What can Mysore University do with a windfall?

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes from Oakland, California: Palaniappan Chidambaram’s Rs 100 crore gift to the University of Mysore is great news to all of us, who worry about the lack of resources at institutions of higher learning. While there has been some talk of granting Central University status to Mysore University, this grant is much needed to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure and to bring the University into the 21st century.

I can only hope that the University will be more prudent and better prepared than the Mysore City Corporation, which has squandered a loan taken from the Asian Development Bank and has shown itself to be ill-prepared to make use of grants from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

So to identify areas of priority, the University administration should take the entire University community, including the alumni, into confidence. More generally, this could also be a fantastic opportunity for the University to come up with a comprehensive plan to recreate itself, now that it has a substantial grant. The University could invite its faculty members and students to write memorandums on their pressing needs. A public debate involving the community at large in townhall meetings, newspapers and blogosphere will be essential.

I realize that the University has an acting vice-chancellor but all of us also know that the University administration may not have much to offer. This has to be a movement from below, both to produce a vision for the University and to identify areas of priority. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to ensure the grant administration is transparent and above the board.

In that spirit, let me make the following suggestions:

The first priority has to be to the University library (and the department libraries too), which is in a disgraceful state. The collection needs to augmented, catalogue computerized entirely, and the infrastructure completely modernized. There are also serious maintenance issues, starting from the completely incompetent and uncooperative employees. The University Library badly needs trained personnel, who are computer literate and are well versed in using electronic databases. We cannot have untrained attendors in the library, who if transferred within the University might be relocated to clerical duties elsewhere or will be bringing tea to faculty members.

The library also needs to subscribe to electronic journal databases. It is absolutely essential to buy subscriptions to JSTOR and such databases, especially to facilitate research. We need to take advantage of concessional rates that are often offered to third-world universities.

An enhanced Computer lab, which offers enough Internet enabled computers to students, is also a must so that the students could access these electronic databases along with hundreds of thousands of digitized books, all of which would absolutely crucial in enhancing the quality of education and research in Mysore University.

I know that both the Information Systems and Library Sciences departments have some really good faculty members, who need to be used extensively to modernize the library and to train library staff, University faculty and students in using electronic databases. It is not enough to create this infrastructure, if faculty and students aren’t taught how to use it. Conduct workshops and training programs, extensively.

A second area of priority has to be the science labs. Even with my limited knowledge, I know that the quality of labs is uneven. If applied botany and geology have been building their infrastructure through grants and foreign collaborations, the same hasn’t been true of other basic science departments.

Thirdly, we now have an opportunity to redefine the University’s publishing mission, by radically re-envisioning Prasaranga and introducing new ways of publishing. Prasaranga must become an IT hub for the University, an important site for Kannada software development as well as open source publishing movements. It should no longer should be wedded to publishing only printed books but consider online publishing, especially encyclopedias.

This would be truly the way to bring into the 21st century the institution building work that Kuvempu, Javare Gowda and Ha. Ma. Nayak accomplished since the 1950s.

I could go on and on. For now, let me just say: rebuild libraries and labs, and be innovative in fulfilling Prasaranga’s mission. While you are at it, wire the campus and turn Manasagangothri into a wireless hotspot. If the kids have money to buy fancy bikes, they will buy laptops too.

I know some of my suggestions seem fanciful, if not wasteful and impractical. They are not and they don’t cost too much money, especially wiring the campus and modernizing the library.

I also know that the University faces much more acute problems of infrastructure. Maharaja’s College, for instance, doesn’t have a fax machine in its office. That’s simply scandalous. The University administration could consider giving more money to its colleges and departments for contingency spending and to ensure the basic infrastructure.

Hundred crores is plenty, if spent wisely.

Let the planning and dreaming begin.