Sunday, June 29, 2008

The decline of Mumbai's university

Bombay University, undated photo (taken after 1878). Image source:

It's official: the University of Mumbai attracts flies.

The Times of India recently reported that the University Grants Commission (UGC), the government body that oversees and funds higher education in India, may take direct control of University of Mumbai. The Times quoted the head of a UGC review committee as saying, "There has been a huge drop in faculty members, which has affected the quality of teaching and research. While the number of students has steadily gone up, over 200 faculty positions are lying vacant. Also, with 600 colleges affiliated to it, the focus is more on administration than academics."

Like many things that have recast themselves from Bombay to Mumbai, this 150-year-old university, which counts historic figures among its alumni, has putrefied. But even 20 years ago, when I got my undergraduate degree from there, I was not proud of it because I considered it mediocre. I was saved by the fact that I went to elite colleges where dedicated teachers went way beyond the required curriculum, to give students a real education.

The university did not offer a major in Anthropology, so I had to major half in Anthropology and half in Psychology. (Digression: when I graduated, they forgot to write "Anthropology" on my degree certificate, but luckily the calligrapher was sitting right there when I went to collect the document, and he obligingly added it in at my request, without question.) For such Anthropology as I did study, the books prescribed by the university were not available in bookstores -- you just had to read the one copy in the St. Xavier's College library, or photocopy what you could (copiers were quaintly mechanical in the mid-1980s -- it took several minutes to print a page, as I recall). For assignments (required by our professors, but not by the university), we referred to colonial missionaries' accounts (about criminal tribes with cannibalistic pasts). In retrospect, I think we read them shockingly uncritically, but even so, it was these that led me to regard "norms" from a distance, and truly broadened my teenaged mind. Besides reading and research assignments, we also had field trips (also not required by the university). I was enthused enough about a research assignment to track down the Institute of Indian Culture in Mahakali Caves Road (back of beyond in those days), meet Stephen Fuchs, the elderly Jesuit priest who had written one of our textbooks, and use the library there to research one assignment. It astonishes me now that I was so motivated, and it says a great deal about Father John Macia, who taught me Anthropology. All these activities counted for nothing in the final assessment for the degree, and yet, they were my true education. I still have my handwritten assignments, and, having taught undergraduates myself now, I'm amazed by my own (very interesting!) choice of topics. I am so grateful to my Anthropology professors, especially Eddie Rodrigues and Father Macia, for not leaving my education to the University of Bombay!

The other half of my undergraduate degree was in Psychology. The textbooks weren't bad, but that's because they were American college textbooks! They were, of course, not available in the bookstores. Besides, the curriculum was lousy -- while an excruciatingly boring course on industrial psychology was mandatory for even the half-major, Freud and psychoanalysis were not! Thank goodness for my driven, if not wildly interesting, professor Maureen Almeida. I was very lucky also to be a student of the excellent Jennie Mendes in junior college (class 11 and 12) at Sophia, and to be able to borrow my older sibling's college textbooks to write Jennie's Psychology assignments. Of course, I was fortunate to have enough curiosity to devour those excellent books -- I can never forget Clifford Morgan & Richard King (Introduction to Psychology), Henry Clay Lindgren (An Introduction to Social Psychology), and James C. Coleman (Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life)! By the time I got to degree college myself, the textbooks had changed (they probably changed them every 15 years!). The new ones were American, too, but I don't recall the authors. All I recall is that there was now DSM IV, that psychology had become extremely physiological (which I found utterly boring), that Solomon Snyder was doing cutting-edge work on neurotransmitters, and that I was deeply impressed by Milgram's experiments on destructive obedience. But -- Freud was a frill that a Psychology degree could easily do without, according to the pedagogues at the University of Bombay.

My undergraduate days are ancient history, true. But a much more recent experience -- unmediated by the dedication of college professors -- gave rise to unalloyed dismay. In 2005, on a research trip to India from the US, for my doctoral dissertation, I had a fellowship that required me to have an institutional affiliation. Mumbai is such an intellectually atrophied city that I had little choice. I contacted the head of the relevant department at the University of Mumbai. He was all wide-eyed, and seemed to consider my topic some whole new sphere of study (as anyone who peruses Modern Asian Studies or Economic and Political Weekly would know, my field of study is certainly not "unique", even though -- surprisingly -- there's no work that's even close to my topic that focuses on Bombay/Mumbai. So the department head invited me to give a talk. I thanked him and said I'd look forward to feedback from not just faculty but also graduate students. He goggled incredulously, as if I had asked to be chauffeured in a gold-plated limousine. He said, "Those duffers!" (well, some words to that effect). He appeared sincere in his belief that an M.A. or Ph.D student is not competent to comment on or ask a useful question about someone's work. My talk was arranged as somebody's in-class event (they didn't think to tell me whose, nor the title of the course). The room was full. After the talk, I invited questions. A faculty member launched into a lengthy question, tangential to my topic and ostensibly designed to probe whether I was ignorant of major debates in the field. Then, another senior faculty member asked a question, but didn't wait for an answer before launching into a long harangue about my allegedly racist and colonial perspective. He thundered against my description of a particular community organization as conservative. (I had given several examples to explain exactly what I meant. It's my own community, by the way.) He ended his schtick with an accusation and a flourish. A large group of students applauded. I had the distinct feeling they were eager to show up the Amreekawalli (I was studying in the US, true, but I'm an Indian, from Bombay. I look and sound Indian, and don't believe I come across as putting side on. I speak several Indian languages fluently, with an Indian accent. I'm not the stereotype tank-top-wearing South Bombay monolingual Anglophone chick who gibbers when attempting to speak in Hindi). They seemed not to have registered the fact that I was presenting unprocessed raw data, from which I was only beginning to build a theory. The senior faculty member appeared to be coming from the Subaltern perspective which gained ground in the 1980s, but which has been critiqued (although, of course, still remains hugely important and relevant). I guess I have the same perspective but from the post-critique stage, and am post-colonial enough to call Indians conservative if that's what they were (one can be critical, after all, without giving up sympathy for those one studies). But nuance was clearly not the order of the day in Ranade Bhuvan that afternoon.

