educational politics

Why a university in California is in uproar over donations by a Hindu right group

The Dharma Civilisation Foundation, that has endowed four chairs in the university, has close links to the RSS, say dissenting faculty and students.

An agreement for endowed chairs between a leading university in California and an American non-profit has led to controversy within the Indian American diaspora.

The University of California, Irvine, had in January 2015 signed an agreement with the Dharma Civilization Foundation, an organisation with links to the Hindu right both in the United States and in India, for four endowed chairs.

In May, the Indian media covered the news favourably. Yet, half a year later, all four chairs have become embroiled in controversy, with faculty and students questioning the foundation’s presence on campus, citing its political links back in India and raising concerns about its possible impact on academics at the university.

“UCI is known for its critical theory emphasis, for its focus on feminist perspectives and looking at gender,” said Ali A Olomi, 29, a graduate student and signatory to a petition against the foundation. “To have someone who openly opposes that and set up four chairs – and these endowed chairs will have an impact not just for one year, but shape the entire culture and scholarship – we find it highly problematic, and a serious issue.”

What are chairs?

American universities have a system of endowed chairs where a fund set up for the purpose will sponsor the academic career of a scholar in perpetuity. These professors have tenure, which means they cannot be removed. As these are permanent chairs, their occupants have the ability to shape the direction of academics in the space around it by attracting undergraduate and graduate students interested in that field.

These universities, renowned for their academic independence from state and religious bodies, are now facing a funding crisis like never before. California had stellar per student funding at the time future US President Ronald Reagan was governor of the state in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since 2000, however, it has had a severe crunch that has led state universities to increasingly seek private funding.

“We desperately need a study of Indian history, but they want Dharma studies, which is different,” said Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at the university. “We are not a seminary, yet we brought in four religious chairs this year.”

The School of Humanities has only four other endowed chairs at present: Jewish History, Rhetoric and Communication, Persian Studies and Culture and Armenian Studies. None of these are religious.

Only one chair funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation, in the study of Vedic and Indic civilisations and worth $2 million, has been confirmed so far. It is the first of four that the foundation plans to endow at UC Irvine – the others are in the study of Sikhism, Jainism and Modern India. The selection process is yet to begin for any of these chairs.

The foundation has already sponsored chairs at two private schools, Graduate Theological Union which is affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and at the University of Southern California.

Kalyan Viswanathan, Executive Vice President and Head of Advancement of the foundation, seemed bewildered at the controversy, even titling it in an official new year’s greeting note as a “tempest in a teapot”.

“Generally speaking, private institutions are, in our experience, a little easier to work with,” Viswanathan said. “Public institutions, that is state supported ones, have their own public rules and public ways of engaging. So this is our first experience actually of some faculty protesting in public, writing a petition and so on.”

The agreement

The process of accepting funds for the chair, say faculty and students, has not been transparent. According to Liu, the Dean of the School of Humanities, Georges Van Den Abbeele, is supposed to invite the donors, existing faculty and the administration for a consultation. However, faculty were not included. They only learned that their South Asianist colleagues were not consulted about this chair at a Faculty Town Hall meeting called by the Humanities Executive Council – a faculty governance body – on December 1, 2015.

“What I found most disturbing is how the Dean sidelined all South Asianists in his own faculty,” said Liu. “The real pity for me is that we are losing an opportunity to understand the complexity and diversity of the Indian subcontinent. That has deeply damaging consequences.”

UC Irvine and the Dharma Civilization Foundation signed a gift agreement in January 2015 detailing the conditions under which the foundation would transfer $1.5 million over five years to the university to establish the first chair – the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies. The university, for its part, would also contribute $500,000, for that chair.

In August, the donors signed three similar agreements for the chairs in Sikh, Jain and Modern India studies, each worth as much as the first. The agreements were followed with formal announcements in May and October. The Thakkar Family chair has already found a place on an official plaque listing endowed chairs in the 50-year-old university.

Since December, faculty members and students have been voicing their concerns in various ways, one of which was a resolution of the department of film and media studies standing in support of their colleagues from South Asia. Students have circulated an online petition speaking against the foundation’s chairs. This has more than 350 signatures.

The university has now convened a review committee to look into the funds. It is likely to submit its recommendations by the end of January.

The Dean and his office did not reply to requests for comment.

The ideal candidate

The contract for the Thakkar family chair specifies that the donors will have an advisory council of three to five members who will be “meaningfully informed” of the selection process. After the chair’s selection, that person and the Dean will have to meet the donor council at least once each year “to preserve a constructive collaboration with the Donors’ intent and University policies and practices regarding this Chair.”

This, say faculty, is an unprecedented amount of control that will impinge on the academic freedom of the occupant of that chair. They also raised concerns of reports that the Dean had informally met potential candidates for the chair in meetings arranged by the Foundation.

