If you are a part of the leadership team at a premier academic institution facing the following situation what would you do?
You finalize a procedure (essentially, a rate contract) by which a particular brand and model of laptop could be purchased from a vendor (or a set of vendors) by your faculty at a certain price. Then a member of your own faculty -- the tribe of "intended beneficiaries" -- finds out that an essentially similar laptop actually sells at a much lower price. And this news hits the headlines in major national newspapers.
What would you do?
I don't know about you, but the wise guys at IIT-KGP looked deep into a document that contains a list of "service rules" and found something there that could be used to -- in the words of Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi -- shoot the messenger. And teach an unforgettable lesson to him and to others who might -- horror of horrors! -- begin to think like him.
They have suspended Prof. Rajeev Kumar, the person accused of outing the laptop shenanigans and going public. Here's how the suspension order reads:
Often directly and indirectly, through your personal acquaintances, you used your access to both electronic and print media on issues of personal interest without seeking the permission of authorities. Thereby maligning the institutions and exerting huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff. This is a serious violation of conduct rules. [Source: The Tribune]
Let me reiterate the obvious irony: An academic institution which should stand up for freedom of speech in general, and academic freedom in particular, chooses to punish a faculty member for talking to the press!
A few points worth keeping in mind when we get updates on this case:
If the press revelations about the laptops were embarrassing, they are. None of the counter-allegations from the wise guys at IIT-KGP can erase the shame.
Potentially shady deals are not State Secrets. And outing them is a courageous deed. It's not for nothing that Prof. Rajeev Kumar has been hailed as a hero for his relentless pursuit of accountability at IIT-KGP (especially in the shameful JEE-2006 episode -- see below).
If, on the other hand, if the newspaper reports had really maligned IIT-KGP and its officials, IIT-KGP should sue those newspapers for defamation. Absent such a move, what the wise guys at IIT-KGP are doing to Prof. Rajeev Kumar is clear: unleashing institutional power on an individual.
To the best of my knowledge, IIT-KGP has fully deserved the kind of attention and press coverage it got on the laptop scheme.
Thanks to government-given autonomy, our academic institutions (and especially the IITs) really do have the freedom to adopt better ways of organizing their internal affairs -- in other words, they have the autonomy to write their own "service rules." Clearly, this autonomy is wasted on the wise guys at IIT-KGP who don't want any of it -- they fell back on the government's version of service rules (which are meant for maintaining a strict line of authority within the organization) to gag one of their colleagues.
The government has been mulling a law to protect whistle-blowers. It's utterly shameful that a leading academic institution is doing something that would go against the spirit of such a law.
I hope the Supreme Court (where the IIT-KGP - Rajeev Kumar spat has landed) will put an end to this travesty and teach the administration a lesson in RTI and free speech.
I have been watching the slimy way in which IIT-KGP kept changing its story line in response to RTI query about the cut-off marks in JEE-2006, and while the case was fought through the courts [see the mandatory disclosure at the end]. At last count there are some half a dozen stories put out by IIT-KGP. Remember, all this is a matter of legal records. In other countries with stricter perjury laws, some of those behind these stories would have been in jail.
The wise guys at IIT-KGP contested the Hindustan Times' coverage of the laptop shenanigans, to which the paper gave a fitting response by putting all the relevant documents online. A key part of the IIT-KGP argument was the assertion that a certain circular (Doc 1 in the HT list) was never issued -- an assertion that HT debunks with solid evidence. Again, this sort of willful misrepresentation would be called perjury if it was made in a court of law.
Some of you would recall the IIT faculty strike in 2009 over the issue of autonomy. The laptop-related shenanigans represent yet another instance of how IIT-KGP undermined its own autonomy. When the laptop case hit the headlines, it chose to deflect the problem by referring the matter to MHRD, which said no to the purchase of laptops by faculty using their CPDA -- an allowance IIT faculty are entitled to under the Sixth Pay Commission scheme. Thanks to these wise guys, faculty members are not allowed to buy a laptop using funds meant for "professional development" -- not because of their institution's policies, but because of a diktat from MHRD.
Finally, the suspension order issued to Prof. Rajeev Kumar states that his actions have "[exerted] huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff." Clearly, the faculty and staff there are an extremely sensitive lot. I wonder how they would feel about a scenario in which their own Chief Vigilance Officer officer (who also doubled up as JEE chairman) was running a fake diploma mill right under their nose. Wait, what?
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Disclosure: 1. I once computed the average and standard deviation of the Math, Physics and Chemistry marks obtained by all the candidates in JEE-2006. This was to provide an independent verification of computations made by Prof. Rajeev Kumar who used his results in his lawsuit against the IITs.
2. I have corresponded with Prof. Rajeev Kumar on and off since April 2008, and we have met once. I have not consulted him for this post; nor has he asked me to write it.