The unenviable camaraderie of public university vice-chancellors
I see—and perhaps others do, too—some lights at the end of the tunnel. Reportedly, 35 public university vice chancellors have expressed their willingness to resign from their posts if the controversial Vice-Chancellor Farid Uddin Ahmed of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) has to resign. I see some positivity in their declaration of solidarity with their favourite "cousin" in SUST, as this may well help resurrect the spirit of Bangladeshi higher education.
About 25 years ago at Dhaka University, most of my friends who studied the economics course under the now-VC Farid had failed to secure passing marks and had to retake the course or sit for an improvement examination. It is well-known that students of the economics department are considered as the highest-ranking ones, and the word "failure" does not align well with their academic records. So, why did a majority of students fail the current SUST VC's course? According to them, they could not ask any questions to this professor. He came to class with his ancient, handwritten notes, followed a copy-and-paste routine on the board, and silently departed from the class when the time was up. He would be annoyed, even angry, at the questions of his students.
As an education researcher interested in the political economy of education, I was curious to know about his personal profile, and browsed a research database to read his peer-reviewed journal articles—but found none. With some anticipation, as a last resort, I downloaded his CV from the SUST website. It says the gentleman acquired a second-class 11th position for his Bachelor's degree, a first-class 6th for his Master's, and received a second Master's from Monash University in Australia. Without going into excessive detail, his CV also read that he had written "20 articles and/or books published in national and international journals." What is most interesting in his profile, however, is that the number of professional associations he is involved in is half of the number of recreational clubs he belonged to.
Some months ago, the education minister observed that most of our teachers were "teachers by accident." Now I realise what she may have meant. The VC of SUST may be a good example for this phenomenon. Such an "accident" is detrimental to Bangladesh's aspirations of being an upper-middle-income country and having a knowledge-based society.
So, why should we let the like-minded VCs leave? In an undergraduate research interview, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at DU shared an interesting story. Once, a group of student leaders went to him with the recommendation to hire the then-second-best student as a lecturer at his faculty. He explained to the student leaders why universities need the brightest students as its faculty members. Even if the student in question did not perform well, the judiciary could still place him in various non-critical positions. However, the university did not have that luxury. A second-class teacher may continue teaching in a third-class manner, which would be a disservice to students for years to come. This seems to me a good reason for why we should welcome the wishes of VC Farid's comrades and arrange a grand farewell for all 35 of them.
One may argue that the VC's job is administrative and is therefore "non-critical", with no chance of denting the quality of education in classrooms. The controversial individual in question, however, has failed to prove his ability to safeguard his students and has reportedly relied on law enforcing agencies and student cadres of the ruling party to protect himself from the agitating students. Police, as always, went the extra mile. They hurled sound grenades, beat up the students, and filed cases against hundreds of them, many of whom were injured and hospitalised. The students' attempt to exercise their freedom of speech did not please the university administration.
A more serious (rumoured) misconduct is of the VC's gratuitous comments about the female students of Jahangirnagar University, which do not warrant repetition here. I believe this person and his 35 friends do deserve a grand farewell as a first step towards improving the academic environment in our universities. The next critical step would be to ensure that people with better academic and leadership qualities, as well as integrity and self-respect, are chosen to lead higher education in the country.
Shahidul Islam is an education policy researcher. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org