Tempest in a Teapot

Tempest in a Teapot

Over the past few days, media outlets have covered a boycott petition led by some University of California Irvine (UCI) faculty and students. This petition has cast aspersions and doubt on the motivations and intentions of the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF). DCF rejects the accusations put forth both by the petition and the people who have endorsed it as false and having little basis in fact. DCF believes that these accusations will not stand the burden of proof and wishes to correct some of the erroneous perceptions that have arisen as a consequence.

The Board of DCF consists of highly respected professionals of long standing in the United States, including former academic administrators and academicians. The donors who have contributed towards DCF’s academic initiatives are long standing and respectable citizens of the United States, and predominantly residents of California. There is no political motivation in DCF’s endeavors.

DCF would like to express deep appreciation for the Dean of the School of Humanities, Dr. Georges Van Den Abbeele, whose openness and sensitive engagement with DCF has brought the possibility of these gifts to UCI. However, the aspersions cast by the petition towards DCF and the consequent public fallout, regrettably raises questions as to whether the UCI School of Humanities is indeed a safe space and hospitable environment for DCF’s gift. It takes a delicate balance between a University’s ability to honor a donor’s intent over the long term, and the Faculty’s need for academic independence to responsibly consummate gifts of the kind being contemplated by DCF and the UCI School of Humanities. DCF’s Board of Trustees will be meeting to review this question, and deliberate on an appropriate course of action.

Donor Intent

Every Foundation has a commitment and DCF is no exception. Dharma Civilization Foundation’s objective is to find safe academic environments for the accurate and respectful study of the Dharma Traditions of India, including Hinduism, Indian Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and other Indic traditions in universities across the United States. With the coming of age of the Indian community in the United States of America, it has matured to second and third generations of successful professionals excelling in their fields of technology, medicine, entrepreneurship, law, and finance etc. The Indian Community in North America is now part of the fabric of American society; they are neighbors, friends, colleagues and fellow-citizens of everyday Americans. These Religious traditions of Indian origin are now American Religions too, and not foreign exotica. DCF represents the Indian heritage community’s commitment to educate their young adults in their religion and culture of origin, in the schools and universities of America just as all the other major ethnicities in America have also done.

Historically, the study of Hinduism and other Indic traditions have been conducted predominantly through area studies. While such area studies have espoused certain normative methods, they have not included the multitude of methods generally utilized in religious studies, such as philosophy of religion, deep textual study and interpretation, applied ethics, and other widely accepted methodologies. Broader methodological approaches to the study of other religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, in comparison, have led to far more robust and layered understandings of these respective traditions.

DCF seeks to widen and diversify the study of these traditions and culture of Indic origin, from being predominantly focused on applying Western models on foreign phenomena, to being more culturally sensitive, in such a manner as to take seriously the self-understanding of these non-western Indic cultures and religions as lived traditions of fellow Americans, and include dimensions such as philosophy and ethics from an insider’s (emic) perspective which barely exist today. To this end, DCF is keen on fostering the trend towards multi-disciplinary approaches, as it pertains to the study of Hinduism and other Indic religions, which it views as being complementary to the predominant critical and constructive methods. DCF has no intention to curb academic freedom in any field of study. In this regard, DCF has observed that other areas of study, such as women’s studies, African American studies, and Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or Islamic Studies, have all benefited from respectively having women scholars, African American scholars, or scholar-practitioners as active participants in these fields. Such scholars are not questioned about their objectivity, but are, in fact, respected for their unique experiences and perspectives, as well as the depth, nuance, and academic rigor they are able to bring to academia. DCF holds that such scholar-practitioners of Hinduism would bring the same to Hindu Studies.

Fair and Open Hiring Process

DCF acknowledges that for members of the University faculty to engage with potential candidates for these proposed chairs through informal contact, at an early stage when the chairs have not yet been approved, and the faculty search committees have not yet been constituted could have given the appearance of an intent to exercise undue influence in the selection process. DCF had no such intentions, and regrets that some of its actions may have been cause for such concern.

Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF), recognizes that the University of California mandates an open and fair search for all proposed chairs, endowed through its gifts and fully supports these open search policies and procedures. DCF further recognizes that the University of California, Irvine is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer advancing inclusive excellence, and that all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, age, protected veteran status, or other protected categories covered by the UC nondiscrimination policy. DCF understands the rules of engagement in endowing chairs in a public University; that DCF cannot dictate who will occupy any specific Chair and that any candidates recommended by the Foundation, will be subject to the same rigorous evaluation and consideration, and does not expect them to receive any form of preferential treatment at any time. At no time did DCF ever expect to circumvent the “Open Search” processes mandated by the University of California.

Need for Constructive Engagement

DCF welcomes the opportunity for constructive engagement with UCI Administration, Faculty and Students that is direct, professional and meaningful on these issues. A public petition filled with unsubstantiated accusations, is disappointingly the antithesis of such constructive engagement and has created many false perceptions about the Foundation.

For example, portraying DCF’s intentions in making the gift to UCI, as an attempt to curb academic freedom in any field of study is completely false. Another example is the problematization of the legitimacy of Scholar Practitioners teaching Hinduism, which ignores the pervasive presence of Scholar Practitioners teaching and researching other religious traditions. Yet another example is the imputation of hidden political motivations on a respectable California based Foundation, representing the interests of an American minority community, that seeks to support improved studies and understandings of Indic Dharma traditions, whose adherents are today also fellow-Californian residents, in one of California’s public Universities. What indeed is the hidden political motivation in this? This perilous accusation against DCF conflates of the hopes and dreams of Hindu Americans to be accepted as full citizens of the USA, with the Hindu nationalist politics of India. Such a conflation imputes guilt by association, marginalizes Hindu Americans and portrays them as a dangerous fringe group allied with a Political Party in India, instead of fellow American citizens. It has the effect of culturally disenfranchising the Hindu American community and disallowing them from participating in the creation of an educational system that is grounded in American pluralism. It stifles the freedom of academic pursuit and runs counter to UCI;s promise to not discriminate on the basis of religion or ethnicity or creed or orientation. Regrettably it fans the flames of “Hinduphobia”, endangers the free exchange of ideas and politicizes the issue, while hiding behind the fig-leaf of academic freedom.

Links

Petition

Orange County Register Article

Inside HigherEd Article

About the author

Kalyan Viswanathan

Kalyan Viswanathan is the Executive Vice President of Dharma Civilization Foundation. He holds a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Ohio State University and a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS, Pilani). He is a student of Swami Dayananda Saraswati of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, with whom he underwent extensive study of Advaita Vedanta in the tradition of Adi Shankara. He is also the President of Sanatana Dharma Foundation, Dallas, Texas