An ode to India’s first woman vice-chancellor

Her name was Hansa Mehta and there are many learnings that stem from her stewardship as the founding V-C of Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda.

Published: 23rd July 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd July 2023 12:19 PM   |  A+A-

Very few of us are perhaps aware that one of India’s most distinguished vice-chancellors (V-Cs) was a lady. She was also the first woman V-C in the world. Her name was Hansa Mehta and there are many learnings that stem from her stewardship as the founding V-C of Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) 
of Baroda. She was accorded the distinction of being the first woman V-C in the world when she assumed charge at the SNDT University in Mumbai (then Bombay). Her tenure, however, as the first V-C of the MSU marked her as a visionary educationist. Mehta had also played a distinguished role as a freedom fighter and a Gandhian activist who fought for the rights of women and a member of the constituent assembly.

Serving and future V-Cs  as well as policymakers can learn much from her actions and vision. As the story goes, it was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who decided to convert Baroda College into a full-fledged university and it was his wisdom that dictated the appointment of Mehta as V-C. As far as I can tell, she did not have a post-graduate degree and certainly not a PhD. In today’s times she would not even be shortlisted for consideration. The UGC regulations—in place since 2008—mandate a PhD to be eligible. In addition, they require 10 years of experience as a full-fledged professor. Mehta had not ever served as an academic faculty at any university. 

The moot point is that Mehta was given a free hand in exercising her ideas and plans, and she took full advantage of it. Her record displays a boldness of vision and she managed to attract some of the finest young academic minds and intellectuals of the nation, most of whom were rising stars. Here’s a small sample of names: VY Kantak (English literature), NS Bendre, KG Subramanyan and Sankho Chaudhuri (Faculty of Fine Arts), BG Sandesra (Gujarati literature), KC George (Zoology), UN Singh (Mathematics), and Justina Singh (Home Science).

More importantly, Mehta encouraged academic freedom and in no time the university had begun to hum with a spirit of excellence. These names went on to achieve much fame and recognition, and they served the university well. Singh was invited as a full professor at a young age and in no time the mathematics department of MSU began to produce research that gained international recognition.

The American Mathematical Monthly in an article in the 1960s listed the mathematics curriculum at Baroda as exemplary. In fact, Nobel laureate Venkat Ramakrishnan, who obtained his first degree in the life sciences at MSU, praised his mathematical training during his undergraduate years at MSU. This story was in evidence in many of its departments. The traditions that Mehta set at MSU have stood the university well. The final lesson we learn from her example is that she served for nine years and this continuity allowed her to bring to fruition her ideas and dreams. Unfortunately, over the past decades, it has become a tradition to appoint V-Cs with three-year tenures that gives them no time to achieve much.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

Twitter: @DineshSinghEDU

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