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Who should run the universities?

The best bet is an academic as Vice Chancellor

Who should run the universities?

Whether universities are to be run by academics or professional managers is a widely discussed query on university campuses in Punjab these days. The rumour that the government has decided to waive off PhD as a necessary condition for the Vice Chancellor’s slot has triggered this rumination.

Surely, this cannot be mere musing on the part of an insecure academia. In all probability, some powerful quarters within the Punjab government have taken fancy to the proposition— that a university is managed better if run like a business/investment firm with its CEO bossing over the faculty. Under this proposal, the faculty will act obsequiously under the CEO, supposedly an epitome of ‘competence’ and ‘efficiency’.

These managers might be picked from bureaucratic ranks or some retired army general can be assigned the task to bring discipline to a certain university.

Since academics are considered incompetent to oversee administrative matters, they ought to only teach, carry out research and comply with rules conscientiously. The perception about their inadequacy to do effective administration is widely believed by the general public. Not only that, the academia is castigated for its laxity and its tendency of shirking work. Therefore, extending any facility to academics implies squandering away of resources because they will not have any regenerative effect.

That probably is the reason that education as a means of development figures very low on the government’s priority list.

In this article, I will attempt to refute this impression by analysing the tenures of some of the famous ‘managers’— in a bid to dispel the impression that academics lack the requisite capacity to run universities. Like anywhere else in the world, nobody can substitute for academics in that particular role.

Academic norms and practices in these institutions of higher learning should be institutionalised instead of the arbitrariness which is prevailing left, right and centre.

Various bureaucrats and army generals were entrusted with the task of running various universities in Pakistan in the recent past. General Safdar and General Akram were Vice Chancellors of the Punjab University and University of Engineering and Technology Lahore. Of the two, General Akram had a fairly long run as the Vice Chancellor. The question that needs to be asked here is: what good did the stints of these generals bring to these universities. They worked somewhat effectively to contain the overriding influence of Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba at the University campuses. However, even with these generals as VCs, the Jamiat still retained its presence.

They did not have any alternative plan or any model to put in practice which could turn the situation around. They might have brought about a few cosmetic changes like carrying out construction work or painting the lower parts of tree trunks white. However, in terms of academic improvement, there is hardly anything worth reporting. The only academic comments available are in the form of a few anecdotes associated with them, like asking the market value of any PhD thesis in the discipline of Urdu.

According to a veteran Professor of the PU, Hamid Ahmed Khan and Khalid Hamid Shaikh are ranked as the best Vice Chancellors that the Punjab University has had in the post partition era. Both of them hailed from academia.

The government has also tried several bureaucrats as Vice Chancellors. Dr Tariq Siddique served in that position first at Allama Iqbal Open University and then at Quaid-i-Azam University. Capt (retired) Dr. Usman Ali Isani immediately followed Dr Siddique to head Quaid-i-Azam University but both the bureaucrats coming one after the other could not conjure up any miracle and the status quo sustained. Similarly, Dr Bilal A Khan was another bureaucrat-turned-Vice Chancellor of Islamia University Bahawalpur, a university which remained as good or as bad as it had been before his tenure.

The University of Engineering and Technology was in dire straits when General Akram took over as Vice Chancellor in 1997. Rival groups of students competed for supremacy and control over the campus. Violence and indiscipline had become permanent features of that university and bringing the UET back on track seemed an uphill task. General Akram managed to do that and a semblance of discipline was restored. He remained in the saddle for 17 years, which presumably makes him the longest serving Vice Chancellor of a public-sector university. However, one cannot spurn the argument that the generals managed to get unequivocal support from the government and bureaucracy, which facilitated them to establish their writ.

Conversely, when an academic is elevated to the Vice Chancellor’s position, he usually struggles to get his voice heard.

In the final analysis, these generals despite all possible support lent to them by the government, could not bring about an academic turnaround. In fact, they were not trained to do so. Thus the best bet is to have an academic as Vice Chancellor. What needs to be done is to impart management training to them, so that they can do a better job as managers of the university.

One problem besetting the universities is a strained relationship between the administration and the faculty. The faculty invariably complains about the arrogance, contempt and derision that the administration holds against the teaching staff. Administrative staff which has no background in academics is, in many cases, apathetic to the problems of the academics.

Thus the demand to have academics in administrative positions has become quite pronounced in various universities.

What is recommended here is that issues pertaining to academics must hold precedence over matters of administration. It is only through academic development that universities will grow and affect positive change in society.

Lastly, academic norms and practices in these institutions of higher learning should be institutionalised instead of the arbitrariness which is prevailing left, right and centre.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • The VC of Aligarh Muslim University is Lt Gen (retired) Zameeruddin Shah. I understand that he is doing well, unlike many academics and civil servants who preceded him. I guess it all depends on the individual.

    Incidentally, the actor Naseeruddin Shah is his brother. He saw action in 1971.

  • Dear Sir, you are very much right in what you say and imagine about university but we are missing one thing and that will let us understand the situation.
    They think universities to be something totally opposite to what an academic thinks. They imagine universities maintenance factories in a larger imagination of this country, status quo. An academics imagination of a university is certainly a threat then.

    • As you say, a large section of the educated Indian population condemns Jawaharlal Nehru University because they don’t restrict themselves to producing doctors, engineers, managers and company executives but encourage students to think about the problems of society.

  • The article is balanced and based on statistics. One need to understand the new rule of the universities and the related expectations. Running universities and developing universities are two different thing. Only visionary academician can develop universities while a CEO can easily and may be even effectively run the university.

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