I would rather not get a Ph.D at all than get it from University of Mumbai.

In 2007, Time Out's excellent Mumbai edition ran a cover story (Friday, July 27, 2007) on people studying Mumbai/Bombay. It mentioned many people (including me) who were studying the city through various lenses. We were all from institutions outside Mumbai, and many outside India. But, Time Out noted, the University of Mumbai has no initiative to promote the study of Mumbai, despite the city's vital role in the country's history and economy for over 300 years.

Institutions of higher learning are the hallmark of civilization. With this chronic apology of a university, Mumbai has no claim to being an evolved and civilized city. It will go on selling medical college admissions to the highest bidders, cranking out hundreds of thousands of semi-employable B.Com. and B.Sc. graduates each year, and producing EngLit graduates and journalists who can't write a sentence to save their lives. Forget about History, Philosophy, and other disciplines that demand abstract and critical thinking! This once-great city, today riddled with potholes, feces, spit, garbage, worse sanitation than bombed-out Baghdad, corruption, poverty, multiplex cinemas, the bizarre but unshakeable corporate and middle-class delusion that it's going to be a "global" city, and the constant fatuous revelry of the insanely selfish rich, has got the university it deserves.


"R. That" said...

What a disheartening experience!

Hello - I followed you here from ICHC to see what sort of people were uneasy like me about the dodgy Judaeo-Christian ceiling/basement theme. Anthropologists, apparently! Excellent!

- "Roger"

2pry2 said...


my name is shashank and i graduated from xavier's last year with a BA in Psycho and Anthro and was extremely fortunate to be a student of the last batch in xavier's to be taught by eddie. he's teaching the MA students at kalina now.

couldn't help but comment on this post.

it would be nice to get in touch with you through email.

oh, i can relate to everything that you have described in your blog post.

do reply.


moi said...

Hi Shashank, thanks for your note. Yes, I feel similarly lucky in that I was in the last batch that Father Macia taught. And that my alma mater is St. Xavier's College.

Sana said...

Hi, it is nice reading your post! Perhaps you could help me with some guidance. I am Indian residing in US (greencard) and I am an bcomm graduate from Mumbai (first year mcom also but flunked). I never realised until last year that I was only inclined towards history.. I would have never taken up commerce at all otherwise. I am very much interested in anthropology and would like to know if it is too late to study it now. I feel waste as a B.Comm. And I have never worked before in my life.. It would be nice if you could help me out here a bit regarding college in Mumbai Or US. My husband thinks Indian colleges are way affordable than here. Please put some light on it. Please and thank you.

moi said...

Hi Sana, glad you enjoyed the post. It's hard for me to recommend colleges in India because it's years since I studied there. Your choice of college, whether in India or the US, should depend on your area(s) of interest. Delhi University and JNU have some great historians on their faculty. There may be others in Calcutta but I don't know much about colleges there. I don't know of any good anthropology programs in India. To study in the US, I would start by listing colleges that have faculty who share my interests (e.g. ancient history, cultural anthropology, South Asia, whatever). Try the Petersons website. Then shortlist priorities in terms of distance (if you want to stay in-state), scholarship possibilities, and program level (if you want to consider a Ph.D). Then write to the faculty you might like to work with, and get a feeling of whether you would fit into their program or not. If it looks like you may not get accepted into a graduate program, do consider an undergrad one. A second bachelor's degree never killed anybody :) Good luck!

Sana said...

Hello moi,
Thank you for your reply and suggestion.:)
I'm actually hoping to get a second bachelor degree in arts now, after you suggested. Hope it is not too late. I'm 26. I don't know if I can afford it here in the US, as I have no job. And my husband won't pay for it. I might apply to any Indian university distance learning. And maybe later when I have resources,
transfer here. Please do shed some light on it. Is it a good idea? I'd be grateful. Thank you:)