St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, declared through a press release on February 25, 2017, that it would be preparing to become an autonomous college. The news came as a shock to students, faculty and the non-teaching staff of the college as they hadn’t been consulted while taking the decision. Since then, there have been protests on the college campus, not because the college is applying for autonomy but because of the ‘undemocratic’ way in which this decision was taken.
A student from the economics department of the college told us why students felt that the governing body meeting in which this decision was taken was planned in absolute secrecy, “The meeting was held the day our college fest was starting, so the students were busy. It was in the middle of an extended weekend, where half of the faculty was out of town.” According to him, in spite of all four teacher representatives registering their dissent in the meeting, the governing body decided to apply for autonomy. This led to the first massive revolt by the student body of the college. He said, “Hundreds of students and several teachers stood outside the meeting venue on Saturday (February 25) in silent protest. The principal and the governing body blatantly disregarded a petition signed by 500 plus students and 30 teachers, demanding a consensus and sent out a press release saying that the college is to prepare for autonomy.”
On February 27, around 600 students and teachers marched to the principal’s house and demanded an answer. The principal, Prof. John Varghese, was forced to come out and speak to the students but allegedly gave unconvincing answers. The student told us, “He was not able to answer our questions and continuously kept on saying that he is not obliged to consider our views. One of his key arguments was that college will get more academic freedom but none of the faculty has been asked about it when they are the people who should speak on academic freedom and not non-academics from the church.” A circular was then put up, which defined the merits and virtues of an autonomous college, along with a notice, which said the principal is willing to meet anyone in the office.
There are also allegations that the principal was rude to senior faculty members during the protests. A student from the English department explained, “I don’t know the nuances of what went on between the teachers and the principal but humiliation isn’t a one-way street… However, the principal did retort and say ‘shut up, and sit down, this is not what we discussed in the meeting’ to one of the faculty members.”
Moreover, the college’s staff association passed a resolution which read, “The staff association of St Stephen’s College strongly condemned the threats meted out by the Principal, Prof. John Varghese, to two teacher representatives on the governing body after its meeting held on 25.2.2017, purportedly for giving their dissent on the issue of autonomous status for the college.” The association demanded an immediate public and written apology from the principal to the two teachers and an assurance that such intimidation will not be repeated. The statement also said that members of the association will be resigning from all voluntary administrative positions.
The principal then called a small body of students (students’ union, students’ council and all class representatives) for a meeting with all stakeholders on March 1. One of the students present at the meeting told us that they went to the office only to find out that the governing body will not be joining them. Protesting students and teachers then broke the rule, which prohibits people from using the Andrew Lawns and sat there to express dissent.
While St Stephen’s College has a students’ union, students feel that they aren’t given as much power as they should. The union always has to keep a staff adviser in the loop. The students we spoke to felt that a union representative in the governing body could have helped their case.
The student who was called for the meeting on February 27 is of the opinion that while the Principal’s actions aren’t justified, the teachers could have handled the situation better. She said, “Using the media is one way to pressurise the principal, which definitely can hasten the processes… communication is what we lack within the various rungs of college.” We tried to reach the principal for a comment but he was unavailable.
A statement by the college’s economic society, which is being circulated on Whatsapp, reads, “The rise in fees, the change in curriculum, etc. may affect only the upcoming admissions, but the concentration of complete power in the hands of the present administration, without any system of checks and balances, will be detrimental to our growth and development too.”
The student from the economics department explained why he doesn’t support the college applying for autonomy, “In extensive conversations with my teachers, they have said that they do require the talent pool of the entire university’s faculty to design the syllabus, which happens at present but won’t happen when we become autonomous.” He further added that students are apprehensive that there may be a fee hike later on, which will restrict the intake into the college based on paying capability and will hence, affect the quality of education.
We spoke to C.S. Rawat, the vice-president of Delhi University Teachers’ Association, who voiced his support for the students and faculty of St Stephen’s. He said, “Students and teachers of Stephen’s are in the right to protest against not taking their opinion before taking such a decision. Whatever these changes are, the students will definitely be on the losing side since a fee hike is inevitable.”
Talking about UGC encouraging colleges to apply for autonomy, he said that he supported autonomy being granted to the University but giving autonomy to colleges might have devastating effects because the power will be with the trust, which might not be student or employee friendly. He also expressed his frustrations with the government, “By promoting autonomy, the government is trying to deviate from the preamble of the Indian constitution. DU exists because of an act of parliament and yet, they aren’t even bringing this issue for discussion to the parliament! They are shying away from public debate.”