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June 25, 2020

Shrinking space for academics who teach critical thinking

June 25, 2020

Clockwise: Dr Amer Iqbal, Mohammad Hanif, Zaighum Abbas amd Ammar Ali Jan

ISLAMABAD: On Saturday last, twitter was abuzz with discussion about academics being fired for their political beliefs. A tweet by Dr Ammar Ali Jan triggered this debate. It was about his decision to quit teaching at Forman Christian College Lahore. This was not something surprising for many who know him; it was however sad for them.

Pakistan's two prestigious learning institutions in Lahore – Government College University and Punjab University – fired him one after another for he allegedly instigated students; Punjab University went on to allege him of “fanning anti-state” sentiments. In four years, he has taught at three institutions and none could afford him; FIRs and arrests for instigating students are apart from that. He had ample opportunities to teach abroad after doing his PhD from Cambridge University but Ammar wanted to teach in Pakistan’s public sector universities.

“After returning to Pakistan in 2016,” he tweeted, “I was committed to teaching at a public sector university. I joined Government College University and later Punjab University. Both institutions fired me citing ‘national security’ as a reason.” As he joined FC College, things changed for him during the Students Solidarity March “where I was accused of being an instigator. I was charged with sedition….Unknown people began putting pressure on the FCC administration to fire me. I was called in by the Rector who told me to quit all public activities as FCC is in a ‘sensitive’ situation and cannot become controversial.”

Responding to the Rector, Ammar said he couldn’t give up as one of his students (Alamgir Wazir) was in jail for demanding education reforms and students union whereas the sedition case was still pending against him (Ammar). As he didn’t budge from his position, things started changing. His contract was revised moving him from assistant professor position to visiting faculty and finally he left. “It appears that the academic journey for me in Pakistan might be over after the unfortunate end at FCC,” he wrote in the twitter thread.

The reaction that followed was as much revealing. Where different individuals shared their own teaching experiences and how they were removed, an economics professor of the prestigious Institute of Business Administration was overwhelmed to read Ammar’s episode. He went on to offer him a job at IBA. “[Please] come to Karachi and join our institute…IBA provides liberty and power to all of our academics. Start a new journey with a new spirit,” the professor said and Ammar accepted his gesture by paying thanks and promising to visit Karachi. Later, the IBA professor deleted the tweet for the reasons that couldn’t be determined.

Other notable tweets were a reflection on sorry academic affairs where teachers are disciplined through length of contract. Where Ammar’s contract was changed from assistant professor to visiting faculty, an eminent physicist and public intellectual is also facing such a challenge and at the same institution. Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy was hired for a three-year term as Distinguished Professor of Physics and Math at FC College and later his contract was reduced to one-year, it has been learnt. The News couldn’t get a version of college as there is no designated spokesman. An effort to get version on Ammar case from his head of the department didn’t yield results either. Dr Ryan Brasher was sent a text message seeking his opinion on Ammar’s thread regarding FC College but he didn’t respond.

Mohammad Haneef, an acclaimed author and novelist, reacting to Ammar’s ouster said he has also been “shown the door” from Karachi’s Habib University where he was in visiting faculty. However, the university’s academic affairs dean in a rejoinder said he had not been shown the door. Instead, Chris Taylor added, this was Haneef’s one year contract which has expired and that he has taught at the university before. In April 2018, this university made headlines when a visit it organized was forcibly cancelled only an hour before it was due to be held. In addition, the guest speaker was forced off campus by the university security despite the fact that he was there at the university’s invitation.

In Government College University Lahore, Ammar wasn’t the only faculty member shown the door. A couple of others were forced to quit. Dr. Amir Iqbal, a mathematician with a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) University was forced to leave due to humiliating contractual employment wherein he had to seek extension each year. He’s now teaching at Harvard University. Amir’s crime: He had unearthed an Rs638 million scam disclosing GCU paid fake salaries to European professors. Some teachers came from Europe for 15 days and then left while many didn’t come in the first place. Amir was asked to investigate the matter and he prepared a 450-page report instead.

Zaigham Abbas, a political science teacher at GCU, is the latest casualty. He had started teaching there together with Ammar and both of them would receive a meagre salary of Rs23000 per month each. A native of Gilgit-Baltistan, Zaigham joined academia by passion instead of going for CSS. Like Ammar, he was also popular among students and would encourage them to think critically. His contract was being extended every three years until February this year. One morning, he went to teach and found a colleague teaching there. Zaigham was told that his contract has not been renewed. He was drawing Rs35000 per month at the time of his ouster.

The News spoke to Vice Chancellor of GCU Dr. Asghar Zaidi. He said that different departments are independent in taking their decisions. Talking about Dr Amir, he said it was the board’s decision to ask him to appear before a selection panel for a three-year appointment but Amir was reluctant. He said he had received an offer from Harvard and wouldn’t continue there, according to Dr Zaidi. About Zaigham, he said he should have contacted him. (Zaigham told The News he tried to meet him a number of times and also exchanged texts. VC denies). Dr Zaidi however admitted that contractual arrangement has been used many a time as an instrument against teachers and that he is trying to fix it by regularizing more and more teachers.