• Quirk NLS

Exploring the “Fault” Lines at NLSIU: Part I – Communicating (?) Well…

This article has been written by TooCoolForQuirk, Catalyst, StillWingingIt, and SayMadArthi. The  illustration is by Anonymous.

In the past year we have had so many conversations about everything going wrong in this college – we have had General Body Meetings (GBMs), mess hall WhatsApp rants, Gyaan sessions, social media posts, and Quirk articles – it’s gotten ugly. More often than not, we end up expressing frustration and moving on. Recently, it has felt like we’re having the same conflicts, arguments, accusations, and rants over and over again – without doing much about it.

This is a series of articles by a group of Law Schoolites who are exhausted from these conflicts between the administration (admin) and the student body and are looking for a fresh start. We’re writing this series because we think that maybe it’s time for us to take a step back and figure out how we can get ourselves out of this hot mess. We went about writing these pieces by trying to understand what went wrong in each of the disagreements and conflicts between the student body and the admin regarding any measures that were or were not taken. The four root causes we identified and covered in this series are poor communication, mistrust, apathy, and a lack of inclusivity. Each part of the series also proposes certain structural changes that could be adopted by us moving forward. Part I of this series covers the problem of miscommunication between the admin and the students, and within the student body. Part II of this series will cover the issues of mistrust, apathy and lack of inclusivity. Part III of this series will cover recent developments during the second wave, which exacerbated these issues.

We are writing this now because we will soon be returning to campus (hopefully) which offers us an opportunity to have a fresh start. We hope that this series will start a conversation – one that gets us talking about how we can fix things.

Disclaimer 1: In order to try and understand the situation beyond the position of the authors, we circulated surveys amongst the student body, SBA, SAC, and heads of committees and journals; analysed emails from various stakeholders; and conducted interviews with former members of the SBA/SAC. You can find the process & methodology here. However, we would still like to reiterate that the views expressed in this series are not necessarily representative of the entire student body. Our views are informed primarily by our position and experiences as B.A. LL.B. students (who come from relatively privileged backgrounds in terms of caste and socio-economic status). As students, we also have a limited understanding of the admin’s perspective. 

Disclaimer 2: Our series covers the happenings in Law School till the end of AY 2020-21 (June 2021). Subsequent events have not been analysed or written about.

Disclaimer 3: This series is not intended to serve as a tool for apportioning blame, or a demand for any heads to roll. We appreciate the past and present efforts made by all stakeholders (students and admin) to deal with the problems we are highlighting. All we wish to do is constructively engage with the status quo in the hope of improving our efforts as a community.

Part 1: Chronicling the Communication Breakdown

Our feelings towards NLS over the past two years can accurately be described as those in an unhealthy love-hate relationship. Often, this university has made us feel proud, grateful and sometimes given us a sense of belonging. On the other hand, the past year, in particular, has seen the admin and the student body clash on an endless list of issues, leaving us feeling frustrated, resentful, outraged, and more often than not, mentally exhausted. It may well be that members of the admin harbour similar feelings too. Much like an unhealthy relationship, the clash between the student body and the admin can be attributed largely to poor communication.

Communicating (?) Well…

Let us begin with the example of hostel renovation and re-opening of campus – the admin intended on reopening hostels in November 2020 and sanitising/upgrading rooms for the same. Many students were open to the idea of reopening hostels but unsure about upgradation due to logistical difficulties in vacating the room and concerns about the safety of their belongings. Ideally, the student body and the admin should have collaborated to come up with a way of reopening and sanitising hostels, which simultaneously addressed student concerns about the safety of their belongings and their privacy. Instead, after some terse back and forth, the admin suddenly revoked its decision regarding the general reopening of hostels, stating that the students were unwilling to provide access to their rooms to the admin.[1] [2] Naturally, this created a lot of resentment against the university, which manifested – as it usually does – in a long and bitter mail thread.[3] Despite our obsession with “creative solutions” and “interest-based negotiation” in ADR activities, we fail to replicate them when it actually matters.[4] 


[5]

Even when the admin does communicate with the student body, it often does so in a manner that renders such communication futile:

  1. Too late – the decision to have closed-book exams (which significantly affects the manner of preparation throughout the trimester) was notified to the student body just 12 days prior to the exams and underwent constant change even after;[6]

  2. Through improper channels – such as a shabby message by CRs or students on the WhatsApp group in lieu of official emails/information from the admin, to inform students about withholding results on account of feedback forms or rescheduling of classes.

