By TERI SFORZA / Orange County Register
UC Irvine has rejected millions of dollars in gifts from a nonprofit foundation that seeks to promote cross-cultural understanding of Hinduism after faculty and students raised questions about the group’s suspected ties to Hindu nationalists in India.
Gifts involving two other South Asia religions, funding Jain and Sikh studies, also are being reviewed by the university.
At issue is a total of $6 million that would fund four endowed presidential chair positions in the School of Humanities, including one that already has been approved by the UC system president.
The donors say their group’s reputation has been smeared and they never were given an opportunity to respond face to face to their critics.
“It’s devastating,” said Kalyan Viswanathan, executive vice president of the Dharma Civilization Foundation, who was reached on a business trip to Mumbai, India. “We have almost been treated like criminals.
“In American law, when someone accuses you of terrible things, you should have an opportunity to defend yourself – to say, ‘Your accusations are false.’ In this instance, that opportunity wasn’t provided. We weren’t engaged in a responsible manner.”
Foundation officials will meet in coming days to consider their response to UCI’s decision, including possible legal action, Viswanathan said.
The $6 million is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions the university has raised in recent years. But the conflict illustrates the tensions between religion, academic freedom and the growing quest by universities for outside money. In this instance, there is the added dimension of international politics playing out on a local stage.
“This has been a valuable learning experience,” Georges Van Den Abbeele, dean of UCI’s School of Humanities, wrote in an email Feb. 19 to faculty members explaining the decisions on the donations.
The school will clarify internal policies on accepting gifts for endowed chairs to ensure greater, and more meaningful, faculty consultation and review, he wrote.
Four separate gifts have come under scrutiny:
• The two from Dharma, totaling $3 million, were rejected. They are the Thakkar Family-Dharma Civilization Foundation Presidential Chair in Vedic and Indic Civilization Studies, approved by UC President Janet Napolitano, and the Swami Vivekananda-DCF Presidential Chair in Modern India Studies.
• Two more gifts, also totaling $3 million, were returned to the Humanities Executive Committee for further review. They are the Dhan Kaur Sahota Presidential Chair in Sikh Studies, funded by a gift from Drs. Harvinder and Asha Sahota, and the Shri Parshvanath Presidential Chair in Jain Studies, funded by a donation from Drs. Meera and Jasvant Modi and their children.
Any association with the Dharma Civilization Foundation “in name or funding would place restrictions … that run counter to academic freedom, shared governance, and faculty expertise,” and would be “inconsistent with UCI’s core values as a public university,” concluded a report and recommendation by the Ad Hoc Committee on Endowed Chairs, which was accepted by the dean.
Critics feared the gifts tried to place religious “true believers” into academia.
A “statement of concern” from faculty in UCI’s history department said Dharma’s board of trustees includes members affiliated with Hindu nationalist organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS).
That statement, dated Feb. 1, said those groups are “opposed to the principles of pluralism and secularism” and “seek to redefine secular educational curricula worldwide, including a failed attempt to change how California sixth-grade textbooks represent Hinduism.”
It also said the RSS is a “radical and militarist organization that has not just advocated the use of violence but has been banned three times in India for its active participation in mass violence against religious minorities.”
Language in the gift agreements also gave critics pause. In some instances, it called for advisory councils through which donors could monitor who UCI hired and what the funding accomplished. In others, it specified skills that successful candidates would have to possess, such as facility with the classical Hindu language of Sanskrit.
“(A)ll four chairs were reviewed and approved with insufficient faculty input and consultation.” concluded the the committee. “Whether extensive consultation was required or not, lack of meaningful involvement of faculty experts resulted in gift agreements that indicate no coherent academic plan.
“Given the number of proposed chairs and their potential impact of these chairs in the School of Humanities, close consultation was necessary to ensure that the proposed agreements would complement and enhance existing programs and were in sync with the mission of the School of Humanities at large and with wider scholarly developments in the study of historical and modern South Asia.”
Viswanathan said Dharma relied on the university to draft acceptable language for the gift agreements, and was willing to consider revisions.
Dharma officials objected strongly to the committee’s findings and characterizations that it is an agent of Indian politics, radical or otherwise. Viswanathan said the group is a California-based nonprofit dedicated to upgrading understanding of Indian traditions in the West. Accusations that it has ulterior, and even violent, motives, are “bizarre” and “unbelievable,” he said.
“DCF is deeply disappointed by the fact that a university which claims to respect diversity, academic freedom and enjoys the goodwill of a substantial number of Indian and Indian American students and alums would buckle so easily under the pressure of an orchestrated, highly politicized campaign and treat a major gift initiative from the community with such discourtesy and disdain,” Viswanathan wrote in an official response to UCI’s decision.
“It is one thing to say that the intentions of the Dharma Civilization Foundation are incompatible with the academic objectives of the UCI School of Humanities. … It is however entirely another to engage in an orchestrated campaign of slander and libel designed to delegitimize the Foundation.
“The overwhelming message …is that the Hindus are not welcome to participate at the academic table. We have to wonder, what indeed is the academic freedom that these Faculty members are defending? Is it the freedom to accuse, abuse and slander freely and without any check?”
The controversy is taking a toll, Viswanathan said. But he said Dharma is continuing to work with other universities, including USC and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
“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,” Viswanathan wrote. “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.”
This article first appeared in ocregister.com