The first words of a person taking charge of a high position can often be an indication of good intent and perspective. When Dr Ravindra Kulkarni assumed office as Vice Chancellor of the University of Mumbai on Thursday, befittingly in the grand and historic Convocation Hall in its Fort campus, he spoke about evolving a policy on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it could be employed to change teaching-learning methods. He also referred to the world-renowned Cambridge University’s policy on AI in this context. This is a good first step in what promises to be a long and arduous journey for Dr Kulkarni, given the current state of the MU and the hubris it seems to have sunk into. Who knows this better than Dr Kulkarni, who was the pro-VC till September last year?
With nearly 30 years in academia, including as a senior professor in the prestigious Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai, Dr Kulkarni secured the gold medal in his M.Tech from Nagpur University, holds eight patents, has 80 published papers, and has handled more than 35 research and consultancy projects. This is an impressive, even formidable, curriculum vitae given that VCs in the recent past had come under a cloud for their academic lightness and stood accused of fabricating their record of research and published papers to dress up their curriculum vitae. Dr Kulkarni has also had considerable administrative experience. Besides serving four years as pro-VC of the University of Mumbai, he led the 21-member panel on the implementation of the National Education Policy among other assignments.
Dr Kulkarni steps into the chamber that men of great learning and foresight had occupied — KT Telang, RG Bhandarkar, NG Chandavarkar and Pherozeshah Mehta, among them, in the British era; followed by PV Kane, John Matthai, TK Tope and MD Bengalee in the post-independence years. He would do well to recall the origins and purpose of the University when it was set up in 1857 on a specific petition made by the Bombay Association to the then British government in India — seat of learning and research, crucible of intellectualism and excellence in all aspects of academia. Of course, the times are vastly different now and the challenges entirely new, yet the purpose remains just as compelling.
In the past three to four decades, the once-prestigious University has seen a slide in both its academic excellence and administrative capabilities. In rankings, national and international, the University of Mumbai is nowhere in the top 50. In India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework, it could secure only the 65th rank in 2020. In the closely-tracked QS World University rankings this year, it was placed in the 301-350 bracket in Asia and ranked 1001-1200 in the world. This is a sorry state, even distressing, for a University that can boast of stalwarts such as Justice MG Ranade, Dadabhai Naoroji, Dr BR Ambedkar, Homi K Bhabha, IG Patel, CD Deshmukh, MC Chagla and PN Bhagwati among hundreds of other illustrious men and women among its alumni.
The University of Mumbai, with affiliations handed out to more than 700 colleges at one time, is over-burdened with the pressures of the academic calendar such as examinations and awarding of degrees. This has dulled it into an august institution doing prosaic and unimaginative work. The hallmark of a great — even good — university is its sharp focus on research across streams, developing new knowledge systems and evolving new perspectives on subjects. How much and what research of international calibre has come from the University of Mumbai in, say, 20 years? In which subjects does it invoke awe and aspiration from students around the country, if not the world? How to steer faculty and get non-faculty towards international quality research should be a top priority for Dr Kulkarni; the examination and other administrative work can be streamlined to make time and space for this.
The University of Mumbai, till the past few decades, was also the seat of intellectual leadership for the city and the state. This came from a relatively healthy atmosphere of debate and intellectual engagement; the vice chancellor’s opinions and perspectives mattered as much on public issues as on academic subjects. By its very structure and purpose, the University is best equipped to slip back into this important role in a democracy — if Dr Kulkarni can see merit in it. The alignment with the NEP and adoption of AI are, of course, matters on his table that require attention but it would be a great opportunity lost for the university if he were to focus only on them. Dr Kulkarni lights hope, as every new VC does.