Communication through proper channels matters because the consequences of informal communication are significant. Informal messages on the WhatsApp Group result in misinformation because there isn’t any official communication with which it can be verified. It also creates panic because students do not know whether to actually rely on such communication or to wait for official communication by the Academic Administration Department (AAD). For instance, before the online exams at the end of the second trimester of AY 2020-21, the lack of an official notification regarding the use of class notes left us guessing how to prepare. The problem with informal communication is the absence of a common and uniform communication platform which often results in filtering of communication through several layers.

Having said all of this, it is important to acknowledge that the admin is not the only one at fault here. Poor communication also manifests in how information is communicated to the student body by student representatives. As per a survey conducted by us, a number of students felt that there was a lack of communication between the student body and student representatives on the Academic and Examination Rules (AER) Amendments.[7] Many highlighted the lack of transparency in the Student Bar Association (SBA) and Student Academic Council’s (SAC) functioning with the admin in this regard. Due to the information asymmetry between SBA and the student body, it becomes extremely important for the SBA and CRs to provide regular updates about the admin’s plans. However, we sometimes end up relying on WhatsApp forwards by those personally acquainted with SBA, rather than CRs, to keep the batch updated.

So, what has contributed to poor communication? There has recently been no direct communication channel with the admin. This seems strange considering that communicating well was a priority for the Vice-Chancellor (VC) in his first few months.[8] From regular open houses to trimester-ly updates over email, direct and open communication with the VC was a refreshing change that we all appreciated. It allowed us to raise our concerns directly with him. It also allowed the admin to explain their measures directly instead of through intermediaries like SBA/SAC. However, such instances have become fewer in the past few trimesters. The increasing lack of direct communication later on explains some of the dissatisfaction of the students with their representatives. After all, there is only so much that a two-person body can do – the admin must shoulder some of the burden to communicate with the student body directly. Though SBA/SAC send pointers on what transpired in meetings with the admin, information is still lost in the multiple layers (VC to SBA to SAC/CRs to Student Body). Students need direct channels of communication with SBA as well so that they know what is being communicated to the admin and how they respond, which would also reveal causes of disagreements.

Approachability

The resentment that has built up within the student body can also be attributed to the unapproachability and non-responsiveness of the admin.[9] After all, an inaccessible admin is bound to leave everyone frustrated – when we don’t know how to get our concerns addressed, we end up assuming that they won’t be addressed. This is probably more so during a pandemic where everything is happening virtually.


a majority of students[10] were still unclear about the role division between VC,[11] Undergraduate Council (UGC),[12] AAD,[13] and the Registrar.[14] Most of us don’t know which body to approach for which issue. For example, we are still unclear as to who to approach for an issue such as an attendance shortage.

You might consider this a trivial problem which is easily resolvable by asking your peers on the batch group and sure, you might just get a response about whom to email. But what ends up happening in most cases is that students waste time and effort contacting different people and being redirected from one body to another, leaving them frustrated and hopeless. It’s important we ensure certainty for students at a time when they need help the most and make it as easy as possible. An interview with a former SAC member also revealed that students sometimes end up blaming the wrong body – like the AAD for UGC’s decisions. This is important because it means that we can’t identify where the problem lies or where reform is needed.

