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Last year, the University of California at Irvine (UCI) was offered a substantial donation to set up four chairs in South Asian Studies. The shackles of the endowment irked the students and faculty. A faculty committee looked into the gift and decided to turn it down. The Dean agreed. It is an object lesson in who gets to fund higher education. This is that story.
Walking through the University of California’s campus at Irvine is a startling experience. More than half the students are of Asian descent. When students set up their tables to advertise their clubs on the plaza, the diversity amongst the Asians is apparent. There is an Afghan Students Union and a Chinese Association, with at least six Korean American clubs. There is the Indian Students’ Association, but also the Indian Subcontinental Club, a Hindu Yuva, the Muslim Students Union and the Secular Students Alliance (which hosts a Bhangra Night).
Student diversity is superb for brochures. But students complain – as a number of them told me – that they would like to see more classes about their histories. The Asian students and faculty who teach about Asia say that they would like to have more classes on the continent and its relationship to the rest of the world. But, as with most public institutions in the United States, the University of California system appears broke and is unwilling to spend what money it has on developing curricula to cater to the interests of the diverse student body about which it boasts.
While the University of California is making sweeping promises in response to students’ complaints, it is unclear whether these promises will be backed with the financial commitments necessary to execute them. For example, starting in 2017, the University of California’s Los Angeles campus will establish a diversity-related course requirement for students who enroll in 2017 and beyond. Students will be required to take a class that “substantially addresses racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, religious or other types of diversity.” This is a laudable goal, but does UCLA have the faculty to provide classes necessary for the 16,000 students it enrolls in each class?
There’s no question that hiring people to enrich the curriculum should be a major goal of higher education in the United States. The problem – for public universities – is that legislatures are hesitant to finance such initiatives. The university, then, must go to private entities to raise the money. Individuals of great wealth have their own agenda. Few would like to give money to a university for a use that they do not control – a situation that has been exacerbated as the status of the Humanities declined (now donors with no training in the Humanities believe that they have as powerful a claim to defining curriculum as scholars). This is one of the great dilemmas of 21st century higher education in the US.
Controversy Erupts Over Funding From the Dharma Civilization Foundation
In May 2015, UC Irvine announced a partnership with the Dharma Civilization Foundation and the Thakkar Family to endow a Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies. The gift of $1.5 million came from a prominent San Fernando-based nephrologist, Dr. Ushakant Thakkar and his wife Irma Thakkar. This money would be followed by other funds for a Sikh, Jain and Modern Indian Studies chair. This sounds like a good reason for UC Irvine to celebrate: money for four positions that would diversify the curriculum, providing classes that the students had long wanted.
So what’s the problem? Why did many graduate students who work on South Asia express their dismay at this gift, and why have many faculty members joined in their outrage?
One problem is the donor – the Dharma Civilization Foundation. Kalyan Vishwanathan, the executive vice president of the foundation, tells me that the foundation is “an American organization, registered in the State of California.” It is, in other words, legitimate. So what is the problem? A letter of concern from the UC Irvine Department of History points to the linkages between the Dharma Civilization Foundation and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extreme right group based in India, and its US affiliate the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).
The founder of the Dharma Civilization Foundation – Manohar Shinde – is an RSS-trained man who was one of the founders of the HSS. Several of its trustees (Ved Nanda, Sunil Agarwal) have been leaders of the HSS – while its Vice President, Dr. Vinod Ambashta – was the HSS Director. Vishwanathan rejects that these groups have any role in the Dharma Civilization Foundation. On the other hand, Vishwanathan suggests that there is nothing improper in these groups, and those who argue against them “wish to discredit the millions of people who are involved in these organizations in India and elsewhere.” Indeed, to take Vishwanathan’s point further – the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a member of the RSS.
The faculty and students, however, do not believe that the RSS and the HSS are benign, nor do they believe that the Dharma Civilization Foundation is utterly independent of these organizations. There was good reason for the United States to deny Modi a visa to enter the country for a decade. Allegations of complicity in the killings of over 2,000 people in a pogrom in 2002 have dogged Modi. The sensibility of the RSS is anti-Muslim, and this sensibility has manifested itself in riots and in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, following Gandhi’s words of goodwill toward Muslims. A senior Congress Party leader – Digvijay Singh – once likened the RSS hatred for Muslims to the Nazi hatred for Jews.
After students and faculty spoke out against the donation, UC-Irvine’s administration hastily backed off from their celebrations. The Dean, Georges Van Den Abbeele, appointed a committee to investigate the unease with the gift. I asked Dean Van Den Abbeele about the Dharma Civilization Foundation’s linkage to the RSS. Irvine, he says, has a track record of increasing offerings in Asian religions that precedes the Dharma Civilization Foundation gift – for at least four years before the foundation came into the picture, the university used non-tenure-track faculty such as adjuncts and postdocs to teach these classes. Irvine, he said, wants to hire a full-time faculty member to “reverse the general and regrettable trend in academia towards increased reliance on contingent rather than permanent instructors.” This is a laudable goal, but not one that answers the question of the RSS’s involvement. One of the faculty members who played a role in the episode, Professor John Miles, told me, “How close these alleged links are does concern me.”
Stipulations Require Hiring of Scholars Who Imbibe Hindu Ethos
The Dharma Civilization Foundation asks those who take its money to follow two basic principles.
First, the foundation demands that its recipients hire scholars who “imbibe the spirit of Hindu Ethos in their personal lives.” What does this mean? Does the scholar have to be a practicing Hindu? In its assessment of the University of Southern California, the Dharma Civilization Foundation writes approvingly of Professor Duncan Williams who teaches Buddhism because “he is a practicing Buddhist.”
