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VC Addresses Townhall; Questions Raised on N.E.P., Academic Freedom, Substance Abuse

Recognising the growing list of concerns among Ashokans this semester—ranging from the National Education Policy (NEP) to issues of substance abuse—, the Student Government (SG) organised a town hall with the Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Somak Raychaudhary, and the Dean of Academic Affairs (DAA), Professor Bikram Phookun on Monday, the 30th of October.

National Education Policy (NEP)

Providing clarity on changes to academic requirements following the NEP, the DAA noted that the Office of Academic Affairs (OAA) cannot specify major/minor requirements, as these are set by the respective academic departments. Phookun explained that some departments have not yet provided a clear understanding of all required trajectories and until the OAA receives all the information, further clarity cannot be provided.

The decrease in the maximum credit cap was also brought up. The credit cap is unrelated to the NEP and the four-year program, the DAA asserted, and the central government has no such restrictions. He stated that the credit policy and the four-year program merely happened to be announced at the same time.

The DAA explained that this cap was an ad-hoc measure. When foundation courses were brought up to 9, many students found it difficult to complete a minor. Due to this, special permission was given to increase course credits to 26 in the fifth and sixth semesters, but, contrary to popular belief, this was never standard university policy. The DAA stated that “different faculty members have different attitudes” towards the credit policy. However, he said that in the last Heads of Department meeting, “there was, in general, strong opposition to allowing students to do any number of credits as they wished”.

The DAA assured all present he had written down a credit policy after significant consultation with the academic heads of departments, the OAA, and the previous DAA (Professor Bharat Ramaswami). The policy will be made public following deliberations by the Academic Council and the governing body. He ended by saying, “I, personally, am sympathetic to students being allowed to take more credits but I have to balance all the concerns”. The VC added that he hoped to have a clear answer on the issue by the end of this semester.

On the new four-year degree program, the VC clarified that the NEP as a policy is itself still evolving, and that Ashoka has adopted only the four-year degree aspect of the policy. The UG ‘26 batch (currently in their second year) is subject to a four-year degree since the policy was adopted for the academic year during which they enrolled. Sophomores now have the opportunity to exit either with a three-year or a four-year degree, as opposed to the previous three-year degree plus Ashoka Scholars’ Program (ASP) post-graduate diploma. Whereas earlier, the fourth year granted a diploma but wasn’t formally a part of the undergraduate degree, the new program ensures that by the end of four years students receive a government-recognised degree four year undergraduate honours degree. Though the three-year option remains, the VC hoped to “make four years the default.” According to him, the details will evolve over the years along with the NEP, which is also “shifting its goalposts”.

When asked why Ashoka adopted the four-year structure knowing that the NEP was still changing, the VC stated that this was because the administration felt sufficiently equipped to do so due to the existing ASP. Thus, Ashoka decided to take the lead over other universities—since they would take a few more years to implement the same.

Academic Freedom

Multiple questions regarding academic freedom, particularly on Ashoka’s response to the discourse surrounding Dr. Sabyasachi Das’ paper this summer, were brought up by students. The VC repeatedly affirmed Ashoka’s commitment to academic freedom, stating, “Academic freedom is built into the university’s fabric” and that “ it can’t be separated from it”. He drew attention to the fact that government centres, companies, and other universities formally regulate their faculty’s research and said, “We [Ashoka] absolutely do not want to do that.” He emphasised that the university provides the resources for research. Yet, the views expressed in such research do not belong to the university. The VC continued, “It’s very clearly written in the guidelines that go to every student, every faculty, etc. that if you’re writing a newspaper article, for example, you say that it is your own view, that it doesn’t belong to the university’s.” He assured that papers published by faculty, after peer review, are affiliated with the university—as is the case across universities.

Regarding Das’ paper, the VC recounted that it was uploaded to social media before peer review. Subsequently, debate on it heightened and the media painted it as “the Ashoka paper”, even though it hadn’t been—and is yet to be—peer-reviewed. Due to this, it was felt that the university needed to make a clear stance. “We wrote that very explicitly,” the VC said, “that, in Ashoka, we stand by the academic faculty when they produce a piece of research, they are free to do whatever they want, but it does not represent our views. That’s all we wanted to say.” Raychaudhary also highlighted that a “comedy of errors” followed when misunderstandings arose between the faculty and the administration, which played out in the public eye. He pointed at the number of articles, papers, and op-eds written by Ashoka faculty with differing viewpoints as examples of the university’s commitment to academic freedom.

