basic requirement, but after that, you have to be creative with the methods. I am very convinced that this is one of the chief roles of the Vice-Chancellor – engaging with the students and finding common purpose amongst our faculty and the students. The antagonism that has developed at NLSIU is what I’m really trying to work on.
As far as the protests at NLUs in general, one common thread is that student expectations are high. What we are able to deliver might not match; we have to close the gap as much as possible. I said to the first years today that there are no Utopias in education. There is no way that an academic programme can satisfy everybody, all the time. It doesn’t happen here or in the best universities in the world. With that caveat, we should look to bridge the gap, and deliver approximate expectations.
This interview was conducted on October 4, 2019.