The Board of Trustees of Ashoka University on Monday announced that it would appoint an ombudsperson by the end of May to encourage “freedom of expression”, PTI reported. The statement came after the university faced severe backlash following the resignations of political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta and economist Arvind Subramanian.

“Our aim is that through this and already existing processes we will be able to ensure that Ashoka lives up to its vision of being a space for free enquiry, free expression, intellectual honesty, respect for the dignity of all human beings and openness to constructive change,” the Board of Trustees said in a statement.

The statement added that it was important to establish some processes to maintain the separation of academic functioning from founders, and that many of these were already in place in the form of the academic council or the board of management.

But these need to be strengthened through more intensive consultations within the faculty, it said. “With this in mind the Founders are supportive of the appointment of the Ombudsperson (as had been decided earlier) by 31st May 2021,” the statement added. “The Chancellor and Vice Chancellor will propose candidates for this position for approval by the Governing Body.”

The statement added:

“Liberty which includes the right to express oneself freely, is integral to life itself. Thus institutions, like universities, that seek to enrich life through knowledge and learning are natural homes of liberty and the freedom of expression. Ashoka University, fashioned as a liberal arts university, has enshrined the freedom of expression in its very ethos.”

— Board of Trustees of Ashoka University

The founders, it said, have never interfered, nor do they intend to, with the academic functioning of the university.

“‘Academic functioning’ in this context includes not only how and what faculty teach, how they assess, how they are recruited and how they secure tenure but also their freedom to write and speak in their chosen fora and on their chosen themes,” the statement said. But it added that “they also see themselves as being responsible for protecting and upholding the vision and the aims of the University they have helped to establish”.

The founders, the statement added, were conscious of the students’ valid concerns about freedom of expression. It said: “These are the students of Ashoka who are being taught to think critically and to question and doubt. They also have valid concerns about their freedom of expression and the need to be heard by various decision-making bodies.”

The decision to appoint an ombudsperson came even as university students boycotted most classes on Monday seeking changes in the functioning of the institution, the Hindustan Times reported. However, nearly 900 students attended a scheduled class by Pratap Bhanu Mehta. They are expected to boycott classes on Tuesday also.

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What happened?

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government, had resigned as a professor from the leading private liberal arts university on March 16, less than two years after he stepped down as its vice chancellor. The university had refused to say whether his writings and criticism were connected to the resignation. Economist Arvind Subramanian also quit after Mehta’s exit.

Mehta said in his resignation letter, which was made public on March 18, that his association with Ashoka University may be considered a political liability. “My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university,” he said. “It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka.”

Nearly 100 students and faculty members protested against Mehta’s exit on Thursday. Earlier that day, the faculty and the students’ and alumni body released statements condemning the resignation. The student’s body demanded that the university bring Mehta back. They also asked the administration to make the resignation process more transparent.

At a virtual meeting on the same day, Ashoka University Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar told the students that trustees did not ask Mehta to leave, and that she would ask him to reconsider his resignation.

On March 21, Mehta turned down the appeals to withdraw his resignation. “The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate,” he wrote in a letter to students. In another letter addressed to faculty members, he pointed to a growing contradiction. “We have to ask the uncomfortable question,” wrote Mehta. “What will it take to build liberal universities in a country marked by illiberal politics? Our colleagues in public universities have been facing this for a while. Now this growing contradiction is coming home.”

Meanwhile, the university released a statement where it acknowledged that there had been lapses in institutional processes, which will be corrected after consultation with all stakeholders.