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After #NotMyAshoka: 4 Questions for the Board of Trustees

By Mahika Dhar (UG23) and Siya Sharma (UG23)

The recent, jarring resignations of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Professor Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka’s teaching staff were met with a veritable flurry of media coverage and student and faculty-centric protest, in an expansive show of solidarity and support. These unprecedented circumstances threw open previously untouched, unnoticed, unopened avenues for demanding, more rigorous discourse unfolding on a wider scale about the ideals of academic freedom and expression, and the overarching question of duty. That is, that of the University to offer something of a safe haven, a sanctum to preserve the academic integrity of its faculty under its auspices.

The two-day strike having passed, the aftermath of the protest has witnessed extensive dialogue and discussion amongst the student body and faculty themselves, on their role as active stakeholders in the university as an institution, and the accountability of the Board of Management and Administration to us in that capacity. Additionally, it has raised concerns about the treatment of other Ashokan employees, namely, demands for a more cohesive approach to workers’ welfare, given that the actions of the Board of Trustees and Founders have direct consequences for all of us. However, to truly gauge the extent of institutional change, we must objectively assess the executive outcomes that have arisen from this display, and the approaches that were taken to get us here.

The list of student demands’ was three-fold, expecting a public apology to both professors, and an unconditional offer letter for return; a meeting of the entire student body with the founders; and the divestment of founders from administrative intervention by increasing faculty, student and worker representation and active participation in executive meetings and decision-making.

Following the two-day strike, the Board of Trustees released a statement via email, detailing the changes they insisted were already underway. The statement yields certain questions yet to be answered –

  1. What is an Ombudsperson and who do they cater to?

The Ombudsperson is meant to act as an impartial intermediary between the employees and the management of an organisation. In the context of the Board of Trustees statement, the Ombudsperson is for all ‘Ashokans.’ What are the limits for the BoT’s definition of an Ashokan? Is there a separate Ombudsperson for faculty, especially non-tenured faculty?

To further complicate matters, even if it does include all those on campus who aren’t associated with management, how can one individual possibly cater to the issues and concerns raised by a body of thousands? A better alternative might be to have an Office of the University Ombudsman, like that of Cornell, that consists of a few, highly protected and completely impartial people, that can specifically cater to separate Ashokan bodies and stakeholder – students, workers, and faculty.

  1. How significant can an invitee student be for Board of Management meetings? Another confirmation includes one student, nominated by the rest of the student body, to hold an invitee member status in all following Board of Management meetings. The idea is that this individual can raise the concerns of the student body in a powerful platform, while also supporting more transparency to avoid management interference in the working of faculty and students.

As wonderful this symbolic representation seems, its net effect could very well be a zero, As the Founders mentioned in the student Town Hall, that the discussion regarding Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s resignation happened in an informal setting – over breakfast! They further clarified that most professors have been brought to Ashoka through personal and private meetings. Unless the student is ‘cordially invited’ to breakfast with the founders, such informal meetings completely obliterate any chance of sizeably holding management accountable.

Further, considering all the interruptions and explositivity that went on in the student -founders town hall, a single student could easily bear the brunt of an imbalanced power dynamic, among the several older and privileged founders. Having just one student representative at BoM meetings puts students at a disadvantage, even when it is an apparent win.

  1. Why hasn’t a clear deadline been set? While the deadline of May 31st for the Ombudsperson gives hope for future semesters, no timelines have been provided for when Town Halls between founders and students will take place, what the email-based feedback communication entails, and when it will be made available. The uncertainty of a clear timeline directly translates to an inability to hold management accountable, magnifying the existing ambiguity of the promises. A more productive and confident process could have included giving us a date by when the timeline will be set, enough to placate our concerns while also providing them with enough time to reach a consensus.

  2. Have worker concerns been addressed? The founders had agreed to a meeting with workers, following allegations of unfair termination. Yet, according to a conversation with a student government member, there have been no developments. Considering that the reconstitution of the Workers Welfare Committee will take place after the initial meeting, this delay slows down the entire process, losing student momentum that will ultimately affect workers, who have faced issues such as coerced resignation and mistreatment for long.

The past few weeks have engraved an indelible mark into the swathe of Ashoka’s history as an influential educational establishment, but it is up to us to decide what to make of it, and in what lens to conceive of where we go from here – whether to let its taint mar the scope of our collective futures, or to righteously leverage its distinctiveness to affect palpable change. The Trustees have only given us so much by finally meeting with the students, albeit in the absence of the Vice Chancellor. It is up to us, Ashokans, to demand for robust, effective change, and the time to demand for it is now.

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