Quite a few people I know are aghast at the brute-force implementation of quotas by the UPA government. Not (just) because they are against quotas, but because the policy is being thrust down the unwilling throats of institutions that will now have to deal with the policy's fallout (much of which is being perceived as adverse to the health of these institutions). In a little noticed (in the blogosphere, at least) article, Pratap Bhanu Mehta asks many probing questions:
... [There] is a whole range of questions at stake in reservation. Are they more effective than alternative ways of providing access? Do they displace the responsibility of the state onto institutions that are not equipped to carry them out? Have they become a substitute for the state discharging its real duties? Do the beneficiaries deserve reservation? How do we reconcile reservation with the autonomy of institutions? Do OBCs have the same historical claims as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes? Reservations are not about the single issue of merit alone. [bold emphasis added]
It's just as well that Mehta uses 'institutional autonomy', and not 'academic freedom'. I make this point because some have confused these two issues. Clearly, the quota policy has some serious consequences for the former but, equally clearly, it has no consequence at all for the latter. In other words, this policy is not going to trample on people's freedom to pursue whatever research they wish to pursue, and the State is not going to dictate what they should think, teach, research. And, finally, academic freedom is not about choosing whom to teach; for example, you can't refuse to teach some people because they are from a background you don't like (for whatever reason).
Having gotten the red herring about academic freedom out of the way, let's get back to the real issue: institutional autonomy. I want to pose this question: What is sacrosanct about institutional autonomy? Sure, it's a good thing to have, defend, protect and celebrate. But, can it demand absolute immunity from intervention from a stake-holder? No way! After all, the wisdom of the 'institutional crowds' could be 'wrong', no? Want an example of the 'wrong' kind of wisdom? Let's listen to Kenneth Arrow, a Stanford economist and Nobel winner [link to the interview via Tyler Cowen].
... [There] was a concern at one time that there would be repression of the left. And now there are concerns that the left is taking over. It’s hard for me to judge, of course, but I must say that my department contains a number of Republicans. And they were appointed by a democratic group, whose members said these guys are good, and we’ve got to hire them. And so far, I have not seen it work the other way, but I’m a little concerned about where it could swing. In this case, the criticism seems to be just wrong, because I think the departments hire on the basis of merit. And I think it’s nonsense to say that we’re discriminating against Republicans. We hire them all the time. On the other hand, there was a department here that until the 1960s would not appoint a Jew. And, finally, the university did interfere, you see, in that case. The dean took over the department. He took away the power to appoint from the department and changed its composition in three or four years. In fact, I was amazed how rapidly he was able to turn things around to strengthen an already very good department. To defend the autonomy of that department would not have been something I would have been very happy to do. [bold emphasis added]
Note that in the first part of the quote above, academic freedom -- in the sense of one's ideological inclination -- is the issue, while the second part is largely about institutional -- or, departmental -- autonomy.
Now, there is also another circumstance -- the default, really -- when a stake-holder might be justified in interfering in an institution's affairs. This is best illustrated in the following quote from an article by Paul Root Wolpe (a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania) in the journal Cell (since the article requires subscription, I suggest you read this commentary by Janet Stemwedel; I took the quote from her post). In his article, Wolpe warns that "the scientist who opts out of thinking about ethics is taking a risk":
Science has become one of the most powerful and pervasive forces for change in modern society. As the professionals at its helm, scientists have a unique responsibility to shepherd that change with careful ethical scrutiny of their own behavior and thoughtful advocacy of scientific research. If scientists find reasons not to do so, the public will find ways to do it for them, and the results may not always be in the best interests of science or society. [bold emphasis added]
Though this quote is about ethics in science, it's clear something similar has happened with quotas. Our institutions always had the autonomy to design inclusive admission policies that bring in more students from disadvantaged groups; but, they never exercised their autonomy (except for some honorable exceptions such as JNU), vacating the social justice space to be filled by the others -- most notably, politicians. These institutions have only themselves to blame for their current plight.
Even at such a late stage, have our institutions come forward with an original plan to make themselves more inclusive? Have they offered to take another look at their exam-centric admission policies? Or, havet they lent their support to existing plans such as those by Purushottam Agrawal or by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande? Either individually, or collectively, why aren't our institutions participating in the on-going debate, offering their (possibly better) proposals? Isn't their collective silence deafening?
On the other hand, consider what the quota policy does to a place like JNU. It is being asked to replace its fine-tuned AA policies with a far less nuanced and a demonstrably inferior one chosen by the government. This, to me, is the real tragedy.