Faculty Autonomy: The Ashokan Paradox
By Guest Writer Yasashvi Paarakh
Faculty autonomy and discretion is an essential component of the Ashokan pedagogy; it is what separates us from other universities and ensures our education is up-to-date and relevant. Faculty autonomy ensures that professors can introduce their students to ideas and materials that otherwise may have been restricted by the red tape and bureaucracy of Indian education. It allows students to truly have a unique experience with every new course they take. We know about these benefits because they have been preached to us ever since we learned about the liberal arts curriculum. However, we often ignore the darker side of faculty autonomy.
In November 2021, The Ministry of Academic Affairs conducted a survey to understand the frequency and the nature of grading grievances faced by students, so they could create a Grade Appeal Mechanism proposal to better suit the needs of Ashokans. While one would expect a number of grievances, even the Ministry was shocked by the multitude of complaints and the sheer crudeness of some experiences.
“They did not provide any feedback for the weekly assignments and simply shared the compiled grades during the midsems and after the finals week. Even when I asked the TFs for feedback, I was told that this was not part of the ‘course policy’.”
“They did not reply to my email asking for a grade break-up and when I asked them in person they said it was too late.”
“No mechanism to hold TFs accountable for being unresponsive to mails/ questions.”
“The Professor simply stated that the ‘winter break has started and hence, I cannot provide further information when just asked for a grade break-up.”
And there were many more.
On completing the survey, the Ministry broadly grouped the grievances into the following categories:
Disagreement about the Grade received
Lack of assignment feedback or final grade breakdown
Lack of accommodation during dire circumstances and lack of any institutional support
Sudden changes in the syllabi without prior information
While each of these issues occur quite often, the latter three made up most of the survey responders’ grievances. This indicates that students don’t just want a grade appeal to get a better grade; just like faculty, students want to get the most out of their education, however, they want that to come at a fair price and not at the price of their grades.
A lot of professors, across departments and levels of courses, entertain no dialogue if a student wishes to raise an issue with their grade, examinations, discrimination, or whatever the issue might be. There exists no higher authority that the students can approach, either. The past few years have been especially harsh (on faculty and students alike), trying to find our footing in an unprecedented space of online education and being hit wave after wave of the pandemic. These were years when students would have not just appreciated, but needed, the benevolence of faculty, but were denied in the name of faculty autonomy. It is rather shocking, that just over a year ago the Ashokan student body mobilised like never before to fight for academic freedom and autonomy and then found this same autonomy being fanned in front of their faces to deny them relief.
The Ministry of Academic Affairs, along with the Office of Academic Affairs and the Dean of Academic Affairs have established that the problem exists. Surprisingly enough the UGC (University Grants Commission) also has very extensive guidelines on this. In December 2018, the UGC released a public notice on Grievance Redressal Regulations. This document was released after the UGC set up an Expert Committee to revisit the older Grievance Regulations (2012). It clearly details the necessity to set up a committee that looks into all types of grievances, a few of them being:
“non-transparent or unfair evaluation practices”
“complaints of alleged discrimination of students from the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Women, Minority or persons with disabilities categories”
“delay by the institution in conduct of the examinations, or declaration of results beyond the academic calendar”
One can clearly see that the list of grievances created by the UGC carefully takes into consideration all the forms of grievances that the Ministry was able to identify in their survey. The UGC mandates the formation of not only a University-wide Committee but also one at a departmental level. It mandates it and provides in-depth information about the composition and rules of procedure. These Regulations were further updated in 2019, mandating student representatives on these committees. The latest guidelines take the additional step and have introduced an Ombudsperson as well, in case the student is not sufficiently satisfied with the process at an institutional level. These regulations are not vague or ambiguous in nature; they are extremely well thought out and aim to consider all the stakeholders involved in the education process.
These regulations have come into force from the date of their publication, May 6th, 2019. Ashoka has had plenty of time to read, contemplate, comprehend and discuss the formations of such a committee, however, one still doesn’t see even a semblance of the formation of the same. The issue of a Grade Appeal Mechanism is now bigger as the UGC mandated Grievance Redressal body deals with grievances of varying nature as well. The DAA and OAA have said that it is a greater issue now and is being dealt with by higher authorities. The MAA has sent out communications regarding the same issue, including the Grade Appeal Committee Proposal they created, to the higher authorities (VC, Pro-VC, Dean of Faculty, and the BoM).
I am not writing this because I want to challenge or diminish faculty autonomy; I am writing this because I am tired of hearing (on multiple occasions, in multiple settings) the phrase “faculty autonomy” as an expiry on all conversations relevant to student concerns. As conveyed adequately by the testimonials, the problem isn’t just the omnipotence of faculty autonomy, but the fact that this power comes with no added responsibility, it goes unchecked and unbalanced. There is no uniform process to deal with academic grievances; students are currently at the mercy of their individual professors, if they are gracious enough to offer an appeals process, the student considers themself lucky. However, I believe, any process that is solely dependent on the kindness of an individual is flawed. And that is the problem with faculty autonomy.
Disclaimer: The writer is currently serving an extended term as the Minister of Academic Affairs.