VC in the dock

October 11, 2020

The current vice chancellor of GCU is under fire, as complaints of rigid control and a serious lack of flexibility for the varsity heads of departments come to the fore

“We believe this centralisation will result in efficiency and economies of scale to help us save money. It’s public money and I am its custodian.” — Photo by Rahat Dar

One of the oldest and most prestigious educational institutions of the country, the Government College University (GCU), Lahore, is in the news, again, for all the wrong reasons. Dr Asghar Zaidi, its vice chancellor (VC), is under fire for allegedly a lack of acumen and experience, among other things.

Ever since his appointment in October 2019, a number of complaints have been lodged against him by senior members of the faculty and the syndicate. Just last week, four members of the syndicate met with Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar, the GCU chancellor, and registered a number of complaints against Dr Zaidi.

Separately, a head of department had an extensive meeting with the governor in which he stated that if GCU continued to function under the current VC, he would be forced to resign along with many other senior faculty members.

Qualms about Dr Zaidi had started surfacing even before his formal appointment. In August last year, the GCU Academic Staff Association (ASA) wrote to the governor demanding that the VC be appointed from “any of the 25 people currently serving the GCU.” They apparently deemed Dr Zaidi unfit for the position. These concerns were only accentuated post his appointment.

A head of department from the institution, who chose to remain anonymous, told TNS: “Dr Zaidi lacks the administrative experience to run a unique institution like the GCU. He does not have the grace to govern the university. It is as if he has been thrown into a situation he does not have the mental capacity to navigate.”

A dean said that one of the major problems with the VC was that he “did not belong to the institution. The amount of time he’s spent here could have prepared him for the job. The culture, traditions and values of my prestigious alma mater have not been inculcated in Dr Zaidi.”

Several members of the faculty, choosing anonymity, said that complaints lodged against the VC included those of administrative nature. “The university seems to be going through a process of centralisation. As faculty and staff members, we have no say in the day-to-day administrative matters of the institution. It feels as though we are working in a primary school and not a university,” said one.

Complaints of rigid control and a severe lack of flexibility for heads of departments seem to be common issues at the GCU. The VC has also been accused of unnecessarily hovering over the offices of the Registrar and the Treasurer. As a head of a department put it, “Because of a serious lack of empowerment of these offices, there have been huge delays in routine work. Salaries of our teaching and research assistants have not been paid for months, our medical bills have not been paid for the last eight months and transport bills have remained unpaid for past six months.”

In response to these accusations, Dr Asghar Zaidi told TNS: “Chairpersons and administrative heads are completely independent and have full authority with respect to their budgets. What we have done is a mere centralisation of the purchase/procurement process, mainly for two reasons: firstly, to avoid violations of the PPRA rules and second, to remove any discrepancy in prices of purchased items.

“We believe this centralisation will result in efficiency and economies of scale to help us save money. It’s public money and I am its custodian.”

The VC also spoke about the concerns raised in regards to the offices of the Registrar and the Treasurer, saying: “The Registrar’s and Treasurer’s offices have been working for the GCU for many years, and they know their work and role as per law and rules. I do not control them. Misunderstanding about them arises often because some other colleagues do not know the rules within which we all need to operate. All the staff and faculty members have to work as a team and play our roles as per our job descriptions. In any case, the Registrar and the Treasurer are appointed by the governor (the chancellor) and not by me (the vice chancellor). The allegations of controlling them are simply baseless.”

Dr Zaidi is also accused of unnecessarily interfering in faculty matters and removing some members of the visiting faculty who had been employed at the university for decades, without prior consultation with senior members of the university staff. A head of department (HOD), who chose to remain anonymous, said, “Many respectable and popular teachers who had been working at the university for years were told to reapply and appear for an interview with the new VC. There were advertisements posted for jobs that were already occupied and those teachers were asked to reapply. I do not see any basis for this except for an embarrassing, very narcissistic attempt on the VC’s part to feel important and interfere in matters that do not concern him.”

Dr Asghar Zaidi.

“Senior teachers are being removed without consultation with us. Centuries old departments that have had only very senior members as heads are now being placed under inexperienced juniors. I believe this man is too self-centred and disrespectful to head this prestigious university…

The VC defended himself by saying, “This is the first time since long that the GCU has hired visiting faculty through advertisements in national newspapers (which is a requirement under law). This is a public sector university and we can’t give contracts to people on the basis of personal likings and judgment. The hiring through advertisement and selection committees gives equal opportunity to all and I am proud that I have brought this improvement in our hiring of teachers strictly on merit. The future of this country is strongly linked to the quality of our teachers.”

Further, Dr Zaidi is accused of increasing “censorship on campus.” An anonymous HOD said that “ever since his appointment all news that flows out of campus has to be approved by the VC.”

When prompted, the VC replied: “We don’t want any control over the news; there was a request from journalists and the Public Relations Office that all official news should be routed through the PRO which works very effectively with all departments and societies of the University. They cover, report and maintain a record of all events. I myself use PRO’s office for all media communications and engagements. This is how all top universities in our country and those abroad operate.”

A member of the GCU Syndicate, who was also a part of the complaint recently lodged before the governor, said he was “highly disappointed at the lack of respect for tradition and seniority the VC displays.

“Senior teachers are being removed without consultation. Centuries-old departments that have had only very senior members as heads are now being placed with inexperienced juniors. I believe this man is too self-centred and disrespectful to head this prestigious university. I would go as far as to say that he requires psychological help. He does not know how to work as a mutually respectful team and enjoys making his peers uncomfortable.”

The syndicate member also pointed out that “the narcissist VC is too involved in self-projection and advertisement to properly carry out administrative tasks. Banners of his face posted at the gates and passageways are in extreme bad taste and certainly unbecoming a vice chancellor.”

By way of a response, the VC says, “We have done nothing special for my promotion and projection in the social media. I am the ‘face’ of the University to take lead in representing my University at various forums. I have all the respect for GCU’s Syndicate members. Difference of opinion and debates are part of boardroom discussions. I am always looking forward to working with them.”

In the midst of this crossfire between the VC and senior faculty members, GCU students seem to hold the balance of opinion. Abdullah Naeem, a senior, says: “I don’t know what happens behind closed doors but I don’t really think these complaints are valid. I have had the chance to experience firsthand how the VC listened to students’ recommendations on examinations and assessment policies during the virtual semester. The office of the students’ affairs adviser has been quite active and enables direct contact between students and the vice chancellor. They have had numerous question-answer sessions with the VC wherein they put forward students’ concerns and grievances in front of him and he listened keenly.”

Some students have also come forward on social media to vouch for the VC, saying that unlike any VC before him, Dr Zaidi has been always available to them for consultation and leadership.

The Punjab governor is yet to respond to the complaints.

The writer is a student of political science at LUMS, and a freelance journalist

VC in the dock