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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Dr Kumara Hirimburegama Colombo University New VC ?

Teachers’ unions of the Colombo University are to write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, expressing concern about the appointment of Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama as their Vice Chancellor (VC). The unions are expected to meet tomorrow, said Executive Committee member of the Colombo University Federation of Teachers Unions’ (CUFTU), Dr Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri.
Dr Hirimburegama is the husband of former VC Prof Kshanika Hirimburegama, who now heads the University Grants Commission (UGC). The controversy broke out after President Rajapaksa appointed Dr Hirimburegama as VC over another academic, Prof Lakshman Dissanayake.
Prof Dissanayake secured 18 votes at the University Council election —3 more than Dr Hirimburegama, while a third candidate for the VC post, Dr Prathiba Mahanamahewa, polled only 8 votes. When the UGC sent the three names to the President, he appointed Dr. Hirimuburegama. The appointment is not illegal, as the law gives authority to the Executive to decide. But the unions protested, saying the most qualified candidate—the one who secured a majority at the election—was deliberately bypassed.
“We have still not officially voiced our concern to the President regarding the appointment,” Dr Dewasiri said. “We want to make it known through a formal letter. So far we haven’t decided on any other concrete actions, but we want to continue this protest.”
Dr Dewasiri is also the president of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), which has opposed Dr Hirimburegama’s selection.However, it is unclear whether the campaign will succeed, as there are differences of opinion among academics. On Thursday, lecturers kept away from the annual convocation of Peradeniya University, in protest against politicisation. But on Wednesday, a majority of members of the Colombo University’s Senate defied the CUFTU’s call for a boycott of a meeting scheduled for that day.
Dr Dewasiri admitted that the boycott was “an utter failure”, but said it was because Senate members feared victimisation.
“I think attendance was better than at usual Senate meetings!” he said. “People don’t want to be targeted. Usually, at Senate meetings, the excuses list is longer than the list of those who are present. Some people told me they saw members this time, they had never seen attending before. They clearly wanted to show that their absence was not because of the boycott.”

While the majority of academics agree that “there is an issue”, the general attitude was that the President was unlikely to change his decision in view of their protests, Dr Dewasiri said. “We know it’s not easy to mobilise the academic community, but we will try our utmost to make this a public issue, because, what happened was wrong,” he reiterated.
“There is a tendency to take the status quo for granted,” he explained. “When you take a place like the Medical Faculty, this is a chronic disease. They have made up their minds strongly, not to bother about these issues. There are various vested interests, too.”
“This has gone to dangerous levels,” he warned. “Now, there is this silence. There may not be a breakthrough in the near future, but we will try our utmost to make it a major issue.”
Prof Hirimburegama rejected the allegations. “We are two qualified individuals, and we have rights,” she said. “We have been working together for so many decades. Why did this problem, this husband and wife story, suddenly come up? There are so many cases of husbands and wives working together. There is no such rule that the person with the highest votes should get the VC post. The final decision is with His Excellency.”
Her husband dismissed the protests as “politics”, but said, he welcomed opposition. “In a democracy, we need opposition,” Dr. Hirimburegama maintained. “When we make a mistake, there should be someone to point it out. This is a healthy situation.”
Among other things, the unions argue that there is a serious conflict of interest in appointing the husband of the UGC Chairperson as VC of a University.
“The UGC Chairperson has already violated the University Act by sending all three names recommended by the Council to his Excellency the President, instead of recommending a single name for appointment, which is clearly stated in the Act,” CUFTA says in a letter to Senate members. “Further, she has actively canvassed for her husband to be appointed VC of Colombo University, which is highly unethical, and goes against the norms of decency.”
Dr Dewasiri stressed that the repercussions of such politicisation of the university system were dire. “We know that politicisation is everywhere, and that all appointments to public institutions are being manipulated by political interests,” he said. “But universities, by nature, need autonomy. It’s not an ornament, but a very integral part of university culture.”

“There is a growing attitude among senior academics qualified to be appointed VCs, that they don’t want to apply for the post,” Dr Dewasiri revealed. “I know several people were asked by fellow academics to apply. They clearly said there is no point applying unless you have political backing.” 
Extract From Online Sunday Times


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