Following nearly three months of vigorous protests from students and faculty members, a committee at the University of California, Irvine, has voted to reject two endowed chairs sponsored by an American non-profit with links to Hindutva groups, and to review two more chairs coordinated by the same foundation.
Last year, the Dharma Civilization Foundation – whose trustees have close links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India, and its American arm, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh – signed agreements with UC Irvine to endow four chairs. The agreements stated that each chair would receive $1.5 million spread across five years. The holders of these chairs were to research and lecture on Vedic and Indic Civilisations, Modern India, Jainism and Sikhism at the university.
The faculty at UC Irvine’s school of humanities learned that their South Asianist colleagues had not been consulted about the endowment and were intimated only in December, several months after the agreements had been signed. Since then, both professors and students have been protesting the lack of meaningful consultation and transparency in the process of signing these contracts.
The protests forced the university to set up a panel to review the agreements, and it is this panel which rejected two chairs – the Vedic and Indic Civilisation Studies, and Modern India studies. It has, however, recommended the chairs in Jain and Sikh studies for further review.
Against academic interference
While those against the agreements questioned whether due procedure had been followed in accepting these chairs, a significant concern was whether UC Irvine ought to associate at all with the Dharma Civilization Foundation.
The panel’s report flagged the level of control the foundation sought in exchange for the chairs:
“When comparing the publicly stated views and intents of the DCF with other community based donors, however, we find that the DCF is unusually explicit and prescriptive on appropriate disciplinary formations, what constitutes good or acceptable scholarship, and, indeed, what constitutes good or acceptable scholars”
It cited the foundation’s circulated list of scholars that it thought were acceptable or not to scholarship on Hinduism, videos of its ideology and the foundation’s statements against UC Irvine faculty speaking out against it. The report added:
“The committee deems the DCF’s statements targeting faculty based on race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality antithetical to UCI’s mission of creating a safe academic environment that is conducive to sharing and critically examining knowledge and values.”
It added that the foundation’s views were “inconsistent” with that of the UC Irvine’s “core values as a public university that fosters diversity, inclusion, toleration, and respect.”
Endowed chairs at American universities are linked to a fund set up for the purpose of sponsoring 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.
The review committee found that the university had not adhered to its own policies in accepting the four gifts. As the number of chairs being accepted was equal to the number of existing chairs at the School of Humanities, the new chairs would have been able to significantly shape the course of academic thought there. Given this, the committee found, the university administration should have held consultations to ensure that the chairs were “in sync with the school of Humanities and with wider scholarship on South Asia.”
The controversy over the endowments could have been avoided if the university had held “broader and more meaningful consultation with faculty stakeholders”, the panel said.
Georges Van Den Abbeele, Dean of the School of Humanities, said he has accepted the committee’s findings and promised to lend his support to its recommendations. In an email circulated to faculty in the School of Humanities, he said:
“As we continue working with external partners, I acknowledge the need to improve opportunities for widespread consultation, and take full responsibility for working with HEC, with the academic senate, and with our development operations to improve these processes as recommended in the report.”
Scroll.in has reached out to the Dharma Civilization Foundation for comment. This story will be updated when they reply.