The SG asked whether or not Ashoka, in the future, would defend its researchers whose work comes under media scrutiny even if the results were not yet conclusive. The VC commented, “the current political environment is touchy to sensitive research” and repeated that Ashoka provides facilities for research but does not take responsibility for it, continuing to stand by the peer-reviewed work of its researchers.

When asked about the status of the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC), the VC said that its Charter is yet to be reviewed. He also addressed the delay in the creation of the AFC, saying that when it was first introduced two years ago, faculty members did not come forward to form the committee. He assured that now, however, faculty have come forward and the AFC was in the works.

Substance Abuse and CADI

The SG also asked whether there was increased cognisance of substance abuse on campus and whether this had any impact on campus events, such as the Freshers’ Event which is yet to happen. The VC answered that there was a strong policy against substance abuse on campus but the administration was careful not to encroach on student freedoms as well. He also stated that “substances are illegal” yet “students indulge in them, it happens.” He cited increased external pressure both from the local police and the media, particularly from the Police Commissioner of the local district—who requested that Ashoka regulate alcohol use surrounding the university. “At the time of the Freshers’ Week,” the VC continued, “that was when it reached the peak, when the police started raiding outlets outside the university and also [began] putting pressure on us to make sure we have strict regulations.” Thus, the university decided to postpone the event in order to manage possibility of substance abuse. The VC ended by confirming support from the administration for events such as Freshers’, provided there can be guarantees against substance abuse by the students.

On Monday, an email was sent by the Registrar’s Office— an update on changes to the Committee Against Disciplinary Infractions (CADI). The same day, another email detailing CADI elections to be held the next day was also sent to students. The Edict posed a question regarding the fact that half the seats allocated to students in CADI were vacant as per the email from the Registrar’s Office, to which Aniha Brar, Dean of the VC’s Office, commented, “vacant doesn’t mean not to be filled.”

Media Attention on Ashoka

The VC addressed several questions on recent media attention on Ashoka, starting with founder Sanjeev Bhikhchandani’s recent tweets expressing concern about substance abuse in the university. He re-stated that the university is not responsible for what members of the Ashokan body say and went on to state that when you speak publicly, you open yourself up to criticism—which is what happened in this instance. Regarding Bhikhchandani, a meeting was held and the concerns were addressed. He also defended Ashoka’s approach to media scrutiny, stating that what is reported in the media is often “made-up” and “distorted.”Ashoka aims to take a moderate approach and wishes to avoid getting involved, hence the mild media response.

Course Retakes, Discrimination, TCPD

A student brought up the concern that the grade boundaries for retakes of a course were falling, allowing a higher number of people to retake a course, thereby filling up course caps. The DAA said that the course repeat policy was changed since the C minus boundary was felt to be unfair to those who wanted to improve their grade but did not have the opportunity to retake a course. The previous DAA felt that it would be fair that everyone who wanted to repeat a course could do so, hence the change in the policy.

Another student noted that there was no committee for the redress of grievances on discrimination and wished to know how Ashoka would deal with discrimination that is out of the purview of existing committees. The VC replied that there is a forum, the Inclusion and Diversity Cell, for grievances on discrimination. He further stated that the Registrar’s nodal officer can be approached to make complaints on cases of discrimination. The complaint will then go to a committee that will address it. Aniha Brar added that there were guidelines in progress but, with the new University Grants Commission (UGC) guidelines on student grievance redressal, the formulation of a policy will take longer to comply with updated guidelines. These guidelines will direct the formation of a committee meant to address grievances of discrimination affecting academic performance, in addition to other levels of discrimination. The VC affirmed the administration’s commitment to this and said that this matter will be taken to the Board of Managers in the next cycle.

The Edict posed a question on the alleged absence of the director of the now-defunct Trivedi Centre of Political Data (TCPD) in consultation with the new Center of Data Sciences and Analytics (CDSA). The VC clarified that, to his knowledge, the director was involved in talks regarding the CDSA. The Edict’s request for an update on the status of the CDSA was not answered.

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