Book review

Valson Thampu’s memoir of running St Stephen’s College is as stormy as his days as principal there

This is one side of the story of how he pursued change while negotiating constant opposition

The noted American management thinker Simon Sinek in his famous TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action” develops an interesting intersection between successful individuals and organisations like Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers. Whereas most others are defined by what they do or how they do it, successful examples are defined by why they do it.

Sinek argues that Apple has always communicated its “why” – “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.” And this allowed them to transition from computers to MP3 players, tablets and mobile phones. Similarly, Martin Luther King did not go around telling people what needed to change in America, but focused instead on “I believe”.

Valson Thampu’s memoirs on his time as principal at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, titled On a stormy course: In the hot seat at St Stephen’s, starts off with his attempting to answer “why” it exists. He quotes from the preamble to the original constitution of the college: “The object of the society is to prepare young men for University degrees and examinations and to instruct them in the doctrines of Christianity, which instruction must be in accordance with the teaching of the church of England”.

Thampu makes a strong case that the Christian character of the college and its preferential option for the poor are encoded in its DNA, illustrating the example of its principal SN Mukarji (1926-1945), who toured the villages of Punjab, Haryana and UP to identify young talent who would not have thought of a college education in normal course. It was after independence, Thampu argues, when the alumni of the college began to occupy a significant fraction of the Indian bureaucracy, that unease about the Christian character of the college began to spread, and what he terms myths about its history started being built.

First move

What, then, is the first thing Thampu did on being appointed caretaker principal of the college in 2007? He increased the proportion of seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – which he wasn’t legally bound to do as head of a minority institution– and for Christian students to 40%, versus the 50% that was legally permitted.

What follows in the book is a chronicle of his battles against the faculty and alumni, who were opposed to this move. Thampu talks about being caricatured as an “evangelical fundamentalist”, and being called upon by Sheila Dikshit, then the chief minister of Delhi, to respond to anonymous allegations that he was denigrating Hinduism through his morning assemblies. After this came attacks on multiple fronts, aimed at disqualifying him as principal by questioning his eligibility. Some accused him of having a fake PhD, while UGC functionaries concluded that his PhD was invalid. All this forced Thampu to step down as caretaker principal. However, there was a twist in the tale. Thampu was back at the helm after applications for the post of principal opened in September 2008.

Always in hot water

The next eight years saw him jumping from one controversy into another. Two of these were particularly prominent. One involved Kapil Sibal, the Union Human Resource Development minister at the time, intervening to ensure that India’s Under-19 cricket team captain Unmukt Chand could take his exams despite omly 1% attendance. The other involved an accusation by a PhD student of criminal intimidation when she accused her research advisor, a member of the college faculty, of sexual harassment.

One does get the feeling throughout the book of being on the sets of something like Netflix’s House of Cards. Thampu is forced to outwit his opponents at every step of the way. The only difference is that the principal elicits more support and sympathy from the reader than the character of Frank Underwood does. You almost end up feeling sorry for the lone warrior at various moments in the book.

However, I did find it slightly disappointing that Thampu didn’t consider it important enough to mention the legendary Rohtas (who ran a dhaba on the campus for thirty years, following in the footsteps of his father Sukhia), whose battles with the principal made national headlines.

Principal versus faculty

Unsurprisingly, all the controversies during Thampu’s time at Stephen’s constitute the meat of the book, but he also touches upon – and takes ownership of – improvements in the college during his tenure. Amongst these are the upgradation of infrastructure, the campus being made disabled-friendly, the dismantling of the for profit Mathematical Science Foundation, and the setting up of the Centre for Theoretical Physics and the Centre for the Study of Gender and Social Processes.

The last section of the book focuses on the theme of autonomy for the college. Thampu makes a strong case for it, highlighting its benefits and also laughing off the claim that college would fall under the control of the church as a result (since it already is). He also highlights what he refers to as a resistance to change a,ong teachers.

One anecdote to bring this out: In 2009, when Thampu was keen to replace the chalk-and-blackboard setup in classrooms with whiteboards and marker pens, a section of the faculty claimed that these pens were “carcinogenic”. Thampu lists several examples of committees being set up to upgrade infrastructure, launch new initiatives, and expand the college. In all these cases, he says, members of the faculty remained inactive despite their inclusion in the committees, which eventually had to be disbanded for this very reason.

A common thread through the book consists of apt references to philosophers like Kant, Rousseau, and Mill, among others, revealing Thampu’s scholarly disposition. The book is written in a non-linear format, with each chapter dedicated to a specific theme – such as “Roots”, “Myths”, and “Propaganda” – intertwined with philosophical observations. Long-term observers and readers might feel Thampu has a split personality – vociferously championing some causes while casting a cool, distant gaze towards others.

Perhaps A Lonely Changemaker would have been a more appropriate title for this book.

On A Stormy Course: In The Hot Seat At St Stephen’s, Valson Thampu, Hachette India.

Nipun Malhotra studied Economics (2010 batch) at St Stephen’s College. He can be followed here on twitter.

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