Almost everyone in faculty is promoted in Indian universities and DU started the damage in 1970 Today, Delhi University has been relegated to the backwaters of all global rankings, with a similar story playing out in universities all over India. But ther

Dinesh Singh
Indian universities have suffered immensely due to the combined impact of rotating headships and near-automatic promotions for all. It started in 1970 in the University of Delhi. Now, almost everybody gets promoted regardless of merit and heads of departments are appointed by rotation so all promotees get to be HOD without being qualified or suitable.
But not too long ago, the University of Delhi would have easily secured a very high rank in any global ranking system. During the 1950s and the 1960s, it had reached a pinnacle in terms of its academic standing. The roll call from those years boasted of distinguished names such as D.S. Kothari and A.N. Mitra (Department of Physics), P. Maheshwari and B.M. Johri (Botany), B.R. Seshachar and M.R.N. Prasad (Zoology), M.N. Srinivas (Sociology), V.K.R.V. Rao, K.N. Raj, Amartya Sen, A.L. Nagar, S. Chakravarty, and J.N. Bhagwati (Economics), T.R. Seshadri (Chemistry), S.R. Ranganathan (Library Science), U.N. Singh (Mathematics) and Nagendra (Hindi). And this list is by no means exhaustive.
Unfortunately, as things stand today, Delhi University has been relegated to the backwaters of all global rankings. However, such a rise and subsequent decline is not peculiar to just Delhi University. Almost every university in India has a similar story.
When merit wasn’t just a term
There are several factors that have contributed to this universal decline. One of them has its roots in an action that was unwittingly initiated at the University of Delhi in 1970, and which was readily and unthinkingly adopted by universities around the country over that decade.
Until 1970, all academic departments of Delhi University were headed in similar fashion by professors of great eminence. It helped greatly that they were at the helm for a significant number of years, which enabled them to provide sustained momentum and direction to their departments.
Of course, there was a downside to this arrangement. Sometimes, personal prejudices and even highhandedness would creep into the decisions and actions of those heading a department. But overall, they discharged their responsibilities meritoriously. One of the most important consequences of their stewardship was the fact that, in order to be able to acquire an academic position or gain promotion in any department, an individual needed strong credentials because genuine merit was the main criterion. In varying degrees, such a situation was prevalent in most universities across India.
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DU’s debilitating act
But a marked decline began to set in at Delhi University when, in 1970, it suddenly switched to a system where departmental headships were rotated among almost all faculty — regardless of merit — and that too for the short duration of three years. Soon, this measure began to be adopted by almost all Indian universities. It had a detrimental effect since more often than not, a departmental head would be unequal to the task of adhering to high standards — both academically and administratively.
To compound this problem, the University Grants Commission (UGC), in 1982 and under severe political pressure, implemented a system of promoting academic faculty — ‘Merit Promotion Scheme’ — which, in practice, resulted in automatic elevation of all and sundry on the basis of length of service — a minimum of eight years.
There are other reasons but rotational headships and automatic promotions are common factors responsible for the decline of India’s various universities. It is no coincidence that the Indian university system has suffered immensely since the 1980s, when these twin measures took effect. Academic merit has been severely neglected as a consequence. Many faculty members who would ordinarily have retired at lower positions are now assured of being appointed as full-time professors and become heads of departments in due course of time.
Ordinarily, several of them would not be appointed to any position but that is where an ineffective head of a department succumbs to unwelcome pressure. The HoD knows that he or she could be at the receiving end post retirement. More often than not, this also results in academics who are not well-qualified being anointed as chairs of their respective departments, only because they managed to gain undeserving and automatic promotion to a full professorship.
Course correction
It may be argued that a vice-chancellor has the powers to prevent near-automatic promotions but as the records show, very few of them have shown any desire or commitment to implement stricter standards. Similarly, vice-chancellors dare not interfere in the business of headship by rotation even when they have some leeway in this regard because the practice is heavily entrenched. This too could be alleviated to a large extent if vice-chancellors were appointed with great care and then granted longer tenures subject to performance.
This is not to say that promotion for faculty should be abolished altogether. The point is to shun inbreeding at entry-level appointment and make merit the only criterion. Standards need to be set in the appointment process at every level and that could begin with appointing good and deserving individuals as vice-chancellors.
I have often argued that any university in India or abroad with a proven track record has progressed largely because of its vice-chancellor, who not only enjoyed total freedom but had their tenures extended for longer periods to achieve what they had set out to. Maurice Gwyer served at Delhi University for 12 years and many of the eminent faculty were brought in at a young age during his tenure. The same happened during Robert Goheen’s distinguished tenure at Princeton University.
But all such examples are in the past. It’s time Indian universities revisited their glorious days by bringing back some of the traditions from the yesteryears. Appointment of deserving vice-chancellors can be the starting point.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal. Courtesy: The Print