SPPU's response to complaint against HoD exposes cracks in redressal mechanism
Most of the signatories have accused the professor of being vindictive.
The response, or the lack of it, to a complaint against a prominent Head of Department (HoD) at the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) has raised questions regarding the robustness of the grievance redressal mechanism at one of the top varsities in the country.
Around 40 former students and former non-teaching staff members of the Sociology Department at SPPU have alleged that the HoD Shruti Tambe indulged in misconduct and abuse of power against the students, over a period of last seven years at least. While a formal complaint has been lodged against Tambe on June 1, 2023, the complainants said that they have not received any response from the University about the same in the last one and a half months. However, SPPU Vice Chancellor (VC) Prof. Suresh Gosavi said that the process for a probe into the matter has begun.
“The testimonies reflect a pattern of authoritarian and vindictive treatment of students by Prof. Tambe. The pattern also establishes her bias against the Dalit-Bahujan communities, along with her unsympathetic approach towards students from the economically backward rural areas,” the formal complaint document shared by one of the signatories on social media states.
“We submitted the complaint to the VC's Office first on June 1. We then also forwarded it to the offices of Vijay Khare, Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Rajeshwari Deshpande, Director, Interdisciplinary School (Humanities and Social Sciences). But we received no response at all from anyone at the University. Finally, we decided to post the complaint on social media out of fear that our voices might get stifled,” Madhura Joshi, one of the signatories of the complaint explains.
Under 16.x and 16.y of the Maharashtra Public Universities Act 2016, the dean of the Faculty has the duty to - (x) enquire into any malpractices committed in any academic programmes in the faculty by a university department, affiliated or conducted or community or autonomous, empowered autonomous colleges or cluster of institutions or recognised institutions, on being directed by the Academic Council and submit a report of the findings to the Academic Council.
When contacted about the same, however, Khare (Dean) told Indie Journal that he has not come across any such complaint yet. “I have not received any such document marked for me, thus I will not be able to comment on the same,” he said.
"All we want is that they at least pay attention to us.”
“We do not expect a big impact, we think they will try to cover it up. All we want is that they at least pay attention to us,” Joshi says.
Prof. Gosavi, he current SPPU VC, took charge of his post around a week after the complaint was filed. He said that amid all the other responsibilities like the G20, the implementation of the New Education Policy (NEP), a committee has been formed to look into the matter.
"The further probe is the committee's responsibility. The reality will come forward once it submits its report," Gosavi said.
While he also made a remark that he does not think this is that big of a complaint, he also said that the University is looking into the complaint in the interest of the students.
"Of course, those who have complained would not have done so if there was no truth to it. I have received everything from them. The committee will give its report and based on that, we will take things forward," Gosavi said.
When Indie Journal spoke to a few students on the campus, they gave the impression that the response to the complaint often depends on who the complaint is against, but such level of delay in action is rare. "We have seen action being taken against contractual professors over complaints from students in the past. But this time, the person in question seems to be well-connected," the student who works for students issues on the campus said on condition of anonymity.
Allegations against the HoD
In the complaint, most of the signatories have accused Tambe of being vindictive against those who challenged her in any way.
“We are PhD students. However, we are reprimanded for the smallest of the things like how long we take to eat our lunch. That should not be of any concern of the HoD. She can of course scold us over anything related to our assignments or classes. But she has a vindictive approach towards those who challenge her, those who are in her ‘bad books’,” says Milind Chavan, the only one of the signatories who is still pursuing his PhD at the Department. An activist himself, Chavan is a known name in the progressive circles in the city.
“Prof. Tambe and I used to be friends earlier. However, since I got into her ‘bad books’ over an incident related to the payment of additional fees for department-organised workshops a couple of years ago, her behaviour towards me as well has changed. She said I was provoking other students and refused to have a discussion with me over the issue even at that time,” Chavan added.
The complaint mentions that the said vindictive nature involves retaliation ranging from withholding the degree, denial to write recommendations, misguiding the process of job hunts, etc. It also mentions that those students who agree to “going vegetable shopping for her, dropping or picking up her family members, or even herself on a regular basis remained in her good books”.
Chavan says that there are many more students who would have been facing such treatment from the HoD and they could have signed the complaint, but were afraid to come forward.
Another signatory Mayuri Samant, who completed her PhD recently, in 2021, also reiterated that Tambe did treat those who challenged her badly.
“I completed my PhD recently. I also took up an assignment as Teacher’s Assistant (TA) with her during my PhD research. I faced continuous retaliation from her every time I spoke my mind and said anything against her,” Samant says.
She also alleged, as mentioned in the complaint, that Tambe had an unprofessional approach as a professor.
“She never came to the lectures on time. When I was TA, she would suddenly ask me to conduct her lecture at the last moment. When I refused to do that every time, I was into her bad books. Now there are no TAs, but we have heard that she does the same with the Assistant Professors in the Department. I never received proper guidance from her for the PhD. Thankfully, I am privileged enough to have had enough resources to still have completed my research despite the lack of cooperation from the HoD. But that is not possible for everyone,” Samant said.
She also mentioned that she had to give up on the last installment of her fellowship stipend as she could not receive the signature from Tambe for the same earlier.
Apart from the vindictive treatment, the HoD has also been accused of discrimination against those who come from rural backgrounds. “Those of us who came from rural families, spoke in Marathi always faced biased treatment from her. She indulged in groupism amid elite students and those who were from a relatively backward background,” the former student who completed a Master's at the Department more recently said on condition of anonymity. The student is also one of the 40 signatories.
Joshi further says, “Most of us who have signed the complaint are now at such a place in our careers that we do not face the threat of direct retaliation due to this. However, some of us are still vulnerable. One of the signatories lost job and we think it is because of this complaint.”
The complaint also mentions certain allegations of the HoD being involved in caste and gender-based discrimination against the students. However, these particular allegations could not be ascertained by Indie Journal due to the lack of testimonies corroborating the same.
Is the university taking the allegations seriously?
Despite such serious allegations, however, the delay in getting a response from the University to the complainants has been deemed shocking.
When contacted about the same, Prof. Tambe said that since a formal complaint has been filed, she will not be able to make any comment on the matter.
“I am an employee of the University. I adhere to the regulatory framework, as per my job profile. Since this is a formal complaint, authorities will be in a better position to speak about this. I understand that when a procedure like this is ongoing, it is not appropriate for those involved to speak. So I will not be able to comment on this,” Tambe said.
The delay in the filing of the complaint leaves the case hanging for both parties. The former students wonder whether their voices are going to be heard. On the other hand, whether Tambe, a well-known name in the progressive circles in the state, was involved in such a case or not, also fails to get cleared, until the due process is completed. While the VC insists that the process of a probe has begun, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities or the University Registrar denying having any knowledge of the complaint raises a question about the pace of the process.
"We are not demanding that Prof. Tambe be removed."
Chavan added that the objective of filing this complaint was to ensure that future students do not face the same treatment in the department as the complaints did.
“We are not demanding that Prof. Tambe be removed. All we are asking for is decentralisation of power in the departments at the University. All the power here converged in the hands of the HoD. It provided the opportunity for the abuse of such powers. I have heard testimonies that there were incidents wherein she made the students wait a long time to even sign documents, sometimes just refusing to give her signatures to certain students. There should be a better system in the departments to prevent such instances. And there must be a better mechanism available to the students to complain when such incidents occur,” Chavan says.
19-07;15:50: Edited for minor typos.