The university and the present moment of crisis

by Hasini Lecamwasam

Sri Lankans continue to protest against a corrupt government and, especially, demand the discontinuation in office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his extended family. As the call for the government to step down intensifies and becomes ever more specific, I start to wonder whether a government, however mighty, can bring about this sort of socio-economic free fall on its own. What have other individuals, other institutions, other spaces, other processes and mechanisms, in governance and outside of it, been doing so far? What, more specifically to my context, has the university been doing, until the situation evolved into this nightmare? It is clear that many, outside of the present government, have been complacent in taking the country down this path, including and especially academics. Therefore, I am writing this piece to urge academics to engage in some painful soul searching in this moment of crisis.

The role of the academic in politics

Academics have just as much right, and perhaps even greater obligation, to intervene in politics as any other citizen. But their reasons matter. And the nature of their intervention matters. They matter because their choices influence those of many others. They influence others because academics are taken seriously. I do not think it is unbecoming of academics to get involved in decision-making at the macro level. In fact, it is expected of them to lend their expertise and experience to such processes, with a view to helping the country make better decisions, overall. The parameters within which they engage in such exercises, however, need to be carefully considered. For instance, consider the case of an academic taking a principled stand on a given issue, and extending qualified support (by way of lending expertise) to an incumbent government in an attempt to find a solution for said issue at the policy level. I doubt much objection can be raised against such an exercise.

What we have seen in the past few decades, however, is a practice of academics joining the ranks of governments – ranging from Cabinet portfolios to minor but lucrative bureaucratic positions – without ever clarifying their ideological position. They have supported inconsistent policies and stances of a wide range of political factions, most of the time, along with their regressive politics, quietly returning to the university when they fall out of favour. We hear less and less of academics who walk away from a government in power because they did not agree on an issue on principle.

Intellectual dishonesty

I use the phrase ‘intellectual dishonesty’ here to refer to those academics who find it possible to tout all kinds of lines, with little regard for their ideological/policy consistency and implications, and even less for their own intellectual integrity, in exchange for social and material perks. In most cases, much of this goes unquestioned because of the high offices some of them hold in the tight hierarchy of the university, and the immunity they afford.

Let me reiterate that academics are expected to take political stands. I do not blame Viyath Maga, for example, for taking a stand to create the world they thought was best. It was their right to do so. But I do blame them for, in the process, systematically stifling space for dissenting views; mocking, ridiculing, and dismissing dissenting concerns as tiresome frivolities that should have no space in a vision for progress that they thought was guaranteed to work. The intellectual dishonesty comes in not when these very academics are found on the streets protesting the government they themselves brought into power; no, it comes in when, even as they do so, they continue to insist on strong arm rule as the way forward for the country; it comes in when they continue to faithfully maintain a debilitating hierarchy within the university space where they are no better in conduct than the rulers they try to oust.

Do academics have the capacity to ‘up the game’ in politics?

That this question is even warranted, is unfortunate. Ideally, universities should have the capacity, and are in fact required to play an active part in decision making at the policy level. Our research is supposed to inform not only our teaching, but also our socio-political engagements, including and especially policy interventions. For the natural sciences, this means engaging in research that produces technological innovations, medical and engineering solutions, etc., while for the social sciences, the task is to inform the principles that undergird our economic, political, and social arrangements.

Both require ethical intellectual commitment to create a better society, and preserving the conditions for such a situation (termed ‘academic freedom’) to thrive.

This has mostly not been the case in Sri Lanka over the past several decades. Politicians scarcely approach academics with serious research credentials (because their deployment of academics is purely instrumental), tending to drive committed scholars further and further away from political engagement, and not-so-serious ones into the political spotlight. The cycle keeps perpetuating itself, resulting in the emergence of a group of yes men (and women) who lend credibility to bad policy choices, and on the other hand an insulated academia whose expertise is rarely tapped into, in the interest of the greater polity. As much as the country needs radical reform, therefore, the academic community and the university as a whole are also in dire need of mending their ways.

Recent attempts at this urgent requirement to ‘mend ways’ have found expression in cumbersome quality assurance processes that further eat into what little time academics have to engage meaningfully in research and politics. The emphasis has shifted to demonstrating the worth of our work by way of producing a mountain of documentation, potentially at the cost of actually doing such work. If, instead, we channeled that time and energy to regular seminars and similar events where our research and political interventions are subjected to critical scrutiny by our peers, would force us (in the best possible way) to think through our choices, their ideological defensibility, and their social and political implications.

Way forward?

Are we ready to adhere to the required professional ethical standards that would give us the necessary intellectual independence and moral grounding to question a despotic government? Are we, simultaneously, ready to engage with political authority from such an ethically/ morally committed place, rather than simply refusing to work with them? Reflecting on these questions may push us in the direction of reintroducing a culture of critique to the university, as proposed above, which would go a long way in ensuring intellectual integrity. Such a change can only be brought about by a conscious transformation of our practices, rather than through the imposition of stifling rules and regulations.

I am reminded at this point of a comment made recently by a colleague who participated in the FUTA protest march: the chant we were going by had a stanza in it blaming the government for ruining this, that, and the other, including education (all very warranted, by the way). It read ‘adhyapane wanasuwa’ (‘you ruined education’), instead of which, he laughingly said, they chanted ‘adhyapane api kawa!’ (‘we ruined education!). This, even though said in jest, I think constitutes a useful point of departure. Most academics currently lack not just the political consciousness and will to engage with the present moment, but also the moral legitimacy to do so. Correcting the situation requires, first and foremost, upping our own game which, if done consciously and systematically, will invariably equip us with the moral-intellectual direction needed to meaningfully intervene in the present moment of crisis and the debate around it. Until and unless this happens, we may not be able to afford to constitute a viable alternative force to any despotic government.