Recent complaints by two Ph.D research scholars about alleged sexual harassment and bribery against a senior faculty member of Bharatiyar University are symptoms of a widespread malady across campuses.
Reports of the scandal came close on the heels of a complaint of alleged sexual harassment by a female researcher against her research supervisor at Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s college.
Responding to a question in Lok Sabha, human resource development minister Smriti Irani said last year alone, a total of 75 cases of reported sexual harassment had been received from universities across the country.
Research scholars appear to be particularly vulnerable because, according to personal accounts, pleasing their guides and research supervisors and meeting their non-academic demands is vital to realising their PhD dreams.
With the University Grants Commission and AICTE making PhD mandatory for higher academic positions, most research guides, barring rare exceptions, have become brazen exploiters of researchers under them, treating them virtually as their bonded slaves, say victims.
When adman Suresh and his family visited Pune to attend the wedding, they were impressed by the polish and manners of the men and women who received them and looked after their every need during their stay.
“They didn’t look and behave like the staff of an event management company. It turned out that all of them were research scholars doing their Ph.D,” said Suresh’s wife Kalyani, herself a Ph.D in Mass Media and Communication Studies.
Unsurprisingly, the ushers’ guide for their Ph.D programme was none other than the bride’s father, a senior professor. For many, pleasing the guide, rather than academic rigour, has become the norm for getting the doctorate that determines their career trajectory.
And most guides, going by accounts of researchers, indulge in open, unabashed plagiarism by insisting that they be given credit for the mandatory research papers the scholars painstakingly prepare for presenting at various conferences and for publication in reputed research journals.
Guides insist that their name be listed ahead of the researcher’s own. This, when they do not even read, leave alone contribute a word to the work. A research scholar, whose paper was accepted for presentation at an international conference overseas, said that her guide told her that she need not bother to go. He would go instead.
“He comes up with all sorts of demands, from inviting himself and his family to dinner, providing accommodation to his family members who are visiting the town. I dread his calls,” said another researcher about his guide but cannot say ‘no’, as his Ph.D. depends on him.
Having to perform menial tasks like taking guides’ children to school, fetching vegetables from the market, booking train or air tickets are routine tasks for research scholars.
Guides also operate in cartel-like network.
“If you leave a guide in disgust, he will make sure that you will not get another guide,” said a research scholar. Sexual exploitation is also not uncommon. A female research scholar reportedly gave up her Ph.D. ambitions after her guide insisted that she visits his house when his family was away, ostensibly to review her work.
But it would be wrong to paint all guides with the same brush, say some scholars. Dr Kalyani of Pune said her guide at Madras University never asked for anything from her.
“Her (the guide’s) only interest was that I completed research work as early as possible with the seriousness and diligence that such studies require. I never had any problem, probably because both of us were women.”
There are stories of research guides who expect gold sovereigns, gold jewellery or cash as “gifts”. “If you do not, you spend years waiting for your coveted Ph.D,” said a lady faculty member, who submitted her thesis two years ago and is still waiting. A researcher at a well-known university in south Tamil Nadu was advised by her guide to host a cocktail party the eve of her viva and “lunch for 75 people” after the event.
(The writer is a senior journalist and chairperson of Amrita School of Communication, Coimbatore. The views expressed are personal)