Rushad Faridi is an assistant professor at the department of economics, University of Dhaka. He is on forced leave since 2017 and yet to go back to class despite the High Court ruling terming the university decision illegal. As a symbolic protest, he took a class at the staircase of social science building attended by students from different disciplines. During a conversation with Nahid Riyasad, Rushad Faridi shares his struggle for a just academic environment and the plummeting quality of tertiary education in Bangladesh.
New Age Youth: What is the recent update? Have you started earned back your access to class rooms?
Rushad Faridi: I started protesting because even after the High Court ruling terming my forced leave illegal, the department is yet to give me my rightful access to classrooms on a flimsy ground that the administration is yet to receive the certified copy of the order. I did not expect such media attention on my protests; however this might help to create a public pressure on the department authorities to comply with the High Court order. I am hopeful that this whole episode will be behind me and it will not resolved by next week.
New Age Youth: Where did all these start from?
Rushad Faridi: It all started in 2012, when the department authorities brought up my relationship with a student back in 2010; that student was living abroad at the time when the allegation was made. In an emergency meeting on the issue, I told the authorities that they have been choosing to overlook a number of professional, academic and administrative irregularities but how come they are so eager to discuss my relationship with a student from two years back. Due to my choice of words and rightful indication towards some serious issues of the department, the authorities sent me on forced leave in September 2012.
The department launched an official investigation against me on the allegations. Four years went by but that committee submitted neither any reports nor any punishment for me. Forced leave is not a punishment and the department cannot keep anyone on forced leave forever. According to the university provision, forced leave cannot be extended beyond a 90-day period.
As the authorities could not charge me with anything serious, they thought barring me from taking classes could be an alternative punishment, even though it goes against the university rules.
New Age Youth: Against what kind of irregularities of the department did you speak up?Rushad Faridi: There are a lot of administrative and academic irregularities in the department. In a regular semester, there are 28 classes for a course. In reality, there are many instances, not even half of the required classes are taken. Students don’t get their checked mid-term exam-papers even after appearing in the semester finals. These are nominal crimes compared to others.
A teacher’s room in the economics department was opened after 30 years. That too was because teachers from other departments protested as they suffer from the scarcity of space, a teacher kept a room occupied but never used it for once in three decades. The janitor who cleaned the room was almost fainted because of the pungent gases formed there over the decades.
There are allegations that one teacher uses the same question paper year after year. Another teacher finishes the entire semester by taking presentations from the students on every class so s/he wouldn’t have to prepare for the lecture.
These are severe academic crime but such practices are internalised and institutionalised in our academia to such extent that one teacher, during a meeting in her room asked me, how could I violate the sanctity of the department? For them, the irregularities are entirely normalised and this is how a department should run and if anyone rises against questions — the sanctity of the department is violated.
New Age Youth: When did that forced leave ended and how? What happened after that?
Rushad Faridi: The leave ended in December 2015. From January 2016, I understood that the department is not willing to resolve the matter, so I volunteered and sought a mutual understanding between me and the department. The department perceived this as admitting my faults. Furthermore, the authorities did not offer me any classes in the entire 2016.
It felt like even my presence is embarrassing for the department because I get involved in a lot of student related activities; however, the authorities want a still academic environment where students would not involve in critical thinking. This silence among the students gave the authorities a comfort zone because no one is pointing finger to their irregularities.
From 2016 to mid-2017, I wrote seven letters to the department pointing out all the irregularities in rather strong language. The chair, through an official letter, demanded an apology from me but I said I can apologise for my language, but not for the allegations I brought up. Then I offered an apology, but demanded an investigation on the allegations I mentioned. They did not inform me of any investigation.
Meanwhile, I wrote an op-ed at a Bengali national daily where I argued not only the public university busses are going on the wrong direction (plying on the wrong side of the road is a common practice among public university buses during traffic congestion) but also the public universities are moving on the wrong direction. I pointed out that politically appointed vice-chancellors are a major concern and they can only serve the partisan interest. My piece went viral which enraged different interest groups including a former vice-chancellor and teachers loyal to him. My department took the chance and handed me another forced leave.
New Age Youth: Your symbolic protest of taking an open class on the staircase has attracted a lot of media and public attention. Would you like to share your experience?
Rushad Faridi: During my recent protest, members of Bangladesh Students Union offered me the idea of taking an open class. More than 80 students from different departments and disciplines attended the class making it a really enjoyable experience and so much so, the second open class will be held on next week.
I got such tremendous response from students that I am determined to continue the class, even if I start taking formal classes in the department. In a regular class, we cannot expect such diversity of ideas and interest.
New Age Youth: The opinion-piece you wrote blamed political appointment of vice-chancellors for the current academic environment in public universities. Recently, students protested at Jahangirnagar University, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology University, University of Barisal and Pabna University of Science and Technology against corruption and irregularities of their respective VC’s. What can we make of this?
Rushad Faridi: Political appointment of vice-chancellors is a very serious issue in our public universities since the independence. Following the trend of extreme centralisation of power, loyalty of the VCs’ to the government is increasing. We cannot say this is a new problem.
This has been seriously hampering the relationship between teachers and students. Even when I was a student during the 1990s, the only relation among most of the teacher and their student were of fear. As there are is no accountability of the teachers, this has become the norm.
From my experience, I have seen a teacher do not need to take class and only have to produce poor papers in whatever journal and their promotion is guaranteed. Under this situation, who would want to work for a proper research when they are getting desired post so cheaply?
The condition is such now that the department is monitoring social media activities of the students and if anyone is found interacting on my social media post they may face consequences. So, the students are living in an intimidating environment. Even today, I met a group of students who were scared while talking to me as they have a upcoming viva-voce and were scared of losing mark because they were seen talking to me. When the top of the organisation is on special assignment of entertaining a certain group’s interest, this is bound to happen.
New Age Youth: On the topic of research, neo-liberalism policies are at play in our tertiary education sector. These policies are criticised by experts as these aim to shape higher education more market oriented rather than contextual research focused? What is your take on the question?
Rushad Faridi: I believe that arguing on whether quality research is produced or not is diverting the attention from the main crisis. Research is the job of a university. Considering the current state of public universities, they are not even schools because they cannot do their basic job properly — delivering education. Production of knowledge is secondary and is important only if an institution can deliver education properly.
Let alone research, human rights are violated in the university campuses right and left. A residential student has to go through metal and physical stress only to survive the prevailing academic environment.
In this scenario, without deconstructing the entire system, the public universities are on the path of a slow and gradual demise.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team
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