Recruiting VCs in varsities: Merit should be the criteria

The academic and administrative leadership in Nepali universities is often drawn from the ranks of those loyal to the political leaders at the helm of state affairs. What matters is their loyalty to the party leadership, not their academic record

The vice-chancellors (VC) of six universities, including Tribhuvan University, as reported in the national media, are due to complete their terms very soon. This means that the universities should get new chief academic and administrative staff immediately to replace the incumbent VCs. However, the authorities responsible for this do not seem adequately cognizant of the urgency with which these apex level positions need to be filled up, the absence of which can disrupt or jeopardise the administrative and academic calendars of the universities.

It is widely accepted that the selection and appointment of vice-chancellors should necessarily be conducted through an open, rational and transparent review and evaluation process. In fact, an open and competitive methodology is a widely accepted and instituted modus operandi for selecting competent and illustrious academic and administrative leaders for universities.

Generally, vice-chancellors are required to be “visionary, with established leadership qualities, administrative capabilities as well as teaching and research credentials”. This requirement model for the VCs has been set forth and elaborated in, for example, the Terms of Reference (TOR) document for selection and appointment of a vice-chancellor, issued by the Academic Council of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India, established in 1967, an institution which has been globally recognised as a centre of academic excellence. The JNU standards mentioned above are universally accepted, and are generally pursued, adhered to and followed globally when scouting for, selecting and appointing vice-chancellors for universities, be it in India, the US, Europe or elsewhere.

In fact, before a vice-chancellor is actually selected and appointed, a search committee is formed by the responsible agency. The committee is mandated to invite applications from interested aspirants, and recommend names for the post. Finally, the vice-chancellor is confirmed and appointed by the chancellor of the university. In India, the President of India has been conferred as chancellor (Kulapati) of the central universities, as the central government allocates funding for their academic and administrative operation.

In the case of state government-funded universities, the governors of the respective provinces are conferred with the title of chancellor, though the position is generally presumed to be ceremonial and nominal. In Nepal, the prime minister hold’s the position of chancellor of almost all universities, which allegedly makes the universities prone to political meddling and interference.

The practice in the US is different as the vice-chancellors are known as presidents. For example, in Harvard University, the president (vice-chancellor) is elected by trustees and institutional stakeholders autonomously while keeping the university’s overall interest and academic excellence in view.

As mentioned at the outset, Nepali universities are likely to face an absence of duly-appointed vice-chancellors since the process for election and appointment has not started yet. To respect and follow through with the established due process, search committees need to be formed immediately. This process may take time since it begins with invitations to submit applications, testimonials and documents, which are then carefully vetted in order to short-list the potential aspirants for the positions.

The short list is then presented and discussed, highlighting their academic visions and strategies. It then proceeds to the selection and confirmation of the appropriate appointees to whom the roles and responsibilities of vice-chancellor of public universities will be entrusted.

However, the Nepali practice of forming a search panel to select probable candidates for the vice-chancellor’s post is not beyond reproach, as it is almost ritualistic and perfunctory. The search committees are manned by compliant and supine officials who are incapable of bypassing the dictates of the prime minister and other ministers, regardless of their quality or competence. As a result, the potential names listed are products of a ruling authority, breaching the due and transparent process required for the selection and appointment of the vice-chancellor.

Consequently, academic and administrative leadership in Nepali universities is often drawn from the ranks of those loyal to the political leaders at the helm of state affairs. The public universities are indiscriminately politicised, and what generally matters is their loyalty and support to the party leadership, not their academic credentials or record. Many public intellectuals and educationists who have intimate knowledge of university affairs articulate the importance of separating academics from scheming politics so that the sanctity and integrity of the academic institutions may be protected.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) and other independent studies conducted by academics have found that hundreds of teachers in universities play truant, consistently failing to attend university classes and engaging in academic activities. Unless academic institutions are allowed to work independently to uphold academic integrity, the present day anarchy and anomalies causing the decline in academic standards of universities in Nepal will not be contained or arrested.