Friday, November 6, 2015

Early years of the University of Ceylon - Professor S Mahalingam's memories - Part III

Growing up in the Lower Ranks by S. Mahalingam

Part I - The New Faculty
Part II - Our First Home

Part III - Early years of the University of Ceylon

In 1950 the University of Ceylon was spread across the city at three centres. The main body of the University was at Thurstan Road, its seat being the old Ceylon University College founded in 1921. Three Faculties -Arts, Oriental Studies and Science - the main library and the university administration were located there. The Faculty of Medicine was at Kynsey Road, close to the General Hospital, Colombo, while the Faculty of Engineering the youngest of the five faculties was at the CTC. The common man usually referred to the Thurstan Road complex as "The University".

The University of Ceylon was relatively small in those years. When it was established in 1942 it had four faculties and 904 students. With steady expansion taking place, particularly after the end of the war in 1945, the total student population rose to about 1500 by 1950. In spite of its tender age and small size it was already gaining a reputation for its academic standards. It enjoyed a high public esteem and there were a few academic staff who had resigned from the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) to join the University staff. Much of the planning of the infrastructure of university education and administration was in the capable hands of Sir Ivor Jennings as none of the academic staff had had any experience of university management. He had come to Ceylon from the London School of Economics and was already the author of eleven books. In spite of the heavy load imposed on him by the dismally slow pace of the Peradeniya scheme, he was also writing books in Ceylon. At the time we came into contact with him he was already LLD (Lond), DLitt (Cantab) and his formidable presence was an inspiration to the junior staff members. Some of the senior staff members were not far behind him. The faculty of Science had two of its staff with, DSc (Lond) while the Arts and Oriental Studies had one DLitt (Lond) each. Those of us who had grown up in the sleepy, uninspiring and stifling environment of the CTC found the university environment very stimulating. Most of the academic staff we came to know had very good first degrees and commendable records of post-graduate research.

"The University is not a Government Department nor is it organised like one", wrote Sir Ivor Jennings in 1948. Its administration was indeed compact and efficient. It consisted of the VC, a Registrar and two Assistant Registrars, one of whom, having had training in Printing, was also the Manager of the Ceylon University Press. All the printing work such as the university publications, stationery and question papers handled by the Press which also undertook the binding of books and periodicals. The Main Library had one Librarian and two Assistant Librarians.

The General Office was run by a Chief Clerk and about 10-15 clerks; there was no Bursar. This little office handled the entire work relating to finance, establishment, general administration and also the Peradeniya Scheme.

A Parkinsonian proliferation of staff was set in later with a predictable loss of efficiency and reliability. As rar as my recollection goes the university did enjoy the luxury of official motor vehicles. The VC was often seen getting around the university grounds on foot, and when he went outside the university complex he drove his own elderly car.

A facet of university life in those years still remains clear in my memory. It happened at the end of my first month of service in the University, and I had gone to the university office to collect my pay-cheque. The office was on the first floor of College House where the offices of the VC and the other administrators were located. I obtained my cheque with a mere verbal self-identification, and walked out reading the particulars written on it. Somewhere I had taken the wrong turn and suddenly I found myself in the VC’s balcony. Sir Ivor was deeply absorbed in what he was writing and I noticed a number of bound volumes, open and propped up in front of him. I hadn't obviously disturbed him, and I tiptoed out of the place quickly. I did not realise at that time that I would never again see a VC in our university doing academic work.

The circulars sent out by Sir Ivor Jennings were sometimes enlivened by dry humour and irony of the British Senior Common Room type. I recall that when J.V. Stalin, the great leader of the Soviet Union, died in February 1953 the President of the Students' Union wrote to the VC requesting a special university holiday as a mark of respect to the great man. The VC circulated his reply which went something like this:
“The Vice-Chancellor would consider granting of a special holiday when the death has occurred of (a) a distinguished senior member of the staff, (b) an eminent public figure who has been closely associated with the university and (c) a distinguished alumnus of the University.

The late Soviet leader did not come under category (a) or (b). As for category (c), I have gone through the Register of Graduates very carefully and I failed to see the name J.V. Stalin in it".
I also recall the Vice-chancellor once wrote to the students' Union to point out that there was no need to put up posters and placards during their election campaigns in which they were canvassing what was probably "the most educated electorate in the country". He felt that such displays were a gratuitous insult to the intelligence of the undergraduates. I do not think the students took serious note of this gratuitous advice from a foreigner on what had become accepted national practice since the advent of adult franchise.

A much respected and admired academic, Sir Ivor was easily accessible to staff and students who had special problems requiring his personal attention. The "employer-employee" relationship between the VC and the staff, which developed in a later administration, was totally alien to his thinking. I have seen him at University Teachers' Association (UTA) meetings in the Senior Common Room having a cup of tea and joining in the discussions. He did not see the need to conduct himself any differently from what he would have done in Britain.

Growing up in the Lower Ranks by S. Mahalingam – Part IV - Working in the Faculty

(This article was first published in “Memories of an Engineering Faculty: 1950-2000 Golden Jubilee Souvenir”, Jayasekara, W.P., Mahalingam, S., Ranaweera, M.P., Siyambalapitiya, S.B., Ratnaweera, V. [Editors], Faculty of Engineering, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, July 2000)

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