Economics Department announces boycott of classes, English and Creative Writing follow suit
Updated: Aug 19
Mohan Rajagopal, UG'24
On the morning of 16 August, the Economics Department of Ashoka University sent out an open letter to the Governing Body of the institution in response to Sabyasachi Das’ resignation. The debate surrounding academic freedom in the University has also prompted an open letter by alumni to the founders and faculty members of the University.
In their letter, the Economics Department states that the acceptance of Das’ resignation by the University has “deeply ruptured the faith that… the faculty of the department… colleagues, students, and well-wishers of Ashoka University everywhere, had reposed in the University’s leadership.”
The statement goes on to assert that Das “did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice.”
The Department alleges that the Governing Body’s “interference in [the peer review] process to investigate the merits of [Das’] recent study” amounts to “institutional harassment, curtails academic freedom, and forces scholars to operate in an environment of fear.” The letter firmly opposes the involvement of the Governing Body in evaluating the research of any individual faculty members.
The Governing Body of Ashoka University includes, among others, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor, Somak Raychaudhury, Vice Chancellor, the Secretary to Government of the Haryana Education Department, and Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, members of the Board of Trustees.
The statement articulates two demands by the Economics Department to the Governing Body: an unconditional offer of return to Das, and an affirmation that the Governing Body will “play no role in evaluating faculty research through any Committee or any structure”.
The Department asserts that unless these demands are met before the start of the Monsoon 2023 semester, faculty members will “find themselves unable to carry forward their teaching obligations in the spirit of critical enquiry and the fearless pursuit of truth that characterise [their] classrooms.”
The letter requests a response from the Governing Body by August 23, failing which would “systematically wreck the largest academic department at Ashoka and the very viability of the Ashokan vision.”
The English and Creative Writing Departments of Ashoka University have also released a statement in solidarity with the Economics Department, stipulating the same demands. “We hope, too, that Ashoka's official social media handles will cease putting out statements discrediting academic research by its faculty members in the future,” they write.
A failure to meet these demands would result in the two Departments joining the Economics Department in its boycott of classes during the Monsoon ‘23 semester.
The Department of Economics speaking out has garnered praise online. Soham De, an alumnus of the UG’22 batch, writes: “When [Pratap Bhanu Mehta] & Arvind Subramaniam left Ashoka, we were promised no admin involvement in research/faculty activities. Promises were clearly broken and therefore, here's a fitting statement from the only department that can pose an existential threat [to] the institute.”
Shortly before the statement by the Economics Department, a Student Government forward publicised an open letter by alumni of the University, addressed to the founders, trustees, the Vice Chancellor, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor.
“We wish to call out the Administration of the University, in particular the Founders, Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, and the PR Team for their lacklustre response and abject failure to stand by their faculty in the face of targeted harassment and trolling,” write the alumni, who have requested a townhall session with “all concerned members of the Administration”.
As of 11:30 AM, August 16, the letter has been signed by 158 alumni.
The statement points out the long-standing debate surrounding academic freedom at the University: “We have seen the occurrence of similar events before from the resignation of Professor Narayanan in 2016 to the more recent resignation of former Vice-Chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Professor Arvind Subramanian, with the common theme underpinning each event being the extent of academic freedom at Ashoka, and changes to its liberal ethos, alongside a muddled response by the University Administration.”
At 4:19 PM on August 16, a Solidarity Statement by the PhD students of the University was forwarded by the Student Government via email. The statement asserts that "academic freedom is not optional; it is an indispensable necessity for a university that aims to maintain academic excellence." It goes on to claim that the University's response to Das' paper "indicate[s] a clear submission to political pressure."
The PhD students have put forward additional demands to the ones presented by the Student Government, which include an official statement by the University "reaffirming its commitment to academic freedom for both its faculty and students" and an unconditional offer of a return to Das.
The statement also requests the formation of an investigative committee to "thoroughly investigate the violation of academic freedom", the establishment of a "firewall" between the academic functioning and administration of the institution, and the creation of a "Plan of Action to address situations wherein any other academic work is subjected to political pressure in the future".
"All matters concerning academic freedoms must need the approval of offices that represent academics in the University," write the students. Further, the open letter demands that "Ph.D. students be consulted on the constitution of this [Committee of Academic Freedom] and also have adequate representation in it."
"As equal contributors to research, academic freedom and any assaults on it affect us deeply. "
The Sociology & Anthropology Department of Ashoka University issued a statement of solidarity in support of Das and the Department of Economics. The statement alludes to "unusual and disturbing interference in [Das'] academic work... by the University and Governing Body."
The statement was released shortly after the conclusion of the open meeting organised by the Student Government on the night of August 16, which saw participation by students, alumni, and faculty members.
"By its very nature, social research often covers sensitive and controversial topics, and any line arbitrarily drawn between the political and the academic is unsustainable," writes the Department.
On the morning of August 17, the Political Science Department released a statement as well, asserting that "Das did not violate any accepted norm of academic practice."
In reference to Pratap Bhanu Mehta's resignation in 2021, the department writes, "By now the pattern is all too familiar, especially for us as a department."
The Political Science Department has joined the Economics, English, and Creative Writing departments in their boycott of classes in the upcoming Monsoon '23 semester.
The statement reads: "Such illiberal action by a leading liberal arts university, which was founded as a bastion of critical thinking, creates a climate of fear amongst the academic community and casts severe doubt on the university’s commitment to academic freedom and critical enquiry."
On August 19, 3:15 PM, the official Twitter handle of the Economics Department updated their original statement with an assurance that "teaching at no point will be disrupted," citing "the welfare of students [as their] utmost priority."
However, the demands put forth in the original statement still stand. "While we carry on with our academic responsibilities, we reserve the right to protest in other ways."
The update further states that the Department has conducted meetings with the Governing Body and the Vice Chancellor of the University, and "has been assured that a resolution is underway."
Note: This is a developing story, and updates will be posted accordingly.