Further, the absence of a proper grievance redressal mechanism contributes to this problem. The new admin restructured the exam department, delineated responsibilities of the admin staff and UGC, and identified batch-wise points of contact which has clarified role division to an appreciable extent. However, despite these changes, students have continued to face issues regarding attendance, memorial marks, class recording, etc. Clearly, the problem of approachability isn’t simply about streamlined channels of grievance redressal. Such channels will do little to address the poor responsiveness of the AAD and other staff without some form of oversight and accountability. On the other hand, a large number of students who approached the Student Welfare Officer (SWO)[15] in their personal capacity, believed that she was responsive and dealt with any grievance that they had, in an appropriate manner.[16]

There is also no proper mechanism for students to reach out to student body representatives. While Batch CRs may be a WhatsApp text away (Superman got nothing on them), the mandate of the SAC is restricted to academic matters, and they are not allowed to discuss non-academic matters with the admin. On the other hand, SBA, being a 2-member body, seems overwhelmed with the number of grievances it has to handle, thus failing to reply to WhatsApp messages on time (or at all).[17] This inability to reach out to someone leaves us feeling helpless, inevitably building up resentment towards the University and other students for being indifferent to concerns.

Representation by SBA/SAC

The manner in which student concerns are represented to the admin is also lacking, particularly in terms of how student concerns are gauged by SBA/SAC. There are primarily two ways this is done. The first route is through a google form or a GBM.[18] However, this is resorted to only for those issues which affect the college at large (reopening of hostels, payment of fees, change in scholarship policy, etc.). For the remaining issues, the second, more indirect method is adopted – the CRs gauge opinion/concerns in individual batches which is then discussed and prioritised in SAC meetings and finally taken up to the admin.

The problem with the existing method is the manner of identifying concerns within batches. As per the survey, 59.2% of students felt that the method of decision making within batches was not satisfactory. Several students highlighted that it was majoritarian and did not account for legitimate minority/individual concerns sufficiently. Others highlighted that a few vocal groups who dominate the discussion made most decisions within batches.

The results of our survey also indicated that several students felt that SBA/SAC did not prioritize issues well enough when representing student body concerns before the admin – especially in the context of the AER Amendments and the hostel and fees issue. Clearly identifying and discussing the priorities of the student body before making representations may help address such concerns in the future.

The past two academic terms have also highlighted the need to expand the SBA, which currently comprises only two members. It is severely overburdened with representing the concerns of over 500 students (a number that’s only going to increase with each passing year now xD), and resignation by a single SBA member (for whatever reason) further constrains its ability to make effective representation.[19] An alternative to expanding SBA would be to expand the mandate of the SAC, which is currently restricted to academic matters. This may be more sensible as CRs are voted based on not just academic concerns but also their general ability to deal with administrative issues.

Proposed Structural Changes


Channels of communication

Because “the more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.[20]

Certainty in and through communication can be a great stress reliever – whether in Lon Fuller’s idea of an ideal legal system, or simply in reassurance that we’ll all receive a COVID-19 vaccine. It can help reduce intimidation, confusion, and mistrust. It can also help mend any moods irked and relations harmed due to harsh language in previous communication.[21]


Routine Communication from Admin

We’re sure the newest batch ‘entering’ NLSIU virtually will back us on the fact that each new trimester begins with a mix of excitement and uncertainty (even though this fades by the time we’re old and grey and in fifth year). In such a scenario, there is value in reassuring and constant guidance from different sources.

First, an email welcoming students to the new trimester and apprising them of any new changes, introductions to faculty etc. can lead to smoother transitions into trimesters for students. This was practiced for some time after the ‘Communicating Well’ email[22] from the Vice-Chancellor’s office.[23]

End-trimester emails can further be used to reflect on progress made in terms of student activities, infrastructure upgrades, introduction of new support staff or faculty, and any new associations made by NLSIU. These emails are also a good place to provide statistics relating to individual concerns addressed/attendance averages/any students’ exceptional performance etc.[24],[25] Such constant communication will generate more trust, help in recognising and celebrating the achievements of all stakeholders at NLSIU, and reduce apathy all around.

