by Divya Ravindranath
Amidst campus reopening emails, the Ashokan student body found itself gripped by yet another important mail – the announcement regarding Proctor appointment. Dated 6th of December, 2021, the email stated the university’s decision to appoint certain faculty members as Proctors and went on to list their stipulated roles and responsibilities. Broadly designated as ‘discipline monitors’, the duties of the Proctors range from maintaining ‘good order’ among the students to looking for remedies to issues by ‘scrutinizing’ and ‘advising’ the concerned parties. This quest for maintaining good order permits the Proctors, on the request of the OSA, to enter student dormitories and hostel premises and monitor the situation as required. Among these duties, there also exists the provision for ‘pastoral care’. Traditionally defined as an ancient and cultural system of emotional, social and spiritual support – the term pastoral care concludes the overall responsibilities of Ashoka’s proctors to be that of a regulatory and monitory nature.
The Edict reached out to the faculty members appointed as Proctors in order to learn more about their views and outlook on the position. Out of the listed faculty members, The Edict found out that Prof. Abir Bazaz had, for personal reasons, stepped down from proctorship immediately after having accepted it. This piece of information, however, has not been made public to the student body’s knowledge.
Professors Anup Padmanabhan, Anuradha Saha and Rama Akondy’s responses drew some more light on Proctorship and what the position will mean in an Ashokan context. According to Prof. Saha, the rise in disputes between students and the OSA, as well as within the hostel residents, prompted the Vice Chancellor to reach out to faculty members present on campus, back in September 2021. Prof. Saha and Prof. Padmanabhan mentioned that the student government had been informed/aware of the proctor policy too. However, the presence of a confidentiality clause had bound the SG from making any formal communication about the policy to the student body. Advaith Jayakumar – deputy CLM, informed The Edict that the nature of the proctor policy that was discussed with the SG back in September turned out to be vastly different from its current, official version. The SG had a vague, unclear understanding of what the proctor system would look like, and were told that it would be modeled on a Cambridge system that worked as a grievance redressal mechanism. However, a comparative analysis of the Cambridge system of proctorship along with the Ashokan system reveals the former to have a more specific nature of objectives. From the list of seven duties, only the first runs in similarity to the Ashokan system – “Ensure good order and discipline in the University.”
The Board of Management approved the policy sometime in September, and the concerned faculty members were then given the official document by October 17th. This document made the nature of their duties more specific, most of which insinuated a moderator-role, where proctors would mediate in cases of disputes among students and the OSA. They would also step-in to assist and advise/help the OSA in certain situations, as and when required. Prof. Saha’s responses threw more light on the issue, by elaborating on the contrasting set of priorities and ideals between the student body and the OSA since the onset of the pandemic. During the monsoon semester of 2021, the OSA had to walk the tightrope of ensuring both COVID protocols, as well as safe habitation of students. On the other hand, students wanted to make the most of their first semesters on campus, thus creating a rift of priorities within both parties. “If a neutral party like the faculty can help ease the tension, it is worth trying.”, said Prof. Saha, “However, I do not see that the proctors would be required frequently or even in the long run. I am hoping that the residence experience will be much smoother after the COVID-panic peters away.”
Prof. Akondy exhibited similar thoughts, “I think there are bound to be disagreements between Admin/Proctors/Students. My hope is that we all engage in dialogue just as fellow human beings, see how this role evolves and in time objectively evaluate the pros and cons.” Prof. Padmanabhan’s views, as well, ran in similar tangents – “I view the role of a proctor as a facilitatory one. To begin with, student welfare is paramount. The Proctor position should in no way encroach into the freedom of student movement or student life. I hope all the proctors have a conversation with students concerned to know from the student body what changes they wish to see. We could take it from there”
The reaction of the student body to the proctor announcement, however, was that of general discontent and surprise. Several concerned mails were sent in by students who found the definition of a Proctor’s role quite vague and ambiguous. One such mail was sent in by the former President of the 7th HOR, Jahnavi Rudra. They found the terms “good order” and “pastoral care” to be confusing and ambiguous in the context of Ashoka. The email also challenged the power given to the Proctors through acts of “scrutiny, advising and advocating”. The Proctors’ freedom to enter hostel dormitories at the bequest of the OSA were deemed as an invasion to the students’ rights to privacy, and the OSA’s rationale for such an expansion of power were questioned. Jahnavi also raised several questions on accountability and transparency with respect to the functioning of proctors. Questions such as – In events of unfair treatment by Proctors, would students have any third-party and neutral bodies to approach? Would Proctors be publishing reports that summarized actions taken by them in an interest of transparency? Are proctors also answerable and affiliated with other statutory bodies such as CADI? Do students get to inculcate their opinions within this system by the means of feedback forms, open meetings, etc.?
Students also expressed their general disappointment with the idea of one of India’s finest liberal arts universities stooping to levels of high surveillance and policing. An ASP student further elaborates on this in their email to the student body titled- “Ashoka University : Liberal in name, Illiberal in practice.” They view this proctor announcement as a challenge and disruption to Ashoka’s big guarantees of freedom, liberty and personal growth. Additionally, it was seen as an attempt by the admin to infantilize its student body, to curb their personal liberties, and to dissolve their personal as well as collective responsibilities and ownership to the campus space they ought to call home. Shigraf Haque, another ASP student, sees it as an obstacle to the general goals of high-quality education that Ashoka often boasts of. “Instead of fostering healthy learning and engagement, the focus has shifted to the imposition of restrictions that clearly hinder these goals. The sense of belonging that we felt towards the campus and Ashoka was because of the belief in it as a collaborative project. These actions will simply dissociate students from ever inculcating any sense of personal or collective responsibility towards their activities within the campus”, wrote Shigraf in the email.
The Edict invited the Proctors to comment upon these student emails, and all of them gave similar responses. “Yes, I read some student emails. It is unfortunate but understandable. The Proctor policy document is quite mysterious by itself. However, some of the reactions were from students who had studied my courses. I had hoped that they would know that I have a mind of my own and unlikely to be pressured into agreeing to something! Nevertheless, even if they didn’t know me, they should know that Ashoka faculty have always called a spade a spade. Sometimes OSA will need to hear it and other times the students”, said Prof. Saha. “This role is out of my comfort zone (most things except flow cytometry are!), but I should not avoid it. I hope I can come through for the students”, said Prof. Akondy. Prof. Padmanabhan too, was aware of the general student body reaction – “Yes, I did read a couple of email responses. But I am surprised it stopped with just a few. Nevertheless, I would like to know where those views are coming from. If there are points of concern, I would like to think about addressing them.”
There have been no direct replies or points of contention made by the University in response to the aforementioned student emails.
Students felt at home on campus because of the university’s trust in them, and because they were treated as adults. Life on campus was seen as a collaborative effort, but surveillance tactics such as that of appointing Proctors, disillusion this trust, and take away the collaborative feeling from students. Former CLM and 6th HoR member, Rithupar Pathy and other ASP students, wrote about the University’s general misdemeanor and mistreatment towards workers on campus, highlighting the administration’s priorities when it came to workers’ welfare and policing of students. A common sentiment in all the aggrieved student emails was that current and future batches at Ashoka should take serious cognizance of such administrative decisions, and be aware of their consequences.