The Sunday Leader

Professor Of Surgery Blunder

By Nirmala Kannangara

Questions have been raised by Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) as to why the former Chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC) failed to rectify a blunder that was made during her tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo after an inquiry panel appointed by the Higher Education Ministry recommended her to rectify the fault immediately.

Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama is accused of not following the UGC Circular 869 of November 2005 when filling the vacancy for the post of Professor of Surgery University of Colombo in July 2008 and for the erroneous appointment she made and refusal to adopt remedial action to rectify the mistake.

The University of Colombo, on September 10, 2007 called for applications from qualified candidates to fill the Professor of Surgery vacancy in the Department of Surgery by a newspaper advertisement. Professor (Prof) D. N. Samarasekera and Prof. S. M. Wijeyaratne applied for the post and Prof. Samarasekera was selected for the post on the basis that he obtained more marks. However, it has now been established by an inquiry panel appointed by the Higher Education Ministry in 2014 that the UGC circular 869 has been violated to select Prof. Samarasekera to the post of Professor of Surgery in the Department of Surgery, University of Colombo.

Lalith Weeratunga’s letter to Prof. Hirimburegama
to appoint prof. Wijeyaratne as Professor of surgery

The three member inquiry panel comprised of Chairman, Sri Lanka Medical Council and former Chairman Standing Committee for Medical & Dental Sciences of UGC Prof. Carlo Fonseka, Director National Care for Advance Studies in Humanitarian and Social Sciences of the Higher Education Ministry, Dr R. M. K. Ratnayake and Professor of Surgery and Chair, Dean of the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Mohan de Silva.

In a letter dated July 8, 2014, Secretary to the then President Lalith Weeratunge on the directives of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the basis of the inquiry report, directed the former UGC Chairperson Kshanika Hirimburegama to take remedial action with immediate effect to appoint Prof. Wijeyaratne as a Professor of Surgery with effect from July 10, 2008. Subsequently, in a letter dated October 14, 2014 to the Secretary, Higher Education Ministry, and the then Attorney General Palitha Fernando PC has stated that immediate implementation of the inquiry panel recommendation is vital by the norms of justice and entitlement of equal rights.

Attorney Genaral’s letter to Higher Education
Ministry Secretary to rectify the error

However Prof. Hirimburegama’s stance not to appoint Prof. Wijeyaratne has raised eyebrows. Replying to President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunge in a letter dated August 22, 2014, Prof. Hirimburegama states as thus, “This refers to your letter…….. I am fully in support of HE and I am ever willing to carry out his recommendations. I consider it as my responsibility. At the same time it is also my responsibility to protect the good name of HE and protect him, you and the Government of Sri Lanka. I personally believe, that forces are active against HE and the government. These anti government forces are waiting to take our mistakes even on minor matters with false propaganda………. I personally believe that on such a pertinent matter and having had directives from HE, the inquiry committee appointed by the Secretary Ministry of Higher Education should have conducted the inquiry with more responsibility and gravity in following the correct procedure…”.  

 

No surgeon in selection panel

Prof. S. M. Wijeyaratne, who was denied his rightful appointment when contacted by The Sunday Leader said that he notified his displeasure to the then VC University of Colombo Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama soon after he faced the selection panel for a presentation on research that the selection panel did not have a single surgeon to select the Professor of Surgery. Despite this complaint, the Council of the University of Colombo, which had met on the 9th of July 2008 had on one and the same day accepted the recommendation of the wrongfully constituted Selection Committee and confirmed it, and on the 10th of July issued a letter appointing Prof Samarasekera to the Chair in Surgery. In accepting and confirming the recommendation of the Selection Committee at one and the same sitting and issuing the letter of appointment to Prof Samarsekera within 24 hours, the Council of the University of Colombo has not conformed to the best administrative practice.

“As per the UGC Circular dated December 12, 2005 No: 869, Section B01, on schemes of recruitment/ promotion of Academic Staff of the University system, the composition of the selection committee should include a member of the Senate with knowledge in the subject of study in lieu of the Head of the Department of Study, if he, himself is an applicant for the post. Although the UGC circular says as such, there wasn’t a single member in the selection panel fulfilling the above criterion an expert with appropriate qualifications in the field of surgery”.

According to Prof. Wijeyaratne, Prof. Dayasiri Fernando, one of the highly respected Surgeons has been nominated to the selection panel but has refused to sit as a panel member as he was a teacher of the other candidate Prof. Samarasekera.

“At this juncture, the Senate would have selected yet another Surgeon either within or outside university from among its members with knowledge of the subject at least at degree level. Instead of including a surgeon to the selection panel, the Senate appointed a Psychiatrist. When I asked Prof. Hirimburegama why a Psychiatrist was nominated to the selection panel instead of a surgeon, Prof. Hirimburegama said that there is nothing wrong in the process as this Psychiatrist has the MBBS degree. What a joke it is for the VC of the University of Colombo to make such a comment when the UGC Circular clearly states that an expert with appropriate qualifications in the field of surgery have to be a representative to evaluate the candidate for the Prof. of Surgery but not from any other field,” Prof. Wijeyaratne said.

