Madurai Kamaraj University: ‘Certain things’ throw open a can of worms in academia

Lack of a legally binding code of conduct between faculty and students one of the prime reasons for students getting coerced into extending favours, say experts

CHENNAI: Allegation of “sexual favours” being demanded at a college affiliated to Madurai Kamaraj University is only the tip of the ice-berg, say experts, who claimed that students have personally come crying to them after such incidents. The controversy came to lime-light when a 20-minute audio clip of professor  Nirmala Devi – from Devanga Arts College in Aruppukottai – asking college students to luring a  few girls to get “certain things” done, started circulating on social media. In the audio clip, Devi promised students both academic progression and financial support, irrespective of the career path they choose.

She was arrested by the police on Monday evening and was also suspended from her job. If the contents of the audio clip are investigated and confirmed to be true, it would go on to prove that such ‘sex-for favours’ scandals have been operated analogous to an organised crime.At a point in the phone call, Devi reveals to the students that hundreds of women and students like her are involved in “similar activities.” While the recording has taken citizens by shock, many students and higher education experts are barely surprised. Professor D Ananthakrishnan, the former Vice Chancellor of Anna University, who told Express that such incidents are rampant in Tamil Nadu, added, “I have had PhD students coming to me and crying that a faculty is asking for sexual favours. I even terminated a Chemistry professor during my tenure, after I found out that he asked a girl to perform sexual favours.”

Students enrolled for PhD and such higher level courses become the most vulnerable to such predators, claimed a research scholar from a college in Chennai who did not want to be identified. “At every step of our project,we are fully dependent on the guide and the college administration, that it’s very difficult to turn down the things asked out of us,” she said adding that usually money is extorted from men, sexual favours from women.

While this is the worst case scenario, students are often asked other kinds of favours such as paying the flight charges for the external examiner and booking accommodation in a star hotel, she alleged. Ananthakrishnan agreed with her view and added that the education system has not yet evolved a legally binding code of conduct between student and faculty.This is not the first time, an issue like this has gained public attention. More than a decade ago, Palaniandavar Arts College for women had allegedly sent four girls to ‘please’ members of National Assessment and Accreditation Committee (NAAC). Once the issue became public, students and teachers across the State boycotted classes. 

However the issue was hushed soon. the person at conflict later became the Vice Chancellor of Tamil Nadu open University.Such sex-for-favour scams are rampant in the State’s higher education system, said E Balagurusamy, former VC of Anna University, adding that most times, corruption trickles from top to bottom. “Such moral scams occur when there is a system backing these actvities,” he said.He emphasized that, in order to investigate a scam that names the VC and Governor, only a high level committee which is unrelated to both of them should investigate. Nirmala devi suggests in the audio clipping of the phone call that girls will have to perform “favours” for “top level officials in MKU.” Devi also suggests that she can pull string even at the governor’s level by referring to a video which allegedly shows her in close proximity to the governor at a meeting.

“It’s high time that the government investigate that this case instead of letting the people named on the tape to be the one to set up the commission,” he said. While scandals with a sexual tint are often brushed under the carpet, corruption and extortion has been often identified in Tamil Nadu’s higher education system.Recently the Vice Chancellor of Bharathiyar University was arrested for receiving bribe, former Anna Univeristy, Coimbatore’s VC R Radhakrishnan was sentenced to five years and a fine of `1 lakh, syndicate members of University of Madras, initiated disciplinary proceedings against 16 employees for manipulation of marks in 2013, case was registered against Murugesa Boopathy, then VC of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in 2011 for siphoning university funds into a private trust in his wife’s name and this list not exhaustive.

While these scandals are motivated by either money or lust, it is accepted because of political backing available to leaders in the education industry. A Narayanan from Change India, in a writ petition filed before the Madras High Court in 2017 wrote, “I submit that the dignity and high esteem of the office of the Vice Chancellors got a fatal blow, when a delegation of Vice Chancellors of 10 State universities and Registrar of Anna University met VK Sasikala, the aide of former Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, “in the guise of expressing condolences” and urged her to take over the mantle of Chief Minister of the State. Though, it is an open secret that many appointments of Vice Chancellors are based on political considerations and even based on highest bid, the cheap behavior of the Vice Chancellors was shocking.
He told Express that this move was a cheap political move as Sasikala was a politician and not a government servant. Ananthakrishnan recommends that students should have the power to raise complaints against extortion and sexual misconduct freely in academic spaces.

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