The University and the Current Moment of Crisis – The Island


by Hasini Lecamwasam

Sri Lankans continue to protest against a corrupt government and, above all, demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his extended family. As the call for the resignation of the government intensifies and becomes more specific, I begin to wonder if any government, however powerful, can single-handedly bring about this kind of socio-economic free fall. What have other individuals, other institutions, other spaces, other processes and mechanisms done so far, within and outside of governance? What did the university do, more specifically in my context, until the situation turned into this nightmare? It is clear that many outside the current government have been complacent in taking the country down this path, including and especially academics. Therefore, I write this article to urge scholars to engage in painful soul-searching at this time of crisis.

The role of the academic in politics

Academics have just as much right, and perhaps even a greater obligation, to intervene in politics than any other citizen. But their reasons matter. And the nature of their intervention matters. They matter because their choices influence those of many others. They influence others because academics are taken seriously. I don’t think it’s improper for academics to get involved in macro-level decision-making. In fact, they are expected to bring their expertise and experience to such processes, with a view to helping the country make better decisions, overall. The parameters within which they engage in such exercises must, however, be carefully considered. For example, consider the case of an academic taking a principled position on a given issue and providing qualified support (through lending expertise) to a sitting government in an attempt to find a solution to said issue. politically. I doubt that many objections can be raised against such an exercise.

What we have seen in recent decades, however, is a practice of academics joining the ranks of governments – ranging from Cabinet portfolios to minor but lucrative bureaucratic posts – without ever clarifying their ideological position. They supported inconsistent policies and positions from a wide range of political factions, mostly as well as their regressive politics, quietly returning to college when they fell out of favor. We hear less and less of academics leaving a government in power because they disagreed on a matter of principle.

Intellectual dishonesty

I use the term “intellectual dishonesty” here to refer to academics who find it possible to tout all sorts of lines, regardless of their consistency and ideological/political implications, let alone their own integrity. intellectual, in exchange for and material benefits. In most cases, much of this is unchallenged due to the high positions some of them hold in the narrow university hierarchy and the immunity they offer.

Let me repeat that academics are expected to take political positions. I don’t blame Viyath Maga, for example, for taking a stand to create the world they thought was the best. It was their right to do so. But I blame them for, in the process, systematically stifling space for dissenting opinions; mocking, ridiculing and dismissing dissenting concerns as boring frivolities that should have no place in a vision of progress they thought was guaranteed to work. Academic dishonesty does not occur when these same academics take to the streets to protest against the government they themselves put in power; no, it happens when, even as they do, they continue to insist on the strong arm rule as the way forward for the country; it occurs when they continue to faithfully maintain a debilitating hierarchy within the academic space where they behave no better than the leaders they are trying to oust.

Do academics have the capacity to “up the game” in politics?

That this question is even justified is unfortunate. Ideally, universities should have the capacity, and indeed are expected to play an active role in policy-level decision-making. Our research is meant to inform not only our teaching, but also our socio-political engagements, including and especially political interventions. For the natural sciences, this means engaging in research that produces technological innovations, medical and engineering solutions, etc., while for the social sciences, it means illuminating the principles that underlie our economic, political and social arrangements.

Both require an ethical intellectual commitment to creating a better society and preserving the conditions for such a situation (called “academic freedom”) to thrive.

This has generally not been the case in Sri Lanka over the past decades. Politicians hardly approach academics with serious research credentials (because their deployment of academics is purely instrumental), which tends to increasingly alienate committed academics from political engagement and less serious ones under the political spotlight. The cycle continues to perpetuate itself, leading to the emergence of a group of yes men (and women) who give credibility to bad political choices, and on the other hand an isolated university whose expertise is rarely exploited, in the interest of politics at large. . As much as the country needs radical reform, the academic community and the university as a whole also urgently need to mend their ways.

Recent attempts to address this urgent need to “mend our ways” have resulted in cumbersome quality assurance processes that further eat into the little time academics have to meaningfully engage in research and policy. . The focus has been on demonstrating the value of our work by producing a mountain of documentation, potentially at the cost of such work. If, instead, we devoted this time and energy to regular seminars and similar events where our research and policy interventions are subjected to critical peer review, it would oblige us (in the best possible way) to reflect on our choices, their ideological correctness, and their social and political implications.

Go forward ?

Are we prepared to adhere to the required professional ethical standards that would give us the intellectual independence and moral grounding needed to challenge despotic government? Are we, simultaneously, prepared to engage with political authority from such an ethically/morally committed place, rather than simply refusing to work with them? Reflecting on these questions can prompt us to reintroduce a culture of criticism in the university, as proposed above, which would go a long way to ensuring intellectual integrity. Such change can only be brought about by a conscious transformation of our practices, rather than the imposition of stifling rules and regulations.

I remember at this point a comment made recently by a colleague who participated in the FUTA protest march: the song we were listening to contained a stanza blaming the government for ruining this, that and the other, including education (all very justified, by the way). He was reading ‘adhyapane wanasuwa’ (‘you have ruined education’), instead, he laughs, they chanted ‘adhyapane api kawa!’ (‘we have ruined education!). This, although said in jest, is in my opinion a useful starting point. Most academics currently lack not only the political awareness and will to engage in the present moment, but also the moral legitimacy to do so. Correcting the situation requires, above all, upping our own game which, if done consciously and systematically, will invariably equip us with the moral and intellectual leadership necessary to intervene meaningfully in the current moment of crisis and the debate that surrounds it. Until and unless that happens, we may not be able to afford to be a viable alternative force to a despotic government.

(The author teaches at the Department of Political Science at the University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy taking place on the fringes of the amphitheater that simultaneously parodies, subverts and reaffirms social hierarchies.


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