This may be relevant for controversial University Chairs for Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Sikh, and Other Religions…..
OC Watchdog: UCI students, faculty object to Hindu foundation’s Controversial donation
OC Watchdog: UCI students, faculty object to Hindu foundation’s donation
It didn’t seem so controversial on that Saturday in May, when more than 100 people celebrated UC Irvine’s new Thakkar Family – Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies.
There were speeches about synthesizing the best of East and West, and creating the most esteemed India Center in the United States right here at UCI. There were group photos in a garden, and, eventually, a plaque on the wall of Humanities Gateway Building 1030. Dr. Ushakant Thakkar, chairman of the DCF, and his wife, Irma, contributed $1.5 million to promote the systematic study of Indian religious traditions.
In October, the university announced three new endowed chairs – in Sikh, Jain and Modern India studies – funded by an additional $1.5 million each. The Sikh and Jain chairs are gifts from private families, but the Dharma Civilization Foundation is to foot the bill for the Modern India chair.
Now, however, much is up in the air as UCI faculty and graduate students raise questions about the Foundation’s ties to Hindu nationalism. They worry that the Foundation seeks to place “true believers” in academia and might be trying to exert too much influence over hiring at UCI.
“Due diligence was not done,” said Catherine Liu, a media studies professor in UCI’s School of Humanities. “The university did not consult with the people who actually study India, and the Foundation’s agenda is to find sympathetic scholars in the United States. ‘Dharma’ is code now for Hindu nationalism.”
The entire exercise illustrates the tensions between academic freedom and an ever-growing quest for outside money.
“We fear that UC Irvine, in the search for private funding, is privileging a far-right political party in India, giving it disproportionate influence on the education of Californians,” graduate student Rachel de la Cruz said. “As global citizens, we are in support of South Asian studies and the history of religion. However, we are against donor influence and strong-arm tactics in academia, and especially in California’s public universities.”
More than 300 people have signed an online petition questioning the donations by the Dharma Civilization Foundation to UCI’s School of Humanities.
“Can money buy a racist agenda in universities?” asked petition-signer Les Levidow, a senior research fellow at the Open University in the United Kingdom. “This UCI case is one of many tests.”
UCI is not the only American university to receive such gifts. At the University of Southern California, the Foundation funded a two-year Swami Vivekananda Visiting faculty in Hindu Studies position, costing $120,000 per year. It was filled by Rita Sherma, who the foundation describes as a “scholar-practitioner.”
It also funded the “Center for Dharma Studies” at Claremont Lincoln University, which published the first online “International Journal of Dharma Studies.” And it is raising $3.3 million to establish a Swami Dayananda Saraswati Chair in Sanatan Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
The Foundation’s stated desire is to promote “the systematic study of India and Indic Civilization … freed up from the rubric of ‘South Asian studies’ and enshrined in indigenous epistemological perspectives.” It bemoans the “lens of suspicion” through which scholars often view religion, “resulting in varying levels of deconstruction and distortion.”
While the creation of UCI’s three new endowed chairs was touted as recently as last month, officials say it’s too soon to rush to judgment.
“Nothing is final on these chairs,” said UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon. “They haven’t even started a hiring committee yet. They haven’t decided if they are going to go forward, so it’s a little premature for people to be up in arms.
“We have a very structured process for hiring, and donors are never on the hiring committees….if they decide this is not the way to go, they will return the donations.”
An email addressing the ruckus, written by School of Humanities Dean Georges Van Den Abbeele to faculty, said: “While the university has indeed received generous gifts to establish these chairs, they are under active review at various levels in the university and thus are not approved at this time.”
He explained that endowed chairs, like all faculty positions, are filled only through a fair and open search process “which necessarily includes widespread advertising in appropriate academic venues, publicly open campus interviews, vetting by the full faculty of the candidate’s designated department as well as by off-campus scholarly experts in the candidate’s field of expertise, by the Dean, and by the Committee on Academic Personnel.”
The Foundation did not respond to repeated requests for comment. On its website, the group says it “hopes to upgrade the study and quality of understanding of the Indian Dharma traditions in such a way that they are well represented within the Academia… to aid the adoption of Dharma-centered policies and practices towards the solution of challenges facing humanity.”
In the Hindu tradition, “dharma” translates as law, order, harmony, and truth, and acts as the regulatory moral principle of the universe. Dharma traditions are studied quite extensively in universities, the Foundation notes.
“But it so happens that a very high majority of the professors and scholars who study Hinduism academically are non-Hindus and non-practitioners of Hinduism,” its website states. “This has resulted in widespread incidence of misrepresentations of Hinduism, and mischaracterization of the traditions and practices within the Hindu fold.”
Examples cited by the Foundation include the application of Freudian analytical techniques to Hindu gods, goddesses and gurus, as well as Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus – An Alternate History,” which only recently returned to Indian bookshelves.
The advocacy group Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti sued publisher Penguin over the book, complaining that it was written “with a Christian Missionary Zeal and hidden agenda to denigrate Hindus” by “a woman hungry of sex.”
The Foundation also pointed to the controversy over California history text books a decade ago, where objections centered on the portrayal of Hinduism, the caste system and the status of women in Indian society.
“These analytical techniques create a distorted representation of almost all the things that Hindus hold dear to their heart,” the Foundation says on its website.
At UCI, faculty members remain deeply suspicious of the entire process.
A reception celebrating the gift was scheduled for Dec. 7 at UCI and reconstituted as an unofficial gathering, but complete with buffet, photographers and Indian dancers, said students who crashed it.
Kavita Philip, an associate professor of history at UCI, said that faculty members have been personally pressured to alter research, and that donors have brought unofficial job candidates to campus.
“We cannot investigate these practices; all we can do is ask for the administration to investigate,” Philip said.
Lawhon, the UCI spokeswoman, said that it would difficult to comment on individual faculty feeling personally pressured.
“Certainly, there is no expectation in the School of Humanities that anyone’s research be altered as a result of these donations,” she said. “We have a religious studies program that needed to develop its expertise in Eastern religions and that’s what these chairs are intended to help accomplish.”
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