Universities as institutions do not travel on their own; they begin to travel across regions and countries when they transform themselves into an attractive idea for many. Universities, thus, are not mere institutions that exist within physical structures and with some numbers. Universities, in fact, are institutions that institutionalise ideas, which in turn embody in them universal human values.
Universities, thus, perform two normative functions. First, of institutionalising such value-laden ideas, and second, of housing and hosting these ideas. Universities, in an idealistic sense, are the institutions that cultivate and nurture with great care a creative mind that has a dual commitment to social causes and to incisive scholarship. The university as an institution thus has both sensitivity towards a creative mind and a commitment to allow diverse ideas to flourish and flow both within and across its immediate institutional boundaries.
The university as an idea would encourage the student community, in particular, to use their reflective mind before they use their hunting hand, which can be capable of unleashing violence. It is needless to emphasise the point that an inquisitive mind finds its relevance in a culture of dialogue and discussion. It acquires vibrancy in the atmosphere of dissenting voices. This ideal can become real on the condition that the university authorities acquire the much required sensitivity towards the life of the mind that is at the core of a university. Universities as institutions give concrete expression to both social and intellectual commitment. Their function is not only to create space for dialogue and dissent, but to make that dissent universal. Dissenting voices and dialogical spirits on university campuses are considered universal both in terms of their promise for epistemic egalitarianism and social democracy, and the universal articulation of such promises. Any attempt to tamper with these promises is bound to generate legitimate forms of protests. The public universities have a responsibility to cater to the needs of the underprivileged students. Such universities are spaces where the underprivileged students can convert opportunities into assets. This is true in most countries in the world. The state cannot be indifferent to their aspirations. The state needs to handle the student community with due care. The state as an entity, standing above the narrow ideological orientation and committed to intellectual well-being of educational institutions, should offer support and not seek subversion of the university that is seen as a living ideal. A morally sensitive state and university authorities are not expected to see in the student an enemy of the state or of the nation. When there is too much intervention and intensely hostile opposition to such institutions of higher learning, then it is no doubt quite inimical to the social and intellectual purpose that is constitutive of the idea of a university. The suppression of dissent in one university, by implication, would beat students of other universities into silence. The members of civil society are expected to understand the importance of the university.
Let us not forget that public universities funded by the state are expected to expand the social basis of scholarship, which is interwoven with harmonising the belligerent social with benign humanity. The university as an idea is the standard by which one can measure the intellectual height of a nation. If this is so, it would be unfortunate, if not suicidal, to malign the image of the university by carrying out false propaganda. We need to urgently realise that the moral, cultural, and intellectual height of the nation depends on the deepening of the thinking mind; and universities are the primary resource of achieving this goal. The protestors at home and abroad have realised the importance of this, and hence the movement to save universities that are put into political turmoil by those who seek the destruction of public institutions.
Originally Published on Economic & Political Weekly