Feudal Lords of Pakistan’s Academia

By: Prof. Pervez HoodbhoyThe

A Country’s universities are supposedly the engines of social change, founts of new ideas, and concentrations of high brain power. But Pakistan’s universities are anything but this. Instead, they merely reinforce the pre-modern values and power hierarchies of some ancient, despotic system. During the Mughal period there was a hierarchy laid down by Ain-e-Akbari (1590): amir-e-azam, amir, mansabdar, and ria’ya. Correspondingly, our universities have the vice-chancellor as head honcho. Next are deans and chairpersons, all running their private fiefdoms. Below them come professors who lord over hapless students. There are plenty of rules but court intrigues abound. Visit a typical VC – or amir-e-azam – in his office. You will likely find him surrounded by deans and professors who laugh hysterically at his every joke and entertain him during office hours. In the evenings, the favoured ones are invited to continue this at his home. He brings to mind a village Choudhury sprawled on a cushioned manji with his kammis squatting on the ground. As one massages his feet, another brings a tray of fruit and others regale him with stories. A recent incident underscores the essentially feudal/tribal character of our educational institutions. According to professors of Malakand University, the VC had long let it be known that every teacher – females particularly – must come one-by-one to wish him Eid Mubarak. You owe your job to me, he kept reminding them, and disobedience will cost you dearly in terms of perks, promotions, and study leaves. While most were intimidated by such threats, some 80 teachers were not. They signed a petition addressed to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister challenging the VC’s behaviour. Additionally, they staged a silent protest walk on campus. In a video (watch 2:35) that went viral, the infuriated VC is seen confronting the professors. Pointing to his armed guards he says in Pashto, “If I order them, they will shoot you in your head”. Malakand University is not unique in having a feudal/tribal setup. These exist everywhere with bigger chieftains expecting homage from lesser ones. So, for example, last month the area’s sugar baron and a well-known politician visited Bahauddin Zakariya University, a public varsity in Multan. Although the man has zero connection with scholarship or learning, photos (watch 9:06) show the VC deferentially vacates his high seat for the sugar baron who then occupies it and lectures the teachers. Also seen are obedient, fawning professors falling over themselves as they jostle to get into the camera’s frame. Why are Pakistani professors servile and VCs’ despots? Within societies having strong academic traditions, scholars automatically earn respect through their professional work, authorship of books, sharpness of intellect, and quality of teaching. But on our campuses, power and authority usually derive from an individual’s connections. Upon becoming VC, dean, or chairperson each sets up their own little Mughal darbar. What then matters is the size of your desk and the number of chairs around it. Such pre-modern practices should have faded out but, in fact, have increased in prominence. Back in 1973, as a 23-year old lecturer freshly appointed to the physics department of Islamabad University (later renamed QAU), I recall my very first visit to the VC’s office. Having arrived from a very different academic culture (that of MIT, where professors ride bicycles to work), I involuntarily gasped upon seeing her enormous desk. Why on earth, I asked myself, did she want that huge hulk? But 44 years later when I saw the VC’s desk at Lahore’s Information Technology University, the earlier one seemed tiny. This desk is so big it could do double duty as a helipad! The moral values of feudalism allow easy bypassing of modern ethical standards. At QAU when a dean was caught red-handed writing the evaluation of his own student’s PhD thesis, he promptly took early retirement. No one asked questions and there was much sympathy for him. He went on to become the VC at another university. One QAU VC – my former neighbour – with two wives and two sets of children had his  official residence on campus partitioned. Two sets of play areas were made, also at official expense. He went on to become the VC of a still bigger university in Islamabad. Everyone knows, no one protests. Only a few have clean hands. The consequence: a relatively slow decline has become a thundering  avalanche of collapsing ethics and disintegrating academic standards. No single reason explains everything but one glares at you. After 2002 teachers were inducted and promoted solely on the number of published research papers and books. These people eventually became deans and VCs. This practice continues today although everyone knows (and will privately admit) that at least 90% of university publications are worthless junk. Faked data, plagiarized content, and trivial stuff – everything somehow gets published. Predatory publishers lusting for publication fees happily help. But again, with so few clean hands, no one speaks up. Overall we know we lie to ourselves, feel slightly guilty, but dare not interrupt the ongoing charade. More proof? Then consider the case of Pakistan’s number-one super-decorated professor with 1500+ research publications. His CV says he also publishes 20-25 books yearly through “Bentham Science Publishers (Amsterdam)”. But Bentham is listed in Wikipedia as a global predatory publisher and this particular Amsterdam lies just outside (watch 15:18) Karachi University! These facts are well known but the said professor doesn’t care. He enjoys protection at the prime-minister’s level and also knows there are too many others like him for anything bad to happen.

But why be surprised? After a brief stint in prison the wholesale seller of fake degrees and diplomas – who famously made it to the New York Times in 2015 – is now back in business doing the same thing and using the same building in Karachi as earlier. The powerful in Pakistan need fear nothing. After 1947 India did away with feudalism but Pakistan did not. This was a colossal mistake. Now its anti-democratic tentacles are everywhere, stifling the nation’s economy and suffocating its schools, colleges, and universities. It may still not be too late but the fight has gotten much harder.



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