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  • Geetanjali Roy and Mohan Rajagopal

Pulapre Balakrishnan quits Ashoka; faculty demand academic freedom in signed letter

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

Geetanjali Roy, UG’24 and Mohan Rajagopal, UG’24

On Tuesday, The Wire reported Pulapre Balakrishnan, Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, has resigned from his post. The news arrives among Vice Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury’s statement confirming Sabyasachi Das’ departure from the University and a faculty email expressing solidarity with Das and demanding better mechanisms to ensure academic freedom at Ashoka.

In the statement uploaded to the Ashoka University website, Raychaudhary announced that “after making extensive efforts to dissuade [Das], the University has accepted his resignation.”

According to The Wire, although Balakrishnan’s resignation has not been publicly announced, “sources at the university” have claimed that his exit is “in solidarity” with Das.

News of Balakrishnan’s resignation has added to the online discourse surrounding the University.

Niharika Yadav, an alumna of the UG20 batch, praises Balakrishnan: “Prof. was everything I loved about Econ at Ashoka… one of the few principled economists. For those of us interested in policy, a graceful storyteller, towing the old and the new with grace. Sad day for Ashoka.”

Shortly before the resignation was made public by The Wire, Amit Chaudhuri, Head of Ashoka University’s Creative Writing department, sent out an email with the subject line, ‘Signed Letter on Academic Freedom’ addressed to Somak Raychaudhury, Vice Chancellor of the University, and Amita Baviskar, Dean of Faculty. The email includes a letter penned by Chaudhuri and Rita Kothari, Head of Ashoka University’s English department, regarding the “ongoing threats to the all-important domain of academic freedom”.

The letter declares, “To stifle critique is to poison the lifeblood of pedagogy; consequently, it is to damage whatever future our students might have as serious thinkers.”

Chaudhuri’s email alludes to an Academic Council Meeting on Monday, 14 August, where Raychaudhury and Baviskar seemingly agreed with the faculty about the “necessity for a Committee for Academic Freedom”.

Ashoka University drafted and adopted a document for academic freedom in 2021 which mandated this committee’s creation. The text is available in the Handbook of Faculty Policies.

“It has been bewildering to witness events unfold in the last two weeks that are directly related to

academic freedom in a way that makes no reference to this document and behaves, to all

purposes, as if it does not exist,” write Chaudhuri and Kothari.

The committee, which is currently being set up “without delay,” will bring “much-needed transparency and procedural fairness whenever [issues of academic freedom] arise.” Its presence is also intended to “prevent… public pronouncements that claim to speak on behalf of Ashoka University of whose provenance almost no one at the university is aware.”

“All such pronouncements and decisions about actions to be taken in such circumstances should emanate, after deliberation, from the Committee for Academic Freedom.”

The student body has also received the email, with faculty asserting the students’ “right to know of the position that members of faculty have taken on a matter that has affected all of us at Ashoka University, including, of course, the students.”

In a public reply to the faculty letter, Raychaudhury writes "There is no need to appeal to us for the formation of the Committee for Academic Freedom." He goes on to claim that although it had been proposed by the Dean of Faculty "several times over the last two years, the Committee could not be formed because no faculty member volunteered." Responding to the news that the Committee is now being put into place, Raychaudhury extends "[his] full support to create it at the earliest, following the guidelines laid out in the Faculty handbook."

As of 12:30 PM, August 15, the letter has 82 faculty signatories across departments. Several members of the Economics department have signed it, including Ratul Lahkar, Arghya Bhattacharya, Aparajita Dasgupta, Hemanshu Kumar, Anuradha Saha, Srijita Ghosh, Yatish Arya, Abhishek Rai, Lalit Contractor, Ayush Pant, Anisha Sharma, Kanika Mahajan, and S.K. Ritadhi.

Ashwini Deshpande, the current Head of Ashoka University’s Economics Department, had responded to criticism online regarding “the lack of solidarity displayed by senior faculty” regarding Das’ right to academic freedom. In a tweet responding to development economist Jayati Ghosh, Deshpande dismissed these claims as “assumptions… without knowing anything about what [senior faculty] have been up to the last 15 days”.

Notably, Deshpande is not a signatory to the faculty letter.

As Ashoka University faces questions and concerns from all channels regarding the institution’s commitment to academic freedom, Raychaudhury reasserts in his statement: “...members of faculty have freedom to teach and carry out research in the areas they choose – the University affords its faculty and students what it believes is the most enabling environment for academic freedom at an institution of higher education in the country.”

At 18.43 on Tuesday, The Ashoka University Student Government (AUSG) released a statement via email with the subject line ‘Demands for Academic Freedom’ articulating four demands directed towards the University’s administration. These include Das and Balakrishnan’s unconditional reinstatement to their respective posts, an open town hall between the administration and student body to clarify internal processes surrounding recent events, the mandate and scope of the Academic Freedom Committee and more transparency and student input in policy decisions going forward.

The mailing list includes, among others, several founders, the Board of Management, the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice Chancellor’s offices and the Ashoka Parents Group. The AUSG has expressed its hope for a response within 48 hours “given the urgency of the situation.”

“The fact that Professor Das and allegedly Professor Balakrishnan – two esteemed members of our faculty – felt the need to resign clearly demonstrates the University’s unwillingness to protect academics when it matters, thereby creating an environment where they cannot flourish and speak their minds,” says the AUSG statement.

“This has all happened despite the University’s Commitment to Academic Freedom that came out in 2021, and we have seen this happen before. Many promises were made, and we want to see them honoured.”

On the morning of August 18, Pulapre Balakrishnan confirmed his resignation to The Telegraph. No formal acknowledgement has arrived from the University regarding the same.

Balakrishnan further confirmed that an inquiry had been conducted into Das' paper, which he was not a part of.

"No professor who respects academic freedom would be part of it.”

According to a report by The Wire, Balakrishnan, in a letter dated August 19, to Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Founder and Trustee Pramath Raj Sinha, urged the governing body to reconsider Das's resignation and invite him back to the university.

He further instated in the letter, "As for myself, I am moving on...Academic freedom was violated in the response, and it would be unconscionable for me to remain."

Reminiscing about his first meeting with Mukherjee in 2014, at the IIC's coffee lounge, he wrote how Rudrangshu assured him that the university did not expect its faculty to take any particular view on the matter[economic policy in India].

He ended the letter by recognizing "the brave and selfless attempt to provide India with a thriving space for intellectual activity that it[Ashoka] represents."

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