“Perhaps it needs to fall first in order to regain its glory”
The words are spoken with little emotion and no drama. It is probably the first time in four months that an enquiry about the National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU) has produced such a straightforward response. The words are completely bereft of angry rhetoric or flimsy counter arguments; there are no slamming of doors or hanging up of phones, no finger pointing or ignoring e-mails.
They are a simple, honest acceptance that the law school is facing problems; an acceptance tinged with the hope that they will get better.The words are spoken by one of the earliest NLSIU graduates, a person who has seen the institute grow from within and without.
So what prompted these words to be spoken? Well, depending on who you speak to, the reasons behind this perceived decline are many. One these reasons is best illustrated by following a series of correspondences sent to the present Vice Chancellor of NLSIU, Prof. Venkata Rao.
On September 19, 2012 Shreya Rao, a guest lecturer at NLSIU sent an e-mail to NLSIU’s Vice Chancellor, Prof. Venkata Rao. In the e-mail, she mentioned the “unusual levels of disinterest” amongst students, and of students who were confident about getting their papers “favourably re-evaluated” by the Vice Chancellor.
There was no response.
Over the next few months, Shreya sent several e-mails to Prof. Venakta Rao, including one informing him that three answer sheets in her course were verbatim copies of each other; there was a distinct possibility of the use of unfair means.
In February of 2013, NLSIU issued two notifications declaring that four papers had been re-evaluated and the concerned students had passed the course. One of the notifications, for the first trimester of 2012-13, showed 41 students appearing for repeat exams. Out of the 41 names on the list, 35 had been given a grade of B or higher, only 6 were given an “F”.
That month also saw the dismissal of Siddharth Chauhan, an NLSIU graduate and visiting faculty who had been openly critical of the NLSIU administration in general and Prof. Venkata Rao in particular.
On May 3, 2013 Shreya sent one, final e-mail to the Vice Chancellor, voicing concerns about the “marked deterioration of academic standards” at the institute. A week later, she sent the same e-mail to members of the NLSIU Executive Council, hoping to evoke a reaction, any response to an issue that desperately deserved attention.
On July 1, 2013, faced with an RTI application, the NLSIU administration stated that the issues mentioned in the May 3 letter had been “referred to the Undergraduate Council for necessary action” and that a Committee had been constituted. With regard to the three suspicious answer sheets, NLSIU claimed that, “Action has been taken based on the Committee’s Resolution.” And in response to the last query – whether the matter had been discussed with the rest of the faculty, the simple answer was, “As per the Rules, it is not necessary.”
Is this chain of events surprising?
The fact of the matter is that very often, law schools are run in the manner of personal fiefdoms; the writ of the Vice Chancellor, or those who act under his name, runs supreme. Despite the presence of an overseeing authority such as an Executive Council, the Vice Chancellor is practically the final authority on issues such as research grants, tenure, appointments and emoluments, and even disciplinary proceedings.
Now this finality becomes problematic when there is little, if any, interaction with the faculty and the administration on these issues. Debate and deliberation, essential for building any organisation, are often missing or a mere formality. And this can and very often does, result in simmering discontent. At its worst, it breeds indifference.
So taking the example of NLSIU, the “favorable re-evaluation” practice had been going on for some time. If this re-evaluation process was harming the academic standards of the institute, shouldn’t someone have raised this issue up with the Vice Chancellor? The terse reply of an NLSIU faculty, provides one possible answer – “You teach your course, correct the papers and then forget about it. It is out of your hands after that.”
Scratch the surface though and this (apparent) indifference masks a far more serious issue – a lack of voice. Perhaps, just perhaps, faculty were simply not given the chance. The last four years saw a significant reduction in the level of faculty-administration interaction at NLSIU. In the last four years, there were 38 faculty meetings at NLSIU. Even if one were to accept this number at face value, the fact is that during earlier years there would be as many meetings in a single academic year.
This lack of voice is observable in other law schools as well. For instance when the faculty at NUJS, Calcutta petitioned the institute’s Academic Council what they were really asking for, at a fundamental level, was the right to be heard, the right to be consulted and the demand for a consensus-based decision making process. In more ways than one, the situation at other law schools is no different. The Menon report on GNLU for instance, also spoke of the need for an effective mechanism to allow faculty to put forth their views.
Some professors, of course, prefer to speak with their feet. At NLSIU for instance, old hands such as Prof. Jayagovind and Prof. Babu Matthews have shifted to NLU Delhi. At NLU Orissa, Prof. Krishan Mahajan recently shifted to RGNUL in Patiala. Shifts at the Asst. Prof. level are even more common and as long as there is a mismatch between demand and supply of teachers, faculty shifts will continue to take place.
But while the teachers can exercise this right to simply leave, students cannot. So, in the case of NLSIU, why didn’t the Student Juridical Association speak out? Surely, the students have the most to lose, the most at stake. Shouldn’t they take some proactive steps, some measures to protect their interests?
The truth is they did.
But the truth can wait a while.
There is an observable trend to report stories on law schools largely in the binary. Perhaps because it is ridiculously easy to do so, most developments are reduced to some sort of “confrontation” between two opposing parties - helpless (hapless?) students pitted against a “draconian” administration headed by an incompetent (unpopular?) Vice Chancellor.
