Universities are bastions of learning and research. They are not only supposed to provide quality teaching, promote research but also support an atmosphere where dialogue can take place. This dialogue or discussion and debate among scholars opens new vistas for research. Diversity of opinion is vital to this experience. Unfortunately, universities increasingly are heading the same way as the larger society – into an abyss where such aspirations are not only stifled but also demonised. My observations come from teaching at the leading university of Pakistan i.e. Quaid-i-Azam University.
In recent past the University has been shut down due to strikes on two occasions. On one occasion students went on a strike to restore their colleagues who had been expelled on disciplinary grounds as per university rules. The second time round it was the faculty that brought academic activities to a halt. The second strike is in full swing at the time of writing of this article. The Academic Staff Association (ASA), a representative body of the faculty, demands the resignation of the Vice Chancellor whom they deem incompetent. I will not delve into the righteousness or otherwise of the demands of the protestors during both these strikes but would like to point out how these protests laid bare the culture of intolerance in the university in the process negating not only the democratic spirit of protest itself but more importantly the spirit of free thought (and speech) that is a hallmark of a world class university.
A reading of email exchanges among faculty members at the faculty portal seems like a 3D adventure ride through the dark ages. Accusations, witch hunts, witch trials and burnings at the stake are the order of the day. Ever since Bush gave us the “you are either with us or against us” mantra we have held on to it like our lives depended on it. The Academic Staff Association (ASA) has given it new life by localising it with slogans like, ‘VC ka jo yaar hai who ghadaar hai ghadaar hai’ (friend to VC is traitor to us). And you don’t have to be a supporter of VC to earn this ire. All faculty members who are against VC but do not agree with ASA’s illegal measures of blocking university transportation to stop students reaching university also fall in this category. All neutrals are also boxed in here. Even those who are simply saying ‘ASA has a right to protest and we have right to teach so please let us teach’ are deemed traitors. Whatever ideological position one takes, if it is not in line with ASA’s boycott of academic activities to force the VC to resign is ‘VC ke yaar’. It gets a new meaning when they chant it at female faculty harassing them into either siding with them or staying quiet for who wishes to be labeled as ‘VC ki Yaar.’
A senior faculty who has recently retired from the university and has been reappointed as a Director on contractual basis posted a link from a news report in which students had given their views on the ongoing strike. As these views challenged the totalitarian views being portrayed by the leading lights of the protest, all hell broke loose. Below the belt personal jibes, insults and threats followed email upon email. A large number of faculty members, some part of ASA others from institutes & centers affiliated to QAU and housed in its premises also gave press releases objecting to this threatening environment in the university perpetuated by certain ASA stalwarts and impeding of educational activities. I was going to post these links for others to read and comment upon. Seeing the treatment meted out to a senior faculty, I thought better of it.
The purpose of faculty email portal is to provide a platform for exchange of ideas. If we cannot discuss our ideological and political positions amongst colleagues and improve our thinking processes through their constructive feedback, how are we supposed to advance learning and challenge or add to the already existing knowledge base? This atmosphere of openly threatening opposing views suppresses any possibility of such productive exchange. The threatening emails at the faculty email portal make it clear that intolerance is increasingly being institutionalised in higher institutes of learning even like Quaid-i-Azam University which until now had been a safe haven for progressive thought and speech. It would be a shame if it were to fall prey to the ills of the larger society like intolerance rather than providing hope for a tolerant and progressive society.
The writer holds a PhD degree from University of Cambridge and is an Assistant Professor at the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.