An interview with
Prof. Sudha Pai, Rector, JNU
Wafa: When and how did your association with JNU start?
Sudha Pai: It started as an MPhil student. I think it was 1973, I was teaching in a college in Delhi University, Gargi College, and in the afternoons I used to come for MPhil classes. Somehow I managed to do an MPhil, I don't know how. Then I also did a PhD while I was teaching there and then in 1980 I joined JNU, so it's been a very long association.
Wafa: Quite a long time...
Sudha Pai: Yes, as a student as well as a member of the faculty.
Lakshmi: How do you feel about this transition from an academic role of being a professor to a purely administrative role of being the rector?
Sudha Pai: Well, it's a big change, because from concentrating on teaching and research, you have to now spend most of your time on administration. I still teach, and I would like to write something side-by-side because that's always been a large part of my life. So in that sense it is a big change, but it's not very difficult because one is dealing with the same sort of university issues that one is familiar with, which have to do with academics anyway, the administration of it. To some extent, because once you become a professor you become a chairperson and so on, one has dealt with administration earlier, but now it means that much more time and responsibility and effort is spent entirely on administration. In that sense it's a change. It's just been a few days, and so far it's been all right, so I hope it'll continue to be like that. But I don't think it's such a huge change as all that. I will continue to teach and I can still see myself as an academic, and I think academics should do the administration, because I don't think the university will be well run without that.
Wafa: So you're planning on continuing to teach...?
Sudha Pai: Yes, I do intend to teach one course per semester, I've told my centre that. Which will mean about four hours a week. Distributed over a week it's not that much, I've done it over a long period of time. The students are very keen. They were very upset and wanted to know what would happen to them. So that's what I thought, so we'll see as it goes. I think I should be able to teach. Now classes are very large in our centre and we share courses so it shouldn't be that difficult. And I also have PhD students and I can't give them up. And it also enables the person who is an administrator to keep in touch with students, with academic life and the pulse. I think most rectors have taught.
Lakshmi: Before this interview we spoke to a lot of students who were curious about what exactly is the role of the Rector in a university. Can you enlighten us about that?
Sudha Pai: Well a rector is supposed to help in running the administration. That is, just as there are chairpersons, and deans and the school board and so on, the rector is at another level and it is to run the academic administration. For example, all academic issues come up to the rector, and also all student problems come up to the rector. In that sense it's a birds' eye view of the whole administration, and what one was doing at a lower level now one is doing at a much higher level and with greater responsibility. So the rector is also part of the larger administration.
Wafa: So what are your immediate goals as the rector?
Sudha Pai: I think at this point of time this university requires to keep two major things in mind: one is to maintain high academic standards, and the second is to improve infrastructure. At the first glance itself you see there are so many posts which are vacant, so filling those posts with appropriate people is necessary. Today I find that whether it is the administration or the faculty, there's been a whole range of retirements. JNU is changing, and those who founded the university, who were our teachers, since I've been a student here, are not with us any longer in the university. They have retired. So, I think the immediate task is to manage generational change. That is a very big challenge before the university. Because the university is also changing, it's changing in keeping with changes in society. So you have to change, you can't say that you will run exactly as before and not make any changes. And yet those changes must be in keeping with the sort of vision that the founding fathers had and which we have shared and some parts of it at least we would like to continue. I know there are younger faculty members today who have a different idea of how the university should be and how it should be run. Some of us who've been here for around thirty years would have a different idea but all of this needs to be brought together and generational change needs to be managed well, and in that process we need to be able to attract the best people to continue what JNU has been known for. And that would help students because students expect good teachers. They immediately react when someone cannot teach or guide, so I think maintaining high standards is something that is done primarily for the students. Here in JNU we have a sort of symbiotic relationship between teaching and research, so anybody who does good research is also a good teacher. I think a lot of problems which students face can be solved if we were able to fill faculty positions and, you know, they're able to get more attention, have more teachers and so on. So I think that is very important. Infrastructure, we all know JNU needs an enormous amount of improvement. I mean, look at the hostels, look at all the buildings. They all need to be well maintained; if one could do that, it would be a big step. But it's not easy, I know previous administrations have also tried it, I'm not saying I'll succeed, but everybody makes an effort. So I think improving infrastructure- also improving it in the sense of what we need in the future so whatever new things that we build should be accordingly, in terms of size, in terms of suitability take future needs into account. For example, now we have a new convention centre. It has a lecture hall with about two or three hundred capacity. So we now need lecture halls of that kind. Also I think, the library and so on- these are the issues that one would have to address.
Lakshmi: How has your experience in JNU been so far? Is there any one memory that stands out?