And, sad to say, there is some truth to the fact that the voice of the student body is easily silenced. This is perhaps what Chauhan, alludes to in his comments to this piece, where he writes,
“The bigger concern is about the damage being done to the.. prospects of students who are currently enrolled in this institution… many of them are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation…”
This “fear of retaliation”, this sense of wariness is evident in interactions with students at the Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar (GNLU). Here was a student body that felt that their e-mails were being monitored, mobile phones confiscated if used on campus, being subjected to unfair disciplinary measures. But the most telling point, the point which may find empathy in students at NUJS in Calcutta, is that here was an administration that refused to listen.
So is it fear alone that keeps the voice of dissent silent?
Law students, like the institutions they attend, share what could be called a fairly ambiguous relationship with transparency; some issues are discussed with disarming frankness while others are quietly swept under the carpet, deemed as “internal matters” not requiring public debate. Debate is avoided due to the apprehension that the public reputation of their institute will suffer, and, more importantly, so will the all-important placements.
Few will deny that a significant number of those entering law schools are lured by the promise of guaranteed, financially remunerative employment. Law school is more likely to be associated with placements rather than academic rigor. Plagiarism is rampant and very often, academic standards are given a backseat. For example decisions on which optional paper to take is based more on which teacher is lenient with grades rather than anything else.
If placements are the only end goal, then questioning the “system” will hold little allure. Furthermore, anything that could negatively affect these placements, such as an article critical of the institute’s policy decision, must be avoided at all costs.
So what did the students at NLSIU do? Did they also brush aside these so-called problems to ensure placements were not harmed? Did they make any attempt to bring in actual change within the institute? Did Prof. Venkata Rao provide the students with an audience?
This is where things get really interesting.
Several students at NLSIU have said that the Vice Chancellor is open to reason; that he has accepted a number of their demands. The campus curfew for instance, imposed after a horrific sexual assault on an NLSIU student, was relaxed after students spoke to the Vice Chancellor. Others have been critical of the way the Chauhan voiced his opinion; evidently students were in the process of negotiating with the Vice Chancellor at that point of time.
And it was not only the Vice Chancellor whom the students appealed to; their focus was also to ensure change from within. Internally, students were dissuaded from opting for re-evaluation unless it was a genuine case. At one level, the students understood that continuing with the current re-evaluation process would only harm them in the long run. Another demand made, and met, was having student participation in faculty selection; students can now vet prospective faculty through demo sessions.
At NUJS, the student body was eventually given a chance to voice their opinions before the Academic Council. Assurances of re-looking at existing policy were provided by the Vice Chancellor. How effective such assurances turn out to be is something that can only be seen in the long run.
So does this make Prof. Venkata Rao or Prof. Ishwara Bhatt effective Vice Chancellors? How does one judge a “good” Vice Chancellor? Is a good Vice Chancellor one who completely ignores faculty views but disburses large amounts of financial aid? Should a Vice Chancellor focus on building a campus or faculty profile? Is it a matter of having the right qualifications Or should s/he be a reputed administrator? Does the Vice Chancellor, in fact, have complete freedom in day-to-day affairs or are there other powers at play?
The answers are not, and never will be, simple. Law schools, as they exist today, are far from perfect and it will take considerable time and effort to improve them. Accepting certain realities, though, could be the first step.
First, a change of Vice Chancellor is not always the most apt solution to improve a law school. It may be easy to place all the blame on a single individual but reality is far more complex, the problems are far more institutional in nature. If one looks at the Menon report for instance, even though the report is critical of some of the policies of the Director but it is equally critical of the manner the Director was appointed itself, the lacunae which existed in the law itself.
Second, it is time to accept that not everyone joins law school seeking high standards of intellectual stimulation. A growing number of students are joining law schools simply because of the promise of guaranteed employment; of guaranteed and financially remunerative one. The importance accorded to factors such as incompetent faculty, or a lack of a voice on campus is negligible as long as these factors don’t affect recruitments.
Third, public posturing, lapped up by a media that is all too eager to sensationalise, is unlikely to produce actual, concrete results. For example, the subsequent relaxation of the NLSIU campus curfew had little to do with “public outcry”; rather it was a result of conversing with the authorities. As paradoxical as it may seem for these words to be published on a news website, there are processes that are far more effective when kept away from the public gaze. The same goes for legal recourse, it may seem attractive at first but its efficacy is questionable. Having said that though, there will be times when there will be no other option.
A last, slightly tangential, point to make here is that as more and more students are attracted to NLUs, and as the number of students pursuing a legal education increase, the attention these institutes draw is only going to increase. Changes such as the introduction of a one-year LLM is a sure-shot sign that the market for legal education is maturing.
And this attention will not be restricted to pieces on recruitments or re-worded press releases. Instead, coverage will be far more pervasive and it will throw up some harsh questions. These questions may be directed towards the administration (for those appear to be the most popular), but there will also be some directed at the faculty, and some at the students.
Now law schools, or rather the people within, can choose to ignore these questions (as they so frequently do now) but that won’t make the questions disappear. One can only hope that soon, there will be no other option but to engage in open debate; a frank exchange of views on topics that are all too often swept far, far away from the public eye.