Mother of All Bangladeshi Universities
The institution that one attends for education is often attributed with the honorific title alma mater, literally meaning "generous or nourishing mother". The phrase "alma mater studiorum" (nourishing mother of studies) was first used in 1088 as a motto by the oldest university in the Western world, the University of Bologna. Alma (nourishing/nurturing), a traditional adjective used for several goddesses in classical mythology, was appropriated to symbolise the Virgin Mary in Christianity by the Catholic monks responsible for the creation of the university. Universities ever since have been considered mother figures, and the "one who is nourished"—i.e. a graduate—is, therefore, referred to as an alumnus.
The University of Dhaka (DU), now celebrating its centenary, is not my alma mater. I joined there as a faculty member in 2011, after serving 17 years at another public university, Jahangirnagar University (JU). At the time of my recruitment, the then vice-chancellor told me that I was the first non-DU student to be recruited by the English department in its 90 years' history. While there are reasons to be proud of such an appointment, it is indicative of a very exclusive and insular nature of the university, which is far from ideal. At a personal level, I had every reason to be proud though, especially because almost all my teachers at JU were from the university I joined. The alma mater of those who instilled in me the passion for higher education is DU. In that sense, DU is my grand alma mater. To a great extent, DU remains a mother institution for all other institutions in Bangladesh. Behind the exponential growth in the number of universities, the signature of the oldest university is paramount. That's the historical prerogative of being the first university in the country.
The mother metaphor is further apt for Dhaka University as it has been the site that nourished the birth of a nation-state. The glorious role of student protest, intellectual support in creating national consciousness, and the ultimate sacrifice made by the teachers and students alike made Dhaka University the epicentre of the tremor that ushered in the independence of the country in 1971. A similar upsurge in the 90s ended the autocratic regime that was choking our national freedom. There has been a recent tendency, however, to divide the history of the university in pre- and post-independence categories. The rumination over the first 50 years of the university inevitably leads to the slighting of the university in its second phase. The relegation in world ranking, the lack of vision in leadership, callous remarks by individuals in significant leadership positions, the news of teachers engaged in unethical activities, including plagiarism and corruption, may be cited as examples to suggest the downward slide. As a member of the fraternity, I cannot shy away from my responsibility of not doing enough to prove these accusations wrong.
What ails me, however, is the overarching, overgeneralised claims to dismiss the site of national pride! This is often done by people who have been nourished by this very university before embarking upon distinguished careers elsewhere. I find it distasteful when critics resort to lampooning in place of constructive criticism. If you have an ageing mother who needs support, our culture demands that we take care of her—not send her to an old home or exile. The lack of ownership is a worrying sign—and that, for me, is the greatest weakness of the university.
All the great universities of the world thrive because of their strong alumni support network. They bring in their industry support to enhance research collaboration, funding and internship opportunities for students, and scholarly inputs for the growth of a university. I am sure this is being done in many informal channels through departmental initiatives of Dhaka University. There has not been any formal process to involve the views of the stakeholders, however. One may mention the quota of registered graduates in the University Senate; however, the politicisation of the senate has reduced the body to a mere stamping agency during the budget meeting in a fiscal year and a VC-nominating agency in every leap year.
To think that the evils lie only in the second half of the university's existence is a fallacy. A 1929 report by the Hartog Committee, chaired by the university's first vice-chancellor Philip Joseph Hartog (1920-25), mentions the "waste and ineffectiveness" of the educational system that was initially trying to separate its needs along religious lines. Professor A.G. Stock's memoir talks about the abysmal standard of English and points out various oddities in the admission and examination processes.
While there is a charm in myth-making surrounding the past of a university through citing the names of some celebrity professors who were part of its early days, the demand now is to make sure that the university redefines its purpose. I remember the prime minister in her inaugural speech marking the hundred-year celebrations of Dhaka University urged the authorities to come up with a strategic vision. I know that a dedicated team is working on that strategy paper. There is a national accreditation council that has drafted a national quality framework under the umbrella of the University Grants Commission (UGC).
These strategies are set to be adopted to benchmark the universities against global standards. The challenge, however, is to ensure a local and indigenous flavour of education. The models agreed upon are very West-leaning, keeping the international parameters prescribed by overseas consultants. The uniqueness of Dhaka University must be highlighted by the stakeholders concerned. These include present and former students, faculty members, administration, and employers. All of them must come together to decide what is good for the institution. Dhaka University must become a model institution for others the way it was envisioned by its founders.
It needs to promote and celebrate excellence not only for itself, but also for the benefit of society. Dhaka University's benefits so far have been measured in socio-cultural and political units. The real impact of the university will be felt once the university realigns its curricula to integrate teaching and learning with the needs of employers; its impact will be felt when it dedicates its research units to knowledge production and promotion for posterity and sustainability; its real impact will be felt when the taxpayers are assured that the money that they are contributing to develop human capital is well-spent—that the graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skill-sets necessary to advance the university, the community, and the country forward. With such a vision in mind, the alumni of the university need to critically engage with the university to prepare it for its journey ahead and secure its reputation as their alma mater.
Shamsad Mortuza is Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English (on leave) at Dhaka University.