Fading legacy: How student freedom is being systematically curbed at IIT Kanpur
Samarth Bansal (Y11) and Ashutosh Ranka (Y13)
On November 2, IIT Kanpur turned 60. The Institute was celebrating its foundation day, and one of us was at the campus during the festivities.
In his speech, Abhay Karandikar, the director of IIT Kanpur, recounted the glorious history of the institute and anticipated a promising future. But private conversations with students reflected the campus in sharp contrast with the director’s remarks.
All is not well. Over the last few years, various administrative bodies have systematically instilled a culture of fear among students. Dissent is met with punitive action, student opinion is disregarded and individual students are targeted. Consequential and high-stakes decisions are backed by arbitrary rules. Add to that the increased interference in student affairs and you get an image of the Institute that is beyond recognition. This is not the IIT Kanpur we love and remember.
That sense was accentuated by recent articles on administrative overreach published in Vox Populi, the student media body, which triggered heated discussions in the Facebook group of IIT Kanpur Alumni Association. On campus, the students observed a unity day on November 12th: 2,600 students signed a document expressing their concerns.
Many of our friends contacted us to know more. We ourselves knew little. So we decided to find out more and share our findings with the alumni community.
Things appear bleak. In repeated conversations, we encountered serious issues directly concerning the fundamental ethos of the Institute and our prized possession: student freedom. The stories kept changing but the message remained the same: something fundamentally has changed in the attitude of the administration towards students — and not for the good.
Culture of fear
Let’s start with hostel affairs: In a general body meeting, three students of Hall-8 had a verbal argument with one of the wardens. The warden did not like it: he asked the student to leave the Institute if they had issues with hostel policies. To which a student responded that the same applies to the warden: a student can say that the warden should step down.
Things escalated further: the three students were issued show-cause notices demanding an unconditional apology for the incident. One student argued over email, making his case. Result: he was given an eviction notice.
Yes, you read it right: a student was issued a notice to leave the hostel for having a difference of opinion with the warden regarding hall policies.
This is not an isolated incident.
Here is what happened in Hall-1: a student wrote an email to the Dean of Student Affairs (DoSA) expressing concerns over issues faced by hall residents. Two days later, when the student was attending a lecture, the hall office staff came looking for the student in his wing. Not able to find him, they locked up his room. In a subsequent meeting, the warden shouted at the student claiming that he was trying to defame the hall management for issues that do not exist.
Do issues not exist? Sample this: in an email, the warden said a student’s room is not a private place; in a verbal order, he ordered students to keep the doors of the room open when a girl was present, because a locked room with a girl inside — we are not making this up — “raises doubts”. “We are living in India and not the USA,” the warden told students, in the clearest indication of orthodox moral policing.
“For your information, hall premise is not a private place which includes your room. Hence, you may not do what you indent do at your home, which is considered as your private place.” (Hall-1 Warden in an email)
If the students did not raise their voice on such outrageous views of the warden, that would have been a concern in itself. We are glad they did.
Even faculty members concur: “Clearly such people should not be made warden of student halls,” Professor Sandeep Shukla, HoD Computer Science, wrote on Facebook, referring to the Hall-1 incident.
This is not acceptable. In fact, the Hall-1 incident points to another problem: warden appointment without the consultation of the Hall Executive Committees. That’s how the Hall-1 warden got the job and has happened quite a few times in Hall-6 (GH Tower).
The draconian outlook of the SSAC
The problem extends beyond hostels. Take the Senate Students’ Affairs Committee (SSAC), the body which oversees cases of student indiscipline.
In 2018, a misbehaving student played a vulgar audio clip in a CSO tutorial led by a female faculty member. The teacher, rightly, filed a complaint. The case went to SSAC.
The investigating committee was unable to identify the culprit with no witnesses coming forward from the students' side about who had played the clip. So what did they do? The committee decided to “teach students a lesson” by handing out a blanket punishment to all the students in the tutorial by handing out grade drops.
