Kerala universities in limbo amid State govt-Governor fracas

Kerala universities in limbo amid State govt-Governor fracas

As Governor Khan ‘opts out’ of Chancellor post, varsity administration hits stalemate; what's the way out for Pinarayi government?

For a month now, universities in Kerala have not had a Chancellor. Governor Arif Mohammad Khan, ‘by virtue of his office’, is the Chancellor of all the universities in the State, and is the ultimate authority in administrative matters. The stand-off between the Pinarayi Vijayan government and the Governor that has been hitting the headlines for a while has created a stalemate in  some of the universities in the State.

The members of the Syndicate — the highest decision making body of the universities in Kerala — are clueless on how to tackle this situation, as there is no precedent. How far can a university function without a Chancellor? This question is being raised for the first time in the State, as this is the first instance since universities were first established, where the Chancellor has refused to discharge his duties.

‘By virtue of office’

“The Chancellor is not a person who is appointed to that position,” said NK Jayakumar, former Vice Chancellor of the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS). “He is the Chancellor ‘by virtue of his office’, according to law. Hence, relinquishing the position is illegal.”

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Jayakumar, who has also been the secretary of the Legislative Assembly, told The Federal that the Governor’s statement to the media — about his relinquishing the position of Chancellor and refusal to process the files being sent from universities — set an undesirable and illegal example. “Quitting the position of Chancellor is as good as quitting the position of Governor,” Jayakumar, who is currently the legal adviser to the Chief Minister, told The Federal. The government would take an appropriate decision to resolve the crisis, he added.

Kerala universities are autonomous institutions constituted on the respective statutes that define the position of the Chancellor and the duties and functions to be discharged by his office. Section 7 of the Mahatma Gandhi University Act of 1985 stipulates that ‘the Governor of Kerala shall, by virtue of his office, be the Chancellor of the University”. The section further defines the functions and duties of the Chancellor, but does not refer to his authority to quit the position by himself.  The statutes under which other universities operate — such as Calicut University, Kerala University and Sree Sankara University — also define the role of the Chancellor in the same manner.

Extent of impact

How far are the universities affected by the row? The Chancellor has nothing to do with the day-to-day administration of a university, say experts. On the other hand, he is the sole authority in appointing its Vice Chancellor and the Pro-Vice Chancellor. “It happens once every five years, in the usual course. That apart, a person who is the nominee of the Chancellor has to be present in the interview board for the appointment of teachers. Besides, the Chancellor is the authority to hear the appeals against the decisions taken by the Syndicate,” said Professor MH Ilias, Dean of the School of Science and Syndicate member of Mahatma Gandhi University. 

The filling of teachers’ posts is stalled by the Governor’s refusal to act as the Chancellor. Ilias told The Federal that around 20 such appointments are due in Mahatma Gandhi University  because of the stalemate.  

The university would send a list of people to be selected as the nominee of the Chancellor for the interview to each post. The Chancellor would select one person from the list to represent himself in the interview board. However, according to sources, this process has not been happening in many universities in Kerala for the past few months. 

“The Governor has been refusing to send his nominee for interviews for a few months even before December,” said a professor and Syndicate member of a university in Kerala.  (Khan announced that he quit the position of Chancellor on December 8, 2021).

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“Generally speaking, the absence of a Chancellor does not create any immediate crisis as he has no role in the regular administration of a university,” said Prof M Manoharan, Syndicate member of the University of Calicut. “If there is a person aggrieved by any decision of the Syndicate, his appeal would go to the Chancellor. The Governor has to act if there is a dispute between the Vice Chancellor and the Syndicate. All these are not situations that arise frequently,” he told The Federal.

What the government can do

According to experts, it is not mandatory for the Governor to perform the role of Chancellor. ‘Different States follow different practices. What Kerala has to do is to amend the concerned Acts to remove the Governor from the position of the Chancellor,” said Manoharan.

An amendment passed by the Legislative Assembly is the only way out, experts observed. However, the Government has not yet made a move — be it to bring in an Act or to reach an amicable solution with the Governor. 

Khan, who openly went on a war of words with the State government, refuses to handle the files being sent from the universities. He has instructed his office not to accept any such file and to return them to the Chief Minister’s office. A continued stalemate will certainly clog the administration of universities — a never-before crisis for the State.

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