Ashoka’s Ombudsperson: Healing Old Wounds?
By Siya Sharma (UG‘23)
Ashoka has witnessed a rough and tumble year when it comes to the ever-mounting concerns of its student body, faculty, and staff. With the rekindling of worker’s issues and the question of coerced transfers (how we’re still letting them happen, and why) over the last two semesters still looming, we’ve joined forces in a (mostly) united front to question the fallacies in administrative management. This harkens back to the unrelenting media flurry surrounding the #NotMyAshoka protests in March 2021 that compelled the university administration to take structural measures towards a redemption, of sorts.
The appointment of a university ombudsperson was meant to be a decisive first step in what one can only hope is the right direction. The role of the ombudsperson – now more than ever – needs to be dissected, before the Ashokan student body and staff lock horns with the administration again. It is in questioning this position that, perhaps, all these issues can come to a head, and we can work on resolving them to envisage a way forward.
An ombudsperson is legally defined as “A public official who acts as an impartial intermediary between the public and the government (and bureaucracy), or an employee of an organisation who mediates disputes between employees and management.” To extrapolate this to a university backdrop, the appointed ombudsperson is expected to autonomously evaluate–and hence alleviate–conflicts between the administrative staff and the student body, teaching faculty, and workers in an unbiased capacity. Justice Madan Lokur has been appointed as Ashoka’s ombudsperson, and his reputation precedes him as an eminent judge of the Supreme Court. The Board of Trustees’ statement on the situation reveals, “The Ombudsperson is an already approved position which will be an impartial and independent person, accessible to all members of the Ashoka community. The Ombudsperson will provide informal guidance to resolve issues raised by Ashokans. Students will be welcome to contact the university Ombudsperson for unbiased assistance to resolve their concerns.”
However, the website tells a slightly different tale. It states, “The primary role of the Ombudsperson will be to…provide a forum should there be concerns in the realm of…abuse of power, unlawful termination of service or restrictions on university policy on freedom of expression and to advise both the faculty/staff member and the university on the resolution of disputes regarding the same.” The student-centric narrative spun by the Board of Trustees’ statement appears dissonant with what the Ashoka website has to say on the matter. Publicly, a more faculty and staff-oriented approach has been adopted. To what extent, then, is the ombudsperson a structural remedy ensuring academic freedom and safeguarding the rights of all stakeholders? Is it simply a placating bone for an outraged student body? Whose interests has the ombudsperson been appointed to protect?
Even if we were to assume for a moment that the ombudsperson’s duty encompasses student welfare, a plethora of issues present themselves. Do their responsibilities extend to the student body and their issues with the administration? Or does the student body only become relevant to the Ombudsperson in its appeals for the redressal of issues impacting the faculty and workers’ staff? The Ashokan issue with the ombudsperson arises out of the wide range of duties that would fall in the ambit of their job description. Illustratively, academic freedom, worker’s rights, clubs and society grievances, funding contentions, struggles for SG autonomy and an assortment of academic accommodations (amongst others) all need to be mediated by a single individual. Within this framework, we have to assume that different types of issues are going to be handled differently. If so, how? More specifically: perhaps we need to tease out what would happen when the redressal of issues for one group negatively impacts or engenders new ones for another. The lack of clear delineation when it comes to the Ombudsperson’s formal responsibilities raises the question of whether their judgments are binding at all, or if their role functions in a strictly advisory capacity. Besides, who ensures the administration heeds their counsel when it comes to significant decision-making processes if it's all behind closed doors, anyway? Realistically, wielding the extent of power laid out in their jurisdiction might counteract the need for an ombudsperson altogether – which arises out of too much unattended authority concentrated in one place.
Seeing as the central tenets of the ombudsperson’s role are forged in their independence from all external influence, it is their lack of affiliation with any group of individuals within an institution that upholds their credibility. In that case, who is the ombudsperson answerable to? What is the yardstick for measuring how good of a job they’re doing? Are they above any and all jurisdiction? Ashoka has set a dangerous precedent – one of obfuscatory impediments to academic freedom – but this history only serves as a valuable lesson in the consequences of power monopolies. This is worsened by Ashoka’s seeming insensitivity to the plight of the workers who keep its systems running, as their futures hang in the delicate balance between the administrative staff and third-party contractual vendors.
Now, more than ever, we must cautiously redefine and evolve bases for accountability. Perhaps, the Ashokan community should develop a set of parameters to gauge the ombudsperson’s performance and develop binding qualifiers that maintain a base level of answerability. It is perhaps better to have a body of appointed Ombudspeople, such that issues are distributed amongst specialized individuals, all while preventing the centralisation of power in a single person’s hands. Having multiple people mediate conflict would ensure, to some degree, that they hold each other accountable – that they comprehensively cover their bases. The Ashokan wound isn’t quite gaping anymore, but it would be a gross oversight to assume it’s been healed. Staying watchful, making rules that weather the test of time, and enforcing them as a collective well aware of our responsibility to one another is our best hope at recovery. We must constantly engage with our structural foundation and push for higher levels of accountability. As Ashoka grows out of stasis, its ship is ours to steer through treacherous waters. Most importantly, perhaps, as we grip the wheel, it is upon us to make the journey meaningful.