After Mehta, Subramanian quits Ashoka University; faculty concerned

With the resignation of Mehta, seen as a long-time critic of the ruling government, questions are being asked of the university’s ability to weather political pressures
Two days after Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former vice chancellor and professor of political science, resigned from Ashoka University, former chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian, a professor of economics at the university, also resigned on Thursday.

Describing Mehta's resignation as "devastating" and "troubling", Subramanian, in his resignation letter to Vice Chancellor Malabika Sarkar, said that even Ashoka, with its private status and private capital backing, was no longer being able to provide "a space for academic expression and freedom" was "ominously disturbing".

Following the two high-profile exits, through a joint statement around 100 faculty members urged Sarkar and the university founders to ask Mehta to rescind his resignation.

Meanwhile, in his resignation letter, Subramanian wrote: "Above all, that the University's commitment to fight for and sustain the Ashoka vision is now open to question makes it difficult for me to continue being part of Ashoka."

In his letter, where he expressed "deep regret" and "profound sadness" over his resignation, Subramanian said he had come to Ashoka University with the aim of teaching students and building a centre for economic policy to shape national capacity for high-quality research, analysis and communication.

In the statement to Sarkar, the university’s faculty members expressed “anguish" at Mehta's resignation and wrote that his departure raised "urgent questions about the university’s commitment to academic freedom as well as its internal processes".

Describing Mehta’s resignation as ‘devastating’, Subramanian, in his resignation letter, said that Ashoka was no longer being able to provide ‘a space for academic expression and freedom’
In the joint statement issued on Thursday, the faculty members said it seemed "plausible" that Mehta's resignation was a direct consequence of his role as a public intellectual and critic of the government.

"We are greatly troubled by this scenario. Even more troubling is the possibility that our university may have acceded to pressure to remove Professor Mehta or to request, and accept, his resignation. This would fly against the principles of academic freedom on which Ashoka University has been set up — and which Professor Mehta, in his time as Vice Chancellor and University Professor, has so scrupulously fought to defend. It would also set a chilling precedent for future removals of faculty, curtailing our sense of who we are as researchers and teachers," read their statement.

Arvind Subramanian
An email to Ashoka University from Business Standard did not elicit any response till the time of going to press. Senior university officials could not be contacted despite several messages and phone calls made to them. Subramanian, too, could not be reached despite repeated attempts.

Funded entirely by donations, the liberal arts and sciences university at Sonepat in Haryana was founded by a group of over 70 entrepreneurs and industry leaders in 2014. The university was recently awarded diamond rating by QS I.GAUGE, an India-specific rating agency for London-based Quacquarelli Symonds, on seven parameters including teaching and learning, faculty quality, research, employability, faculty diversity and facilities.

With the resignation of Mehta, seen as a long-time critic of the ruling government, questions are being asked of the university’s ability to weather political pressures.

An article in The Edict, an independent student newspaper of Ashoka University, implied that "there was more to Mehta's resignation than meets the eye".

In their letter, the Ashoka faculty also asked the vice chancellor to clarify the internal protocols of faculty appointment and dismissal, and reinforce the university’s institutional commitment to the principles of academic freedom.  

"We stand fully in support of Professor Mehta and all academics who risk their personal and professional well-being by speaking truth to power," read the joint statement by the Ashoka faculty.

Meanwhile, it is learnt that Vice Chancellor Sarkar spoke to Mehta asking him to consider withdrawing his resignation. However, this could not be independently verified from the university.

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