Individual faculty can also send similar emails to their batches before the mid-terms or end-terms.[26] At present, the method of teaching remains extremely impersonal. An email would not only generate excitement but also give an insight into the professor and the kinds of opportunities for which students may approach them. Professors also often appreciate when we respond to their emails and reach out to them. These forms of communication exchange are sorely lacking at present.

Routine communication relating to the Academic Schedule and the AER must also be official. Present updates to communication with the demarcation of NLS Announcements and NLS Notifications are useful but far from adequate in achieving this. To make procedural communication foster certainty and accountability, the following must always come through an official channel:

  1. Class rescheduling.[27] (This is key because while yes, students are enrolled into a full time course, the course isn’t the be all and end all of their lives such that they’re up for attending class at the drop of a hat.)

  2. Changes to the Academic Calendar.[28]

  3. When delay is expected in any compliance with the AER: Projects/Results/Revaluations etc. Explanations or even just information here can act as a great trust building method.[29]

  4. Timings to contact AAD members in.

  5. Whenever SBA/SAC mediates and there is an update in any communication, the same can be officially notified on the mail thread (NOT only on WhatsApp, NOT only on Signal).

Extraordinary Communication from Admin

The pandemic has required several tweaks to the usual formats of college teaching and exams. However, most communication about this has been haphazard, confusing or non-existent. The Communication Guidelines can define what constitutes extraordinary communication and would include changes to exam schedules, attendance requirements, academic calendar, hostel rules, exam formats etc. All such communication can be through the AAD or any other NLS Email ID. Since most extraordinary communication would inevitably need clarifications or exceptions, such emails should also mention the following:

  1. A contact person to clarify doubts/grievances.[30] The admin should ensure that a response is provided to everyone.

  2. For significant changes, dates for an open house or meeting with SBA/SAC as needed.

  3. Description of any concerns already accounted for to indicate that students are being heard.

  4. An indication that the admin will be open and provide space for allowing exceptions to the rule to increase approachability.

Routine Communication from Student Body Representatives

The lack of communication and transparency in communication from the SBA or SAC to the batches is partially a consequence of the inefficient communication from the admin. However, certain communication mechanisms can improve certainty.

Some of these are:

  1. A beginning and end trimesterly update from the SBA and SAC to the admin as well as all students covering concerns successfully addressed, what remains and what needs to be done next.

  2. Ensuring that official updates are only sent through the emails (including the conclusions from any significant WhatsApp group discussions).

  3. A regularly monitored Google form for students to bring forth issues and suggestions.[31] Perhaps the SBA can recruit a secretariat of students to monitor the form.

Extraordinary Communication from Student Body Representatives

In a world where we ‘communicate well’, extraordinary communication shouldn’t be unnecessary. But that’s not where we live. So, for extraordinary measures proposed/undertaken by the admin which haven’t been communicated adequately in an open house or open email, the SBA or SAC should try to email the student body with any explanation for or context to such an event and provide possible courses of action. They can add a change-specific google form and possible GBM timings if needed.[32]

___________________

The next two parts of this series highlight more issues and suggest more structural changes. However, communication forms the source of those further problems and mending the same will be the bedrock of any solution we aim to achieve. The recognition of this problem, its untoward consequences and the way forward, is the first step we can take towards rebuilding those broken bridges.

 

[1] Refer to mail from SBA dated 27 August 2020, titled Re: Clarifications regarding the Hostel Renovation Process

[2] We are aware that some students were allowed to return. But this was only after excruciating back and forth, often causing monetary losses due to flight ticket cancellations, etc.

[3] Mail from SBA dated 27 October.

[4]A good example of when we actually did this was during the protest in 2019 when two students were part of a committee, along with faculty members, that looked into the conduct of the previous year’s EC meeting and the actions of the then administration with respect to the appointment of the Vice-Chancellor. The joint effort of the faculty and the students helped alleviate the hostility that was there in NLS at the time of protests.

