Returned academic May 12, 2011, 12:00 pm
excellence vs entrenched academic mediocrity
By Carlo Fonseka
Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole
At one point in your very perceptive editorial of 10 May titled ‘Pay them more; make them work harder’ you refer to President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s appeal to ‘expatriate Sri Lankan experts including academics to return and help develop the country’. Then you ask rhetorically: ‘But who will want to answer his call, return home and settle for a pittance?’ Please give me a little space to tell The Island the story of two such persons – Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole and his wife Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole, who answered the President’s call and the consequent unhappiness they have had to endure.
Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole is a proper ‘double doctor’. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) from the Carnegie Mellon University (a highly ranked institution in the field of computation). He also secured a rare higher doctorate, namely a Doctor of Science Degree (DSc) from the University of London. He happens to be the only academic in Sri Lanka of pre-retirement age with an earned DSc (as opposed to a honorary DSc) from a world class university. His research has been so high-tech that he has been a consultant, among others, to NASA on the Space Shuttle, IBM on data storage devices, and the US Defence Contractor Northrop on the B-2 Stealth Bomber. He is the only Fellow in Sri Lanka of IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization in which the grade of Fellow is earned only by invitation and not by application. His wife Dr. Dushyanthi Hoole a chemist, is a distinguished academic who obtained her PhD under Nobel Laureate George Olah. Having highly qualified themselves abroad, they both returned to Sri Lanka in the mid 1990s, ready to work for the comparatively measly salaries offered by our university system. I had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know them well when Prof. Ratnajeevan and I were members of the UGC. While you rightly urge paying academics more and making them work harder, I am aware of the way that Ratnajeevan exercised his capacity for work, even without the huge material incentives he enjoyed in the US.
In 2006 Prof. Hoole who has a deep love for Jaffna where he was born and bred and schooled, was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna. He was, however, prevented from assuming office by the die-hard LTTE supporters in the Jaffna University. The reason was simple: the Hooles have been the most consistent and principled and open opponents of the LTTE among the educated Tamils. They are willing to work with their Sinhalese brethren. For this reason they are regarded as traitors by many Tamil university people. Given this background, in the face of death threats, the Hooles with their children fled Sri Lanka in March 2006.
After the LTTE menace was decisively eliminated in May 2009, the President invited expatriates to return and help to build a new Sri Lanka. The Hooles responded to his call and despite their previous bitter experience with both internecine Tamil politics and petty Sri Lankan academic politics, returned to their motherland. Before doing so, they sought my advice and having consulted H.E. the President himself and obtaining his support and assurance, I persuaded the Hooles to return. I did so because as a long standing member of the UGC I knew how understaffed the University of Jaffna is. Partly under my persuasion the Hooles returned to Sri Lanka on 2 September 2010 with their children whom they wanted to grow up and live and serve their motherland.
True to his word, the President ordered their reinstatement by a letter dated 13 September 2010. He did so, on the basis of orders against the University of Jaffna and the University of Peradeniya issued respectively by the University Services Appeals Board (USAB) and the Human Rights Commission, in favour of the Hooles. But the university authorities have resorted to various delaying tactics. My friends in the previous UGC will testify how much I urged the implementation of the President’s order not only on grounds of justice but also as part of the President’s quest for reconciliation and his objective of promoting excellence in our university system. But to no avail.
The Hooles are a classic example of how our university system works against academics of high caliber. Despite our cries about the brain drain, our university system is generally allergic to academics of exceptional quality, especially if they have distinguished themselves abroad. What comes to my mind in this context is a line from Shakespeare’s play Othello. The envious Iago’s grouse against the admirable Cassio is that: "He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly". In a system with many mediocrities those of exceptional quality make the mediocre look ugly! So the mediocrities do their damndest to eliminate the truly exceptional.
But let me return to the case of the Hooles. The present administrators of the Jaffna University have responded to the President’s instructions by re-advertising the post and asking the Hooles to apply and then go by the normal process despite the unusual situation. Although the highly qualified chemist Dr. Dushyanthi is the only applicant, the university has not found a time to interview her for the advertised post for past several months. As for Prof. Ratnajeevan, I gather that the Jaffna University’s Computer Science Department is repeating the old decision that Prof. Hoole is an engineer and not a computer scientist. This is the very decision which was faulted and overturned after lengthy hearings by the USAB. (Be it remembered that the Founder Director of University of Colombo School of Computing was a pure mathematician, the much lamented Prof. V. K. Samaranayake, who is regarded as the father of computer science in Sri Lanka).
After his return Prof. Ratnajeevan was unemployed for a long period. Then he was given a tenuous temporary appointment until further notice. This too was done by the UGC. In the meantime, I am oppressed by a sense of guilt for having advised the Hooles to return. Why on earth did I persuade the highly qualified Hooles to leave their highly paid jobs in the US and returned to their motherland! I did so only because I wished to improve our university system to which I feel so indebted for all it has done for me.
As a devout Christian perhaps my dear friend Jeevan should be able to derive some consolation from the reflection that in those days the custodians of Jewish culture and tradition preferred the murderer Barabbas to Jesus, the Saviour.