Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity, or JNU, has long been the coun­try’s lead­ing univer­sity in the gen­eral cat­e­gory, but has of­ten been in the na­tional lime­light for the wrong rea­sons. Seen as a strong­hold of Left-lean­ing aca­demics, the univer­sity has in re­cent years be­come an ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle­ground with right-wing thinkers now find­ing a space in the JNU uni­verse. How­ever, pol­i­tics aside, the premier in­sti­tute con­tin­ues its jour­ney of aca­demic ex­cel­lence. In an ex­clu­sive interview with Senior As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor Kaushik Deka, JNU vice-chan­cel­lor M. Ja­gadesh Ku­mar, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor from IIT Delhi who took charge in 2016, outlines what makes JNU a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence and the chal­lenges it faces.

Q. What makes JNU the best univer­sity in the coun­try? A. JNU’s suc­cess is due to the fact that there is an ecosys­tem that promotes aca­demic ex­cel­lence by en­cour­ag­ing fac­ulty mem­bers and stu­dents to ex­plore emerg­ing ar­eas of re­search, and also, by mak­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­ce­dures more efficient and simple.

Q. JNU is the best in In­dia, but still not high up there in global rank­ings. Why aren’t In­dian univer­si­ties meet­ing global stan­dards?

A. The pa­ram­e­ters global rank­ing sys­tems use are not suit­able for many coun­tries, es­pe­cially for coun­tries like In­dia. Our univer­si­ties have larger ob­jec­tives than just get­ting into the top 100. Here we need to look at

how we can make our ed­u­ca­tion more in­clu­sive and ac­ces­si­ble while at the same time striv­ing for ex­cel­lence. Most of these rank­ing method­olo­gies fo­cus on the num­ber of No­bel lau­re­ates a univer­sity has pro­duced or the vol­ume of funds it re­ceives. The size of the cor­pus of some of these univer­si­ties could be higher than the na­tional bud­get of some coun­tries. We can­not have such a sce­nario in In­dia. Our goal should be to build an ecosys­tem in our univer­si­ties that pro­vides high-quality ed­u­ca­tion to peo­ple who come from dif­fer­ent sec­tions of so­ci­ety.

Q. What new ini­tia­tives have you in­tro­duced since tak­ing charge in 2016?

A. The univer­sity has ex­panded its aca­demic pro­grammes with the estab­lish­ment of the School of En­gi­neer­ing and Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee School of Man­age­ment and En­trepreneur­ship, Spe­cial Cen­tre for Dis­as­ter Re­search, Spe­cial Cen­tre for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stu­dents, Spe­cial Cen­tre for North East In­dia Stud­ies and Spe­cial Cen­tre for E-learn­ing. To con­trib­ute our bit to the cam­pus en­vi­ron­ment and to make com­mut­ing in the sprawl­ing cam­pus eas­ier, we have in­tro­duced e-rick­shaws. We are con­struct­ing a new hos­tel to pro­vide more ac­com­mo­da­tion to stu­dents. From this year, we have in­tro­duced a com­puter-based en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion con­ducted by the Na­tional Test­ing Agency. We have delinked the MPhil and PhD pro­grammes to en­able stu­dents to di­rectly join PhD pro­grammes af­ter com­plet­ing their master’s

de­grees. We are in our 50th year—no con­vo­ca­tion was ever held till I joined. This Au­gust, we will be hold­ing our third con­vo­ca­tion.

Q. How do you plan to raise the bar for JNU?

A. I of­ten tell our fac­ulty mem­bers that there is no room for com­pla­cency. We may be the best in the coun­try, but we still have miles to go. One of the big­gest chal­lenges is to re­cruit fac­ulty mem­bers of in­ter­na­tional stan­dard. It’s eas­ier said than done. It’s also im­por­tant to in­clude stu­dents from di­verse back­grounds and geo­graph­i­cal re­gions. Di­ver­sity helps stu­dents think out of the box; else their think­ing gets con­di­tioned in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion. Our challenge is to make our stu­dents think dif­fer­ently and ques­tion the teach­ers. That is when new think­ing and new ideas emerge. We have not done that for far too long. A stu­dent must be able to stand up in the class­room and crit­i­cally ques­tion his teach­ers. Most teach­ers expect obe­di­ent stu­dents in the class­room.

The sec­ond ob­jec­tive is to build in­fra­struc­ture. For that, the univer­sity must raise in­ter­nal re­sources. De­pend­ing on the gov­ern­ment is not suf­fi­cient. Is the univer­sity do­ing enough to en­cour­age its fac­ulty to go for spon­sored re­search? In the past three years, our spon­sored re­search fund­ing has gone up to about Rs 105 crore.

An­other im­por­tant as­pect is the ad­min­is­tra­tive ma­chin­ery. Is the ad­min­is­tra­tive ecosys­tem good enough to en­cour­age fac­ulty to go for col­lab­o­ra­tive re­search with the in­dus­try? There are so many bu­reau­cratic pro­ce­dures within the univer­sity. We are try­ing to sim­plify these bu­reau­cratic hur­dles by in­tro­duc­ing tech­nol­ogy. We are ed­u­cat­ing our ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cials to be­come more pro-ac­tive while stick­ing to the rules. For in­stance, we have in­tro­duced the sys­tem of e-of­fice, avoid­ing the move­ment of pa­per files. In the next one year, we are go­ing to build an en­ter­prise re­source plan­ning (ERP) sys­tem for the en­tire univer­sity. Peo­ple will be­come more ac­count­able once the process is transparen­t.

