Donors and academic freedom: Given stormy seas in today’s India, funding must be diversified beyond a few business sources

Ashoka University’s reputation as a world-class liberal arts university has been dented by Prof Pratap Bhanu Mehta: His media columns highly critical of the BJP proved very inconvenient for those running Ashoka. Former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian also resigned from the  faculty, saying Ashoka could no longer protect academic freedom. Students went on strike, and 150 academics worldwide condemned Ashoka.

That is a tragedy, but the big issues of higher education go far beyond Ashoka or Mehta. Five years ago, I was with a group of journalists in Kolkata covering the last state election. At a meeting with top academics, they castigated CM Mamata Banerjee for destroying academic standards. They said not only seats in good colleges but also academic posts were being sold for cash, and critics were being victimised. Today’s Ashoka controversy reminds me eerily of that episode.

Despite her high-handed tactics, Mamata won that election with a massive majority. Narendra Modi also won a massive majority in the 2019 general election despite a much-criticised crackdown on dissenting students at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Aligarh Muslim University, and arresting academic critics under laws on sedition and unlawful activities laws. When the electorate cares so little about freedom in universities, politicians are unlikely to change their increasingly illiberal attitude.

Many years ago, I participated in a World Bank course to improve academic and media analysis of state budgets. While the central budget was thoroughly and expertly discussed by the media and academics, state budgets were not. So, the Bank invited state university academics to write papers on their state’s budget.

The quality of the papers and discussion that followed was abysmal. Why? One state professor told me, “Our promotions and prospects depend entirely on our relations with top politicians and bureaucrats. It does not depend on our research papers or budget analysis. So why should we bother?” No wonder the quality of college education is so poor.

I had hoped that private sector, non-profit universities like Ashoka would establish global standards without sucking up to politicians. I was wrong.

Mehta says his resignation was forced by political pressure. Ashoka’s founders deny this. But even if there was no overt pressure, businessmen and other donors fear antagonising the government, and will, without any political orders, distance themselves from institutions – universities, journals, TV channels, NGOs – connected with strident Modi critics.

Mehta was hired as an asset to Ashoka. But in recent years the trustees indicated to Mehta he had become a liability, that angry donors were withholding donations. I think Mehta should have said, so what? He and Subramanian should have fought their battles within the university and dared the trustees to sack them.

That is now in the past. The bigger problem is the fate of universities who till now viewed Ashoka as a model to emulate. This model is highly dependent on donors for the huge funding required to attract world-class faculty with world-class salaries, provide scholarships for 65% of students and expand fast.

This model carries the risk of sudden stops in donations. No one should be surprised that business donors want to distance themselves from a university whose best-known staff fulminate against the government in columns and TV appearances. Some donors are fervent Modi admirers. Others fear political retribution.

Such fears go back decades. When businessmen are asked to rate the budget on TV on budget day, virtually none rate it less than 8 out of 10, regardless of which party is in power. They know that an honest answer carries political risks. Speaking truth to power does not help. Sucking up does.

Those running Ashoka University are trying to salvage the situation. To re-establish a reputation for academic freedom, Ashoka is thinking of creating internal “firewalls” to check external pressures on the faculty, and an ombudsman to settle disputes.

But this will not solve the problem of donations drying up, leaving Ashoka without funds for staff, scholarships and ambitious expansion plans. The answer is to lessen dependence on business donors.

Having 15 business donors may look like diversification, but does not diversify outcomes: All 15 can stop donations simultaneously. The donor base should be expanded to non-business foundations, foreign donors, alumni donations and crowdfunding.

Reducing dependence on business donations also means cutting ambitions and costs. Cut salaries, reduce scholarships from 65% to say 40%, slash ambitious expansion plans. Use distance learning to cut costs. This may dismay Ashoka’s founders, who wish to quickly establish an Indian version of Harvard or Oxford. But it needs a better model to navigate stormy seas in Indian conditions.

This article was originally published in The Economic Times on March 31, 2021

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