Sudha Pai: Well, I've enjoyed the time I've spent here and if I'm anything today, it's because of JNU. You know, when I first came here I was a person who was teaching at the BA level and it was quite a change in the sense that there you just taught from 8 to 5 and you taught undergraduate classes and you were under tremendous pressure just to teach daily. In JNU, one had more time to think, to do research, and then teach. I think that has been something I've really enjoyed. Because then teaching has a certain meaning. It's not that you teach the same thing year after year in a mechanical fashion. So I think what I've really enjoyed is being able to sit down and do a lot of reading. People outside think JNU people teach very few hours a week, but you know, they don't realise that the rest of the time is spent in a great deal of reading. Also in research- not only personal but also guiding research. I think that has been very useful, you learn a great deal. And then there's a certain academic life in the university- seminars, conferences, people who visit us as visiting fellows and so on, so all of that has added up to a very good experience. And if I've improved over the years and I've been able to do anything, it's only because of JNU. If I hadn't taken that step when I did, not that these colleges are bad or anything, but I would have probably remained a very different person because they have different objectives. So I'm very glad I took that change, not because I'm rector, but because of the long journey which has been there. Being able to do many, many different types of things- you can teach in a class, you can talk to your PhD students, you have your colleagues, you can organise a seminar, you can write in a newspaper, you can travel abroad- JNU offers you a whole range of opportunities, and I think that is very important. But what I really enjoyed, I realised now when I back to teach, is interacting with students. Sometimes I suddenly miss it and wonder 'what am I doing here?' So I would say that, that you really learn a subject only when you teach it. And I think in JNU you get students who really ask questions and want to extract the best they can out of you, so I think teaching and interaction with students have been the best part.
Wafa: Since you have experience teaching at other universities, tell me what according to you makes JNU different?
Sudha Pai: Well I think one is the very democratic style of functioning at JNU. For example, a student can walk into a faculty member's room at any hour and time of the day and talk to the person. In many universities there's a distance between a student and a teacher. Because I remember that a lot of our new MPhil students would turn up and they would stand outside and wait. They would walk up and down until I went and asked them, “Are you waiting to see me? Come in.” So there's a very democratic interaction between students and faculty at all levels. There's a sense of community and a democratic style of functioning in which there's no hierarchy. You can be a professor or an assistant professor but in a centre, everybody's voice is equal in a way. So I think that is something which marks it out. Probably because of its smaller size so far, because we have no undergraduates, so we have a very manageable community. Also because it's a completely residential community you meet at various forums and various places and so on. I think that makes a lot of difference, so there is a certain style of functioning which has come to be there at JNU itself and it is something I immediately miss when I visit any other university. I think it's something that has to be preserved and something that has continued regardless of who has been at the head of the university.
Lakshmi: In what ways do you think JNU has changed from the time you were here to now?
Sudha Pai: Well, one is the sheer number of students in a class. Therefore interaction with students unfortunately becomes less. Because you don't come to know every one of them. When I first joined there were hardly 25 in a class, and so interaction with students, getting to know them, remembering them years afterwards, was all there. That kind of interaction is there still but only with some and not all. So the style of how one teaches in a classroom itself has changed. You know, when you have 25 it's very different, it's a much more personal relationship but now you have 75, 80 and so on. The sheer size has made a great deal of difference. Secondly, I think, we assumed the students who came here would go on to become academics. Today there's a great deal of change: students go out – they join the IAS, they join NGOs, they don't necessarily become academics, so the way in which students see our courses, and the university has changed. So we have also had to change accordingly. It's not an ivory tower any longer in that sense. We are very much affected by the changes taking place outside – we always were, but today it seems to be even greater. The pressures on us from outside are much greater. And there are pressures that what we do must be relevant to the economy, to the kind of jobs coming up and so on. Back then we were a much smaller university more concerned with creating students like ourselves who would later come back to teach. There was a certain continuity that I am not certain will keep going on. Things are changing a great deal now: there is now pressure that we should have undergraduate classes, which would change the character of the university entirely. And the stress on research is becoming less, because if you're going to teach 60-80 students, faculty members may not have time to devote to research. So the nature of jobs, the relationships, all that is undergoing a change. Some of us feel that it's not good, but there's nothing you can do about it. There are changes that are taking place very rapidly; where they will lead to, what we will do about them, those are all things that will have to be worked out.
Wafa: What message do you have to the JNU community?
Sudha Pai: Well, they should enjoy their time in JNU. It's a very rich experience, because I don't think you get this kind of experience anywhere, where you have some of the best teachers, and you can do a lot of studying, there's a lot of opportunity. There are other kinds of opportunities, like living in a hostel, a place where there is so much political fervour, where there are so many seminars and conferences held. If many of us had these experiences when we were in our MA we might have learned things much faster. So I think it's a great opportunity for them to be here and there are many multifaceted aspects of JNU on offer, so they should not just study... they should study of course, but they should enjoy all these other things, even things like Ganga Dhaba and so on. They are part and parcel of the experience of students and I think it's a very good thing. And they should open up to all these experiences and enjoy all of them.