Q. Many crit­ics say In­dian univer­si­ties can­not com­pete with global ones in terms of re­search. Does JNU do things


dif­fer­ently in terms of so­lu­tionori­ented re­search?

A. For re­search, two things are re­quired. If it is sci­ence-re­lated, we need to build the in­fra­struc­ture. That’s a long process. The sec­ond thing is choos­ing the right can­di­date. There are many peo­ple who want a PhD but may not be in­clined to­wards re­search. They may want to en­rol for a PhD be­cause of peer pres­sure or for bet­ter job op­por­tu­ni­ties. So, dur­ing the time of se­lec­tion, we must spend enough time with the can­di­date to find out if he or she is cut out for re­search. West­ern univer­si­ties have a very thor­ough se­lec­tion process. I’m very op­ti­mistic about the re­search sce­nario in In­dia.

Our univer­sity is known for ba­sic re­search and has won sev­eral na­tional awards. The challenge now is to take ba­sic re­search to ap­plied re­search and ap­plied re­search to the mar­ket. We have es­tab­lished a School of Man­age­ment and En­trepreneur­ship. We have mod­i­fied our IPR pol­icy and reg­is­tered a Sec­tion 8 company. Our fac­ulty can now set up start-ups within the cam­pus. We al­ready have two start-ups and an­other seven or eight are com­ing up. We have iden­ti­fied 10,000 square feet area for this.

Our top ar­eas of re­search in­clude en­vi­ron­men­tal chem­istry, nano-sciences, can­cer bi­ol­ogy, in­fec­tion bi­ol­ogy, vac­cine de­vel­op­ment, com­pu­ta­tional lin­guis­tics, ig data an­a­lyt­ics, so­ci­ol­ogy, his­tory, pol­i­tics and in­ter­na­tional stud­ies. JNU has re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions with ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions within In­dia as well as abroad. One such col­lab­o­ra­tion is with the Hei­del­berg Univer­sity in Ger­many to con­duct a joint PhD pro­gramme.

Q. You have talked about choos­ing the right can­di­date for a PhD but what about the right sub­ject? Do we do enough so­cially rel­e­vant and so­lu­tion-ori­ented re­search?

A. In the past decade or so, so many is­sues have be­come global in na­ture. It could be the wa­ter cri­sis, in­fec­tious dis­eases or cli­mate change. When we do re­search, it must lead to some prac­ti­cal solutions to the chal­lenges we are fac­ing. Our re­search must be rel­e­vant to so­ci­etal is­sues. This is where so­cial sci­en­tists, sci­en­tists, doc­tors and tech­ni­cal ex­perts must work to­gether. For too long, we have worked in si­los. That is why when we started a School of En­gi­neer­ing in JNU, we in­tro­duced a unique dual de­gree. For the first four years, a stu­dent can study, for in­stance, com­puter sci­ence or any other en­gi­neer­ing sub­ject. In the fifth year, he or she can spe­cialise in Korean stud­ies or arts and aes­thet­ics or com­par­a­tive lin­guis­tics and sev­eral such sub­jects. There is a re­think­ing on this even from the fund­ing agen­cies, which are ask­ing—what’s the use of your re­search to so­ci­ety?

Q. In re­cent times, JNU has of­ten been in the news for the wrong rea­sons. It’s seen as a hub of Left in­tel­lec­tu­als. Sev­eral me­dia groups and right-wing activists call it the home of the tukde tukde gang... A. Right from the time I joined, I have pro­moted and en­cour­aged di­verse views. Con­flict­ing thought pro­cesses must co-ex­ist in the univer­sity. Only then will new ideas emerge and in­no­va­tion hap­pen. In the past three years of my ten­ure,


I have en­cour­aged all kinds of thought pro­cesses in the univer­sity and it will con­tinue. Any sys­tem, when it is used to cer­tain pro­cesses, will re­sist change.

Q. Two of JNU’s alumni are in the Union Cab­i­net. What does it mean for the univer­sity?

A. We are al­ways proud of our alumni. They have con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly in di­verse fields such as pol­i­tics, aca­demics, bu­reau­cracy and me­dia. Last year, we de­cided that it is im­por­tant to recog­nise such con­tri­bu­tions and in­sti­tuted the dis­tin­guished alumni award. So, last week, our ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil de­cided that in our next con­vo­ca­tion in Au­gust, we will hon­our Union ministers Nir­mala Sithara­man and S. Jais­hankar with the dis­tin­guished alumni award. We are in the process of iden­ti­fy­ing many more such con­tri­bu­tions.

Q. The draft Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy 2019 is out. How do you think it will im­pact univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in the coun­try?

A. The Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy 2019 is a very com­pre­hen­sive doc­u­ment. But the challenge lies in how we work out a time­line and ac­tion plan to im­ple­ment the same. This is where aca­demi­cians, univer­si­ties and higher ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tutes should come for­ward. We expect the gov­ern­ment to do every­thing. Can’t the univer­si­ties take the ini­tia­tive and tell the gov­ern­ment this is what we want to do? Of­ten we seek greater au­ton­omy. But when au­ton­omy is granted, we don’t make enough use of that.

Q. What are the three qual­i­ties that you seek in a stu­dent as­pir­ing to get into JNU?

A. Keep that flame of cu­rios­ity burn­ing within you. That’s the first in­gre­di­ent. De­velop the habit of critical think­ing. And, fi­nally, ex­plore your po­ten­tial to the fullest. Even though we may know what our inner po­ten­tial is, we of­ten don’t func­tion to the fullest of our po­ten­tial.

SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT JNU VC M. Ja­gadesh (left); stu­dents at the JNU aca­demic cen­tre

SI­LENCE PLEASE The li­brary at JNU

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