Second, and linked to this, the foundation stipulates that the hire must not be “confused and distorted by secularism.” What does the foundation mean by this? Rajiv Malhotra, a telecom executive, has written a number of books against scholarship that “undermines Indian culture” by recourse to Western categories. The guidelines from the foundation say that such scholars exhibit “an outlook of contempt and disdain for anything Hindu.” This, Vishwanathan told me, “is a cause for frustration among the members of the Dharma [Hindu] community.”
Dean Van Den Abbeele told me that he informed the Dharma Civilization Foundation that UC-Irvine “cannot be bound by this phrase” – confused and distorted by secularism – “or any other stipulation that restricts the academic freedom of the chair holder.” The committee set up by Dean Van Den Abbeele wrote at length about these restrictions. “We are particularly concerned about any language that implies that religious affiliation or participation in religious events is a prerequisite for chair holders,” they write in their February 18 report.
Kalyan Vishwanathan of the Dharma Civilization Foundation suggests that these stipulations are an attempt to counterbalance the fact that religions from worlds outside Judeo-Christian traditions have for a long time been studied as inferior. Hinduism, he says, is often seen “as a kind of social pathology.”
But has the Dharma Civilization Foundation created a straw man? Is there really disdain for Hinduism currently within the US academy? I asked several students at Irvine what they thought of this charge. Their reactions were skeptical. The academy, said Ali Olomi, is “not a locus of Hinduphobia.” Olomi is the president of the History Graduate Students Association. “Both the faculty members and the student body have made clear their commitment to the academic study of Hinduism,” he said.
Robert Goldman, who teaches at UC Berkeley, is the General Editor and one of the main translators of the enormous project to translate Valmiki’s Ramayana (Princeton University Press). Goldman says that scholars who study India “do so out of love for the subject.”
Telecom executive Rajiv Malhotra suggests that Western scholars – like Robert Goldman and Columbia University’s Sheldon Pollock – lack adhikara, guru-given authority. Both Goldman and Pollock are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Pollock was awarded a prestigious Padma Shri award by the Indian government. Neither is a practicing Hindu. Malhotra criticizes Pollock for his “leftist and secular commitments.” It is this that seems more the burr under the saddle than the scholars’ actual work, which is widely recognized to be of the highest quality.
Funding at the University of Southern California
The Dharma Civilization Foundation failed at Irvine, but it had a success at the University of Southern California, where it endowed a chair in Hindu Studies in 2012. The process for that chair took over a year, with active work from the president of the University of Southern California, the chair of the School of Religion – Duncan Williams, whom the foundation praised for being a practicing Buddhist – and Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life.
The University of Southern California hired Rita Sherma – who was on a list of Scholar-Practitioners provided by the Dharma Civilization Foundation to the university – on a two-year short-term position for that chair. Sherma is a major donor to the Dharma Civilization Foundation and is praised in multiple places on the foundation’s website. That she was hired for the position suggests that the University of Southern California was not averse to following the guidelines given by the foundation. Professor Sherma told me that she “applied along with others” and got the job. “I served my term and have taken a post elsewhere,” she said. She now teaches at the Graduate Theological Union in a Dharma Studies program funded by the same foundation. She is, in other words, a key scholar-practitioner who is repeatedly hired for positions funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation.
When the foundation made its gift to University of Southern California, the school’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was Howard Gillman, now the Chancellor at UC-Irvine. I asked the Chancellor if he had any role to play in the gift. Through his Associate Chancellor, Ria Carlson, Chancellor Gillman said he “was not involved in conversations regarding the gift or the hiring of related faculty.” Gillman’s name is not on the gift agreement of June 25, 2012 – although he did not leave the university till 2013. It does seem unusual for the Dean of the College not to be involved in such a substantial ($3.24 million) gift. It is even more curious that the foundation moved from the University of Southern California to UC Irvine – as Gillman moved from one job to the next.
The Danger of Reliance on Private Funds
Higher education is truly in a bind. New fields of study appear, but there is no money from austerity-driven legislatures. Reliance upon private funds has become commonplace. But UC Irvine’s own history shows that higher education need not be prone before the funders. When the Massiah Foundation – created by Fariborz Maseeh, an Iranian-American entrepreneur – approached UC Irvine to create a Center for Persian Studies in 2005, the discussion was more mature. “A faculty-led committee negotiated directly with the donor,” remembers Professor Mark LeVine, who teaches Middle Eastern History at UC Irvine. This committee “was very explicit in how the donation would work, the importance of academic independence, and related issues and there have been no problems.”
“Young children going to school and colleges in the US,” Kalyan Vishwanathan from the Dharma Civilization Foundation said to me, “deserve a better approach to their heritage traditions.” Of course, erroneous stories about any part of the world or any tradition would ill-prepare any student, not just those who can claim heritage from them. But the problem is not in this sentiment. It is in how better stories can be told. Should those stories be determined by a foundation with close ties to groups like the RSS? Or should they be produced by the rough and tumble world of academic debate and discussion, where protocols of academic freedom govern the sensibility of the scholars?
Ultimately, after consideration of the possibility of a program funded by the Dharma Civilization Foundation, UC-Irvine’s faculty committee recommended that “none of the chairs be established.” Dean Van Den Abbeele wrote to the faculty, “I will support these and other recommendations.” It appears that the door to the Dharma Civilization Foundation at Irvine has closed. Students will continue to be eager for classes in Indian thought and history. The money will have to come from elsewhere.