[5] Funnily enough, the decision to conduct online exams for the very first time in May 2020 is also another example of poor communication. The student body first found out about this decision through the VC’s comments in newspapers instead of official communication from the admin directly. Quirk wrote an NLSiR satire piece regarding this which you can find here.

[6] The admin has communicated at the very start of this trimester that exams will be closed-book and will have proctoring. We appreciate them giving us due notice about the exams this time.

[7]52.6% said yes, 35.5% said no and the remaining opted for ‘other’ and made a comment on the lines that they did not know enough to comment, or were not affected by the AER.

[8] ‘Communicating Well’ is literally the subject of the first email the VC wrote to us after being appointed.

[9]A lot of students feel that the different bodies in college are not responsive to concerns that they raise.

[10] 53% of students could not identify the role difference between these 4 bodies.

[11] Refer to Art.18 of Schedule 1 of the NLSIU Act, 1986

[12] Refer II(i), II(ii) of the B.A. LL.B. (HONS.) ACADEMIC AND EXAMINATION REGULATIONS, 2020

[13] Refer II(iii), II(iv) of the B.A. LL.B. (HONS.) ACADEMIC AND EXAMINATION REGULATIONS, 2020

[14] Refer Art.20 of Schedule 1 of the NLSIU Act, 1986

[15] The Student Welfare Officer has been in-charge of and assisting with matters such as the welfare of students, student committees, mental health on campus, student disputes, English classes for students, etc.

[16]93% of the students who approached her said that she was approachable, friendly, and helped them solve whatever issue they had.

[17] As evidenced by the vacation of both elected representatives this last year.

[18] General Body Meetings are defined in Article 2 of the SBA Constitution. It refers to a meeting with all the students, where there is an agenda and various issues are discussed. Resolutions are passed at the end with respect to future course of action subject to quorum. In recent times, GBMs have been a way for students to discuss any extraordinary measures or issues that arise (Art.2(b)). There is no practice currently where routine GBMs are conducted once a trimester, as has been mentioned in Art.2(a).

[19] In both AY 2019-20, and 2020-21, heads of the SBA resigned without completing their terms, and the student body found it very hard to communicate with the admin. The SBA was also overworked during the pandemic, when coordinating with different stakeholders was very difficult online.

[20] J.B. Priestly, novelist.

[21] Including accidental emails affirming that students’ ‘vain hope’ would not be entertained.

[22] Email from Vice-Chancellor’s official email-ID on October 9, 2019.

[23] See emails from the Vice-Chancellor titled ‘Welcome Back to the Summer Term 2020’ sent on March 10, 2020 and ‘Welcome back to November Term 2019’ sent on November 1, 2019.

[24] Similar to how this was once attempted after the first set of online exams in 2020.

[25] The Admin has been introducing new professors on forums such as LinkedIn and had in the past introduced us to the Student Welfare Officer through email.

[26]This is already practiced by some Professors and Teaching Assistants.

[27] The email thread with a student, a faculty and AAD on 15 Jan 2021 highlights the lack of clarity in something as basic as class rescheduling. The AAD shrugged responsibility and seemed to invent and apply a rule to deny attendance to students with clashing classes even when one class had been scheduled to fulfil the 40 hours requirement for a seminar course. Fortunately, a Prof came to the rescue and stated that the students should not suffer consequences for something beyond their control.

[28] Recent academic schedule/revised schedule email [AAD 10 March].

[29] SBA emails to VC dated 5 March 2021, 8 March 2021, 11 March 2021 citing the inordinate delay in results and the consequent breach of the AER provision providing 10 days time.

[30]Our survey showed a great disparity in AAD response times with variations from 1 to 30 days to sometimes not receiving responses at all.

[31] This may seem like a task, but most journals have a weekly incharge to reply to all kinds of emails from student submissions, queries, and to inappropriate blackmail-y ones. So, it should be manageable and would likely prevent the inundation of the poor SBA president’s whatsapp with messages whenever an email comes out.

[32] This is now being done to some extent by SBA/SAC.

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