The CSO case is a classic example of the administration over punishing students without taking a constructive approach to tackle the root cause. The investigating committee overstepped in two fundamental ways.
First, blanket punishment: Punishing the entire tutorial section for an action that a single individual committed violates all terms of natural justice. A student who has come to learn in this institute, is diligently attending tutorials, is being punished for the actions of some individual who she is not responsible for.
Second, academic punishment: Even if the committee decided that an example had to be set and the entire group of students punished, attacking their academic credential by down-grading the grades they received for a behavioural issue was not the right path to take.
Punishments like mandatory community service and mandatory sensitisation classes would have tackled the issue at hand and helped the students grow as individuals while also handing out the necessary message to the student community. There seems to be a marked shift from a focus on corrective measures to blind punishments which is worrying.
This entire incident is indicative of a fetish of the administration: “Sending out a message to the students”.
Student representatives have heard this term used innumerable times to explain away punishments that are harsh. The administration has started treating the student body like an adversarial force to be conquered by sending out power signals and ‘messages’ rather than a group of minds to be enlightened and polished in the ways of the world with constructive dialogue and mentorship.
The same script has played out on multiple occasions.
In September 2017, responding to a ragging complaint filed by some Y17 students, the SSAC decided to take punitive action over 100 students, and punishments included all possible actions in the purview of the SSAC.
However, mandatory procedures were not followed in the SSAC meeting, the Students’ Senate noted in a resolution addressed to the Director: the accused students were not even informed that a complaint was being considered against them, denying them an opportunity to present their case; the guilt of all individuals that were to be punished was not established beyond a point of reasonable doubt, according to Students’ Senate nominees to the SSAC; and the committee took upon itself to take punitive action on an entire group in which some members may be completely innocent.
According to a report in Vox Populi, “the Students’ Senate noted that the SSAC acted in violation of the democratic foundations” and the incident is “evidence of the autocratic approach taken by the SSAC as it completely undermines the authority and power of the Students’ Senate, and thus the students.”
Make no mistake: we are not downplaying the students’ fault. Discipline is important, and obviously, there is a reason why cases are referred to the SSAC in the first place. No one is denying that. What we are worried about is the ruthless response of the administration.
What’s more? There are no signs that things will improve. In 2018, a new SSAC manual was approved. Under the new regime, SSAC would move from a rule-based decision making to discuss cases on an individual basis, meaning more arbitrary and discretionary power to professors. The strength of professors in the committee was also increased, making it an effective tool in the hands of the faculty to punish the students.
This fear seems to be deeply entrenched in the student community. When Vox Populi reported the aforementioned Hall-1 warden incident, the editors were afraid to even name the concerned professor, fearing harsh consequences from the SSAC.
A police state?
And why would students not be afraid: if all this was not enough, students are faced with a whole bunch of other issues concerning campus security.
In 2017, things took an ugly turn: students’ freedom of movement inside the campus was restrained. Back then, a final year student alleged that Deepu Philip, then the chairman of the Security Advisory and Executive Committee (SAEC), threatened to file an FIR for not carrying his ID card inside the campus at 1.30 am. A female postgraduate student said she didn’t feel safe in the hostel anymore because of the personal grudge a security officer developed against her. Guards would arbitrarily pick on students and threatened them with punitive action. Some students were called criminals and thieves, and faced harassment.
“Lots of students and recent alumni have written their experiences with security and the harassment they faced. Many have sent me emails,” Dr Dheeraj Sanghi, then the professor of Computer Science at IIT Kanpur, wrote on his blog at the time.
“Establishment of security raj on IIT Kanpur campus has followed the destruction of administrative mechanisms of maintaining discipline.”
Students now complain about how arbitrary verbal orders being treated as rule of law, with nothing in writing. For instance, there is no approved policy of not allowing female students outside the campus between midnight to 6 AM. Regardless, that is the restriction imposed by the security unit—and only for girls.
Moreover, surveillance is touching alarming levels: hundreds of cameras have been installed across the campus. “IIT Kanpur feels like a prison,” a student wrote in an op-ed for Vox Populi.
