Every Sunday morning, Sun TV broadcasts Sapta Swarangal, a program that showcases musical talents in amateurs -- college students (and groups) in particular. In a recent episode, one of the participating groups was from Velammal Engineering College, located near Chennai. During the pre-competition chat, the show's MC asks the group "So, what's special about your college?" The group's leader answers immediately "Rules!". The MC is taken aback, but recovers quickly to ask, "Rules, ... and discipline?".
"Yes", says the group's leader with a mischievous grin, "discipline and decorum".
"Rules, discipline, decorum." Using these three simple words, engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu (and recently, the Anna University has joined them) have unleashed a reign of terror among their students. This post is about how this evil might have taken root.
In the late eighties and early nineties, Tamil Nadu saw a great expansion in engineering education, a growth that led to the current number of over 250 colleges offering degree programs. [To put that number in perspective, there were just seven such institutions when I entered college in 1981.] During the early days of this furious expansion, most of the colleges didn't have a track record that could help the public (parents, really) judge how great they really were. Since 'academic greatness' was hard to judge, the parents settled for a convenient proxy in 'rules, discipline and decorum'.
At this game of 'greatness through decorum', nobody was better than the Sathyabama Engineering College (now Sathyabama Deemed University), founded by Thiru. Jeppiaar (who is now its Chancellor), whom the University's website describes as "a man of success and a wide-angled ideology".
Now, Sathyabama had a strong set of rules prescribing dress codes for students and faculty, and penalties for 'crimes' such as not attending classes. It also banned the use of lecture notes by its faculty during their lectures (!). It went so far as to even 'outlaw' all interactions -- including conversations -- among boys and girls (men and women?). Result? Parents loved it. It must be a great place, the reasoning went, if one can trust it with one's daughter.
I am not sure if Sathyabama was the first one to institutionalize this fetish with rules, but it certainly was the best. Now, this fetish is the norm among pretty much all the colleges.
I remember an incident from several years ago, when a male student was allegedly slapped at one of the colleges that dot the Old Mahabalipuram Road. His crime? Chatting with a girl in the college bus; the bus driver ratted on him. In a subsequent meeting, several parents protested against this barbarity. However, their protests were greeted with a stony silence from the other parents. A participant told me later that girls' parents were (secretly) happy that the principal took strict action.
When parents condoned -- and, in fact, encouraged -- high handed and dictatorial behaviour by college administrators on non-academic matters, it was only a matter of time before the disease spread to places like Anna University. That seems to have happened now, with Professor D. Viswanathan, its current Vice Chancellor, issuing fatwas defining acceptable behaviour.
Unless people stop confusing 'academic greatness' with non-academic issues such as rules, discipline and decorum, this reign of terror is not going to go away. Our cussed regulators are not at all helpful when they don't mandate our universities and colleges to disclose, unconditionally, all academically relevant information. In the absence of this information, an urban legend based on 'rules, discipline and decorum' is what determines 'greatness' of an institution. The stricter the rules, the greater the institution.
Has anyone told you that Anna University has just become great?