Faculty also point to other contentious points in the contract, particularly the profile of the candidate, who will have native knowledge of Sanskrit and another Indian language, will “have demonstrated the ability to forge meaningful and productive partnerships with the Vedic and Indic heritage community in the Western diaspora” and will support the donors’ interest in

uncovering the historic, current and future potential for the pragmatic, ethical, and cultural relevance of Indic philosophies, praxes, teaching, theologies toward the betterment of the condition of humanity and nature (Applied Dharma), including collaborative outreach to the local and national Hindu communities and religious institutions in India.

“Who is a person with close links to the Dharma community?” asked a professor at the university who requested anonymity for fear of threats. “It will be someone with close links to the Hindu Education Foundation. There is a clear separation of church and state in the United States. We can’t advocate religious theology in a state university.”

Hindutva links back home

Also key to the critique of the foundation is the close association of several of its board members with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its American arm, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS also happens to be India’s largest foreign-funded non-governmental organisation, thanks in large part to its several members from abroad,

To list a few examples: Vinod Ambastha, vice president of the Board of Trustees of Dharma Civilisation Foundation, has also been the director of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh since 2013. Shiv Bajpai, president of the executive committee of Dharma Civilisation Foundation, was presented as an independent scholar by the Hindu Educational Foundation in a botched attempt to favourably alter textbooks in California in 2005. Manohar Shinde, also a member of the Dharma Civilisation Foundation’s board of governors and trustees, spent three years as a full-time RSS worker in Chennai.

Faculty also point to a list circulated by the foundation, listing scholars they perceive to be sympathetic to Hinduism and those who are against. Wendy Doniger, whose The Hindus: An Alternative History was pulped by Penguin in India following threats, tops the second list.

This, Viswanathan argues, is not reason enough to object to Dharma Civilisation Foundation chairs at the university.

“This is guilt by association and I think that is very petty,” he said. “There are 13 people on the board and a few of them have sympathies with the present BJP government and the HSS [Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh]. But what is important to remember is that they are all long-standing and respected members of the community who have contributed to American society.”

Chair to go on?

With faculty, administration and donors all eyeing each other with distrust, it is now possible that these chairs might never materialise.

In an email dated December 21 accessed by Scroll.in, Van Den Abbeele wrote,

“While I stand firmly by the protections to academic freedom and to University of California policies and procedures for recruiting faculty as inscribed in the signed gift agreements, more recent information and actions have raised questions regarding the extent to which an open, fair, and non-discriminatory search to fill those chairs funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation remains possible. To this end, we continue to review the situation, while awaiting the duly constituted [School of Humanities] faculty committee’s recommendations on the disposition of these as yet unfilled chairs. ”

Meanwhile, though interest in seeking an endowment came from both sides, even the foundation is taking a second look at their agreement,

“We want a reassurance that we’re not making a major donation just to get the intent of the donor completely disregarded or subverted in some way,” said Viswanathan. “We would rather not give the donation in that case. The university has to ensure that it is creating a reasonably hospitable environment for the donation and the intent of the gift, and not get mired in internal controversy. It’s a very delicately poised situation at the moment.”

The larger picture

Yet the larger issue at hand seems to be a tussle on what the study of religion should be at all. For their part, the Foundation maintains that it is entirely natural to want an insider to study Hinduism in an academic setting.

“The focus of the chair will depend entirely on the faculty member,” Viswanathan said. “Hinduism being so vast and diverse, we cannot expect one person to cover its depth and range. That’s ok with us.”

He dismissed the protest as representing less than five per cent of the total faculty – and most of them being spearheaded by faculty of “Hindu origin” – and being “Hinduphobic”.

“The concern of DCF is that there must be a space for the study of tradition. This is primarily for the benefit of the younger generation in the USA. DCF has no intentions beyond that. To impute motivations beyond that is too far-fetched.”

While accepting that given willing sponsors the foundation was open to sponsoring chairs in the study of Sufism or indigenous religions, Viswanathan also dismissed the possibility of the occupant of the Thakkar chair engaging with critiques of Hinduism.

“There are already thousands focussed on the problems of Hinduism, but nobody studies the contributions of Hinduism. If you take yoga, it is studied all over the world, but there has been no systematic study of its effects on the human body. We feel there is not enough balance in studying the contributions of Hinduism, so we hope to bring some of that in.”

This, says Olomi, is a matter of some concern.

“I’m careful not to go into the reverse of their position, which is that the only people who can be objective non practitioners or non-believers,” said Olomi. “I don’t believe that. But the key is that scholarship has to come first. Academic study of religion should not be about evangelising. And it certainly shouldn’t be about promoting one religion. It should be about a critical engagement with that religion, a willingness to highlight alternative perspectives and to find minority voices.”

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