The surveillance infrastructure is increasing without public guidelines to safeguard data from misuse. “Places where active surveillance is allowed and not allowed be clearly stated in a guideline, along with clear guidelines on what data is being collected and stored,” students wrote in a resolution addressed to the Director.
This is not a healthy setting. This is not an environment conducive for opening up minds to ideas. This does not fit into the idea of a university.
Interference in Student Affairs
The story doesn’t end there. Students have reported increasing administrative interference in the functioning of the Students’ Gymkhana.
In a general body meeting held in October, the students highlighted the “problems with the general demeanour, attitude, and actions of the Associate Dean of Students’ Affairs,” Vox Populi noted in a report.
“The student representatives claimed to have experienced a structural exclusion from the system on multiple fronts which warns of a scary shift in the administration’s outlook towards students’ say on campus issues,” the report said.
“Unavailability in his office and on other media, unreasonable demands and unprofessional demeaning comments towards certain students have served as major hindrances in the communication of the Associate Dean Student Affairs (ADSA), with the students.”
Earlier this month, the Dean of Student Affairs refused to give an on-record interview to Vox Populi, where students wanted to ask questions about the ongoing concerns—many of which are included here.
Multiple changes in the bureaucratic process have made otherwise mundane tasks highly tedious. For example, just to book a lecture hall, the number of permissions have been increased from four to six — the two additions were faculty permits. The earlier system of auto-payment for these bookings has been revoked and seven signatures are now needed to process it. Sounds trivial? Imagine this: you want to take an initiative, organise a lecture, and you are asked to run around for six signatures. Would you even care to take this pain?
The Associate Dean of Students’ Affairs (ADSA), students said, has made demeaning and demotivating comments to various student functionaries at multiple occasions: “What will you get out of organizing this festival”; “Will you get any personal gains out of this”; “You will not get placed if you argue like this”; “what is this students’ senate. We will follow what will be decided in DoSA Office”, and more. This is unbecoming of a faculty member.
On top of this, when students sent resolutions to the Director expressing concerns about the ADSA and other issues including a disputed order by the SSAC, it was forwarded back to the Student Affairs office, which, expectedly, just sat on it. This is in a marked difference from just three years back when student resolutions were given due regard and seriously discussed in the Academic senate. It clearly shows student opinion on matters directly concerning students is increasingly being disregarded.
The toxic student “culture”
To be sure, there are many problems on the students’ side. For one, the student body was not able to elect the President of the Students’ Gymkhana in the current academic year. Festivals have been mismanaged, and the budget deficit is a big concern. The unethical practices in the 2019 Gymkhana general election and the latest mishap in the freshers night don’t reflect well on the student community. The institute continues to carry the baggage of a “culture” enmeshed with toxic masculinity, bullying and abuse.
It’s not the current students alone who are to blame for this: we, the alumni, were very much a part of this culture, and did little to change it — even after recognising this is not okay.
We acknowledge these problems. But the solutions do not lie in curbing student freedom. Students need to be treated like adults and their opinions need to be respected. Period.
It is crucial to recognise that the administration and students are not equal parties in this brewing conflict. There is a clear hierarchy of power. The administration enjoys coercive powers in the Institute that can affect a student’s life on campus and career thereafter.
Time to act
The first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge it. That seems to be lacking. It appears that the highest position holders, including the Director, believe that things are largely fine: it’s the negative PR in the media that needs to be tackled, they think.
But they are missing the point: there won’t be negative news if the Institute doesn’t screw up. The administration needs to come out of the delusion of a glorious past and see things for what it is. IIT Kanpur has continuously slipped in university rankings. It remains behind all the older IITs in MHRD’s NIRF rankings. Ours was the only old IIT which did not get the coveted Institute of Eminence status, government’s flagship program of creating world-class institutions.
The status quo needs to change. We are not cynical about the state of the Institute and its future. But we are genuinely concerned over the incidents over the last few years, and the direction in which the Institute is moving doesn’t make us optimistic. We need to act. Fast, and now.