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The Founding Professors of Ashoka University (Part I)

By: Isa Ayidh and Nandan Kaushik’ UG22

When we first came to Ashoka, we were the typical first years, ready to stay up all night, pretend like we understand Foucalt, and gobble up the pedagogy on which the university rests. During our O-week, there were more than six hundred of us staring at the picture of the first batch of Ashokans—who was 1/6th of our size. They sure didn’t have to worry about mess lines! We were quick to recognise that we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with Ashoka in its infancy, and that’s what prompted us to write this Edict Article with the help of some interviews and responses from a few of the founding professors of Ashoka. Now, let’s get to the article! — Diya and Nandan

The story of Ashoka’s Founding Professors begins in 2011. Professor Madhavi Menon had wanted to go back to India for a while, but the pedagogy of the universities in India wouldn’t guarantee the intellectual and financial independence she wanted. Although Professor Jonathan Gil Harris was on a sabbatical with her, he was unsure of how it would be to teach and live in India with an OCI. However, like most founding stories, an intervention came through in their lives: a meeting, and a phone call, respectively, with one of the founders: Pramath Raj Sinha.

Sinha met Harris at Hotel Ashoka and invited him to speak at the Young Indian Fellowship institute he had set up. Harris had taught at Indian universities before, and his experiences had been jarring. As a professor, Gil was quick to notice the general intolerance Indian colleges had for inquisitive minds, conceiving passive students with every graduation. The YIFs he met changed his mind. Many of them came from diverse fields, and a question round of 20 minutes stretched to one and a half hours. Menon too gave a talk to the first batch of YIFs, her experience parallel to Harris’: “They were fantastic! So eager, and so curious,”.

The envisioning of Ashoka, however, began in the US in 2012. Together, the founders, Harris and Menon began chalking out the core ideals of the university, and Sinha asked Harris and Menon to build a syllabus for the Centre of Writing and Communication: ‘’the basic pillar of an Ashoka education,” according to Menon.

Before we move onto the next few years, we want to reinforce, as students and writers at the Edict, that though summed up in such a way, hours of strenuous and meticulous planning went into building up the ideals and core principles of our University. For many days and nights, from 2012 to August 2014, Harris—founding Dean of Academic Affairs—Menon and Professor Rudrangshu Mukherjee—the VC designate—and later, as they joined, the other professors, ideated and debated on the structure and components of the University.

As the conversation moved to India, the process of recruiting the other founding faculty began and with that, the conversations multiplied. With every new meeting, the underlying factor remained a pedagogy that essentialises a dialogic classroom. Professor Menon recounts that she jumped at the opportunity of teaching at this novel university. Still, Professor Mandakini Dubey was a bit unsure of Ashoka: “At the time it seemed out of the question for me because it sounded unbelievably far away,”. Professor Malavika Maheshwari too had a contention, one which had to do with the fact that Ashoka was a private university, but: “It was a bunch of founders… it was not a family-owned or business owned enterprise, and the idea of liberal arts was very very fascinating to me”. However, the fundamental foundation of Ashoka won them over.

It is important to note that the primary advertisers of Ashoka were academic circles. The conversations, previously limited to the contracted faculty, augmented outside, attracting a few like Professor Malvika Maheshwari and Professor Aparna Vaidik.

One of the essential themes of these conversations was the framework of Foundation Courses, which Menon refers to as “the spine of an entire four years at Ashoka”. The Foundation Courses would be multidisciplinary, and there would be a lot of importance given to Critical Thinking, emphasised Harris.

The structure of the degree was different from the one we’re exposed to right now. Foundation courses were supposed to occupy the first year of the four year degree, and the Ashoka Quest—a forgotten part of the Ashokan education—was scheduled to take place in the first semester of the second year. Professor Menon pointed out that if the earlier framework had persisted, we both, as second years, would be out in a field—a literal, corporate, non-profit or academic—during this Monsoon semester, figuring out what difference we wanted to make in the world as a citizen of the world, “Learning takes place in multiple locations, that learning is multifold in and out of itself,” she reinforces. Only after all these steps would a student choose their major.

“Many of us had left quite cushy and glamorous jobs to come to Ashoka.” recalls Vaidik, but “the pulsating energy of building a new institution from the ground up” made all of them take a leap of faith. As there were less than fifteen professors, to begin with, each had substantial individual responsibilities. Professor Aruni Kashyap mentions, “I was the only Creative Writing Professor for the first two years, and I had to design a program from scratch”.

The admissions process was preceded by intensive outreach, as Ashoka, both in conception and in itself, was new to the country. Most of the founding professors were involved in the process, “All of us would take turns sitting in on interviews”, says Vaidik. According to them, the founding batch would set a precedent, and as Harris emphasised, they wanted students who were “different and idealistic”. In the end, 127 students formed the Founding batch. They were signing on, said Harris, “For an act of inspired jugaad”. Dubey cites these students as the, “biggest reason for why that first year was so incredibly exciting,”. “Each person was handpicked by the faculty themselves,” adds Vaidik.

The time to move to campus was fast approaching, and Dubey recalls an announcement one evening that changed things enormously for this university. Almost overnight—as Menon reinforced—the government, with the UGC guidelines, disallowed a four-year programme, a few weeks before the first batch of Ashoka showed up on campus. With this spanner in the works, the entire Ashokan four year structure was thrown out the window, and with it, the Ashoka Quest program. However, August 2014 brought with it an end to the planning, and the beginning of the on-ground efforts of this very new, very exciting, much worked on, University.

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