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THE PERVEZ HOODBHOY-LUMS DISPUTE

Apparently, there is a Sayre’s law. I am told that economist Charles Issawi described it as: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

Going by this, the Pervez Hoodbhoy-Lahore University of Management Sciences (PH-Lums) controversy is a clear example not just of the kind of partisan knife fight that now goes for discourse in this country, but also proves Sayre’s law.

We were told that Lums had refused to extend PH’s contract, even though PH is a public intellectual of high merit. Almost every intervention on PH’s behalf, including PH’s own statements, implied that he had been singled out for reasons that had nothing to do with his performance as a teacher, and the decision, therefore, was based on mala fide.

Let’s first look at the legal-technical dimension here. If a contract sets the time of its expiry and does not stipulate that the institution (in this case, Lums) is bound to renew it, it stands expired at that point. Period. Unless stipulated otherwise, the organisation is under no obligation to provide any justification for its decision not to renew a contract. It is important to find out if there is anything in PH’s contract, which says that Lums is bound to extend his stay because he is a public intellectual.

I haven’t seen the contract but I suspect it doesn’t contain any caveats against Lums and hence in PH’s favour. If that were so, PH, in addition to starting the knife fight, would have also opened a legal front. That, as we know, has not happened.

But perhaps, the legal-technical dimension is not the best way to go about this. In which case, let two facts be placed on record. One, PH is not the only one at Lums affected by a policy that generally seeks to superannuate teachers. Two, this is not a new policy. Corollary 1: Lums did not single out PH. All statements, emails, etcetera that seem to suggest this are factually wrong. PH’s long-time colleague and another public intellectual of high merit, Dr A H Nayyar, has also been asked to continue as adjunct faculty which he has refused. Corollary 2: Other teachers, over the past two years, have suffered this policy or its variations.

A very good example is Dr Anjum Nasim. Let me make clear that I have not spoken to Dr Nasim but know a few details about his case from other sources. Dr Nasim, a full professor who served the institution as dean and provost, is credited with setting up the economics department at Lums. When he turned 60, the economics department prepared a case for retaining him on a visiting contract. However, the vice chancellor at the time noted that such contracts are a privilege and not a matter of right, signalling to everyone that no matter how illustrious a career one might have had at Lums, contractual employment after 60 is not to be taken for granted.

Dr Nasim, true to form, did not even apply for a visiting contract after the VC’s observation even though the observation did not, in and of itself, mean that he could not land such a contract.

Another luminary, Dr Noman-ul-Haque, was given the choice to continue teaching as adjunct faculty and he accepted that contract. Some other teachers I spoke with said that they would probably leave if asked to become adjunct faculty. There are many such examples.

Available evidence suggests that what has happened is not an attempt to single out PH. PH’s not-so-implicit allegation that he has been pushed out because a religious lobby in Lums did not want him around is a tough one to challenge but precisely for that reason, equally tough to prove. PH has been teaching at Lums for a long time, though until he retired from Quaid-e-Azam University and landed a visiting contract at Lums, he used to teach as adjunct faculty. His views are widely known to everyone. To argue that a lobby wanted him out would mean the Lums management was in cahoots with the lobby and the latter orchestrated the move against PH. If this were the case, the lobby should have started a campaign against PH to force the management’s hand. But there is no evidence of that. What we do have is instead a campaign by PH and his supporters alleging that he was cut loose because of his views.

Another professor, Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, has for many years taken a clear and categorical position against religious extremism at various fora. He makes regular appearances on TV (including when I hosted programmes on Dawn News and Samaa) and writes a column. There’s no indication the lobby at Lums has gone after Dr Rais.

It would have been so much better had this issue not been personalised. We could then begin to question a Lums policy which, by becoming excessively rule-bound and bureaucratic, could cause the institution to lose experienced teachers. While it makes sense to standardise employment contracts at the entry level for young scholars, there will be many instances in which contracts will have to be tailored according to the academic merit of a scholar. In fact, exceptions make a good rule in an academic environment at the higher end than the other way around. Top universities around the world practise this.

My own sense is that Lums should have retained PH. I am not a scientist and cannot evaluate PH on that score but he has, over the years, established himself as a straight talker on various issues and we need people like him. I disagree with him on most issues. I think by acting as a polemicist rather than an academic, he has become predictable in what he says and writes. But his freedom to do so is the benchmark of our maturity as a people.

Equally, I find it amusing that he (or for that matter anyone) should consider himself indispensable. In doing so, he comes dangerously close to army chiefs who seek extensions because presumably the working of an institution is dependent on individuals. That, as PH would agree, is not a healthy trend.

This article was originally published at: The Express Tribune

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.