Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Sylhet is a research-based institution of higher education in Bangladesh. It was established in 1986 with the lofty goals of partaking research in physical sciences and engineering, and was the first university to adopt the American credit system. True to its name, during the first couple of decades, SUST secured the 610th rank in the world list of research-oriented universities.
However, the state of affairs now at the university is far from happy and the academic atmosphere is on the decline. A grim situation of physical violence exists in the campus, too. The miscreants from the ruling political party, masquerading as students, have infiltrated the student community and violence by them, often sanctioned by the administration, had broken out within the campus. Altogether academic sanctity and human decency are unknown elements at the moment.
Most of the present turmoil, if not the whole of it, can be placed at the doors of the top administrators, particularly of the Vice Chancellor of the university Mr. Farid Uddin Ahmed, who had shown total ineptitude for governance and disregard for decency.
The utter chaos currently prevailing in SUST stems from the outdated system of selection of a Vice Chancellor (VC). Whereas Dhaka University (DU), Jahangirnagar University and many other universities in the country rely on their respective Senate to select the best candidate from a panel of candidates for the post of VC, SUST is conspicuous by the absence of Senate and relies solely on the Chancellor (the president of the country), who rubber stamps the individual hand-picked by the ruling party. Consequently, a political candidate, rather than an academically suitable one, is chosen for the post. Accordingly, the incumbent VC of SUST was selected in August 2017 for a four-year term and then given a second term last year, although he is grossly unpopular among students and teachers alike.
According to many articles published in this newspaper and elsewhere, Mr. Ahmed does not have the requisite qualifications required to be a full professor or the Vice Chancellor of a university. Appointment or elevation to the rank of a full professor in almost all the major universities in the world requires distinguished academic achievement―outstanding credentials in teaching, research and scholarly publications recognized by scholars within and outside the academic community.
While nothing to show for himself, not even a doctoral degree, earned or bestowed, Mr. Ahmed made his way to the top of the academic pole via the back door, using the greasy pole of academic shenanigan. In an American university, he can at best be hired as an adjunct faculty, also known as “freeway fliers” because they drive from one campus to another campus in order to patch together a mediocre salary teaching one or two courses per semester, usually without any benefit and job security.
A Vice Chancellor, on the other hand, must be an established executive with demonstrable leadership expertise in higher education, a deep knowledge of and ability in academic matters to promote the mission of the university and a clear sense of the diverse challenges of a public university with an outstanding undergraduate, graduate and professional programs. Moreover, the VC should provide moral stewardship, possess uncompromising integrity and unstinted wisdom, with a record of and administrative experience of working in today’s complex, multi-ethnic and global environment. Mr. Ahmed lacks all the above-mentioned qualities and attributes and is, therefore, deemed unsuitable to hold the office of the VC.
The chaos that enveloped SUST should surprise no one. Mr. Ahmed essentially brought this on himself with his clumsy and self-defeating attempts to ignore the legitimate demands of the resident students of Begum Sirajunnesa Chowdhury Hall. They were unhappy, and even angry, because of the way he was running the university and how callous he still is in dealing with their legitimate grievances.
Shamefully, to wield his power and consolidate his reign, he used state terrorism by unleashing the cops who maimed and injured the students with lathi (bamboo stick) charge, rubber bullets and sound grenades. Alumni who donated money to the students for their sustenance were arrested, physicians who were involved in providing emergency medical assistance to those on hunger strike until death were ordered to stop their humanitarian work and mobile bank accounts of protesting students were shut down. He also used numerous ancillary individuals including his 34 cohorts (VCs)―the academic Harlequins at other public universities, and at times crudely manipulated his enablers, to launch a vicious campaign of disparaging the students with their inflammatory and clownish theatrics.
Mr. Ahmed’s lack of respect for those who disagree with him, as well as misogynistic remark about the marriage ineligibility of female students of Jahangirnagar University because they stay out late at night are reprehensible. It can very well be said that a person who lacks civility and self-respect cannot show respect to others.
The renowned science fiction writer and former popular professor of SUST, Dr. Zafar Iqbal aptly described this deformed personality as a “demon.” One could also call him the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz because he does not have a heart. And there is no wizard behind the curtain to give him one.
Mr. Ahmed’s second term as the VC may now be disintegrating, tumbling toward higher entropy, a term used in physics to describe disorder. There are dangers ahead if he does not resign or removed. The university may descend into utter chaos and be paralyzed by the student movement, rendering him head of a dysfunctional institution. Or there is the risk of an erratic, embattled, paranoid VC who feels that he may be going down the gutters anyway and thus will use all available weapons at his disposal to stay in office.
Finally, we feel that educators and education administrators must move away from the culture of sycophancy and presumptuous self-importance. Otherwise, it would only help to perpetuate a culture of corruption, servility and political subservience, which is endemic in Bangladesh.
Dr Quamrul Haider, Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York and Dr Anisur Rahman, a Nuclear Safety Specialist, Manchester, U.K.