Later, a Fundamental Rights application was filed by Professor Wijeyaratne in the Supreme Court regarding the faulty constitution of the Final Selection Panel (SC/FR/305/2008) which after giving leave to proceed responded to preliminary objections filed by the University of Colombo 18 months later. It was ruled that the mandatory time bar imposed upon it by Article 126(1) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, precluded further inquiry, though there is some merit in the submissions. The Supreme Court clearly recognised the existence of merit in the case despite its refusal to continue to hear the case on technical grounds and was not based on any finding to the effect that the irregularities alleged by Prof Wijeyaratne did not occur. This situation obligates the University to re-scrutinise the integrity and propriety of the outcome of the selection process by the administrative route, by undertaking a re-scrutiny and redressing the injustice in recognition of the judicial observation. The University system should demonstrate its ability to correct its wrongs without the compelling and embarrassing requirement of a court order.

 

Mark sheets hidden

But, the University of Colombo decided to ignore the situation and hid the actual marks given for written submission to the two candidates by several external examiners. They evaded submission of these documents to Court.  According to Prof. Wijeyaratne, it was in April, 2014 he got access to his and Prof. Samarasekera’s actual mark sheets which clearly show how one of the examiners had awarded marks to Prof. Samarasekera violating the UGC Circular.

“I got the opportunity to peruse both mark sheets in April, 2014. It became very obvious that the circular had been violated and the selected person had been awarded marks outside of what is permitted. For the written submissions 17 marks have been awarded to Prof. Samarasekera out of the maximum permitted 10 marks for section 2.1.2 presentations published as abstracts, by one of two independent experts, Prof Arjuna Aluwihare. This is because an additional section outside the UGC circular has been created by the applicant and claimed additional marks. According to the documents The Sunday Leader is in possession, it is questionable as to why Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare gave additional seven marks to Prof. Samarasekera’s submissions. In his letter to the VC dated March 28, 2008 submitting the marking sheet of Prof. Samarasekera, the evaluator in his comments states as thus, “In section 2.2- ……I also feel the abstract which are part of the referred journal should be scored separately”.  By stating so, Prof. Aluwihare has given seven unfair additional marks to Prof. Samarasekera. It is interesting that the other independent evaluator has not fallen for this created section and rejected the claim for additional unfair marks.

This obvious violation had been ignored by the VC and the selection panel. When the maximum marks for the written submission section was 10, and when Prof. Samarasekera obtained 17 marks, why couldn’t the VC and the selection panel ask the evaluator- Prof. Aluwihare as to how he gave seven more marks to Prof. Samarasekera? When this was raised with Prof. Aluwihare last year, Prof. Aluwihare has informed both the professors in writing that he had violated the circular inadvertently, and said it should have been detected by the VC & selection panel. Professor Aluwihare in a subsequent letter to the Vice Chancellor, University of Colombo, states “if a letter goes to a University in response to a request based on a circular, then the University has the responsibility to read and understand and disclose the letter in to and ask the sender for a translation if there is a language problem”.

The three member inquiry panel, confirmed the circular violation, derived the correct mark for Prof Samarasekera, and proved that Prof Wijeyaratne had higher marks and should have been appointed in 2008. Hence remedial action was recommended to appoint Prof. Wijeyaratne as Professor of Surgery backdated to 10th July 2008 and to rotate the Department headship with immediate effect. However, Professor Wijeyaratne commends Professor Aluwihare for having written to the Vice Chancellor University of Colombo in September and December 2014, strongly supporting and endorsing the remedial action proposed by the inquiry panel.

“The inquiry panel has agreed that the marks were wrong, but the former UGC Chairperson denied my promotion possibly with an ulterior motive. I request the new UGC management to take remedial action and rectify the issue. It took so long due to lack of transparency and the documents being hidden. There is no time bar for justice. After all I have lost 6 years for no fault of mine. The University remains accountable. If one say that there cannot be two chairs for one subject, then remove the fraudulently appointed candidate who had less marks than me. Whatever happens I should not be denied of my rightful position. It is the University’s obligation to resolve the matter without continuing to deny my right to the post,” Prof. Wijeyaratne added.

According to him, the University must demonstrate honesty, truthfulness, transparency, accountability and willingness to correct itself.

Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama while refuting allegations leveled against her said that she strictly adhered to the UGC regulations when filling the vacancy.

“I took over as the VC University of Colombo in 2008 by which time this process was already started. I strictly adhered to the UGC regulations. When there is one chair in the Department of Surgery only one person has to be appointed to the post. There was no irregularity in marking in the written submission and please call the University of Colombo to find out the marks the two candidates obtained. I have not done anything wrong” Prof. Hirimburegama said.

Meanwhile Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare said that although he marked Prof. N. Samarasekera’s paper it was slightly different. In it I specifically wrote that this mark must not be used to compare with anyone else. That mark was not consistent with the UGC Circular. Either the VC or the Registrar should have read it. They have considered that marks and that was why the rightful winner did not get the post. I am very angry if someone says that I am the cause of this trouble,” Prof. Aluwihare said

Refuting the allegations Prof. N. Samarasekera said he is the rightful appointee to the Chair. “I was an applicant and was appointed as the Professor of Surgery, Department of Surgery University of Colombo. The party who is now saying that he has been denied the post went to Supreme Court and to Human Rights Commission but lost the cases. Other than that I don’t know anything in regard to this. I am occupying the Chair now. I cannot make any further comment over the issue,” Prof. Samarasekera said.

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