2nd March, 2003 Volume 9, Issue 33

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SPOTLIGHT

A university's shame

By  Frederica Jansz 

The Colombo University's cover-up of an alleged rape and plagiarism through conferring the highest academic honour of professor and chair to a faculty member who was facing ongoing investigations on both these charges has backfired. In the face of yet another alleged sexual assault perpetrated by the same staff member, the university authorities are attempting to sweep even the second incident under the carpet because otherwise they will have to answer the obvious question as to why they ignored the first incident of rape.

The chair of an academic department in a university is the academic and intellectual leader of that particular discipline within the university, and each department can have only one chair though there may be many professors. Thus, appointment to the chair is not automatic and involves a selection process, including external academic evaluations that last over one year. It is therefore difficult to understand why the Colombo University, headed at the time by Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, who serves on CEDAW (UN Commission to End Discrimination Against Women), would have seen it fit to make an example of someone who faced charges of alleged rape and plagiarism.

Yet, the injustice of it all would have been forgotten, but for the stubbornness of history repeating itself. The second woman has decided to go public, much to the embarrassment of the university authorities.

A post-graduate student from the Demography Department at the Colombo University, claims she was raped by her academic supervisor, who has also been found guilty of plagiarising the research of another student.

Demography Department Chair, Colombo University, Professor Indralal de Silva, apart from undisputed evidence that he plagiarised a research paper of one of his students, later allowed another student, Renuka (we have for obvious reasons refrained from using her real name) to also plagiarise a published work of his own. De Silva even certified as original her dissertation despite one of the examiners having pointed out that it had been copied. Renuka was later stripped of her degree, but not before she put down in writing her trauma and pain she suffered at the hands of de Silva, when she claims he raped her.

De Silva at the time of this incident was not chair of the Demography Department, but the student's supervisor and senior lecturer.

The Sunday Leader learns that another girl who had answered a matrimonial advertisement in the newspapers placed by Prof. Indralal de Silva had begun a relationship with him. After promising marriage, he dumped her when she told him she was pregnant. This girl and her mother are now appealing to the present Vice Chancellor, Colombo University, Prof. T. Hettiarachchy to intervene in this matter. When we contacted the girl in question, her mother verified that indeed Prof. Indralal de Silva has acted in a manner which is anything but gentlemanly.

Threatned murder

Meanwhile, in a pathetic letter to her former departmental head, Prof. K. A. P. Siddhisena, Renuka later wrote saying, "I am Renuka who Indralal Sir finished in the last semester.... at the time Indralal finished me I bit his face... that wound must still not have healed... so when you talk to him ask him why the wound on his face has not healed..." is what Renuka has written in Sinhalese. (See box for full letter)

Renuka's letter to Prof. Siddhisena is dated February 5, 2001.    She also claims that Prof. Indralal de Silva threatened to kill her, put her in his car and throw her somewhere if she ever reported him. Writing defiantly, she states she is no longer afraid of such threats, "this is why at the time he finished me, I bit his face..." she writes.

She says de Silva also wrote her numerous letters and is aware of all her personal problems. Renuka adds that she neither made a police complaint nor petitioned courts. She adds she has no money to take this case to court and also believes that even if she does seek redress from the judicial system, "Indralal will bribe his way out" of the case. 

Prof. Indralal de Silva when contacted charged that Prof. Siddhisena due to professional jealousy had forced Renuka to write this letter. (See box for comments). The letter however is charged with emotional pain and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been written with any deliberate malice.

Stripped of diploma

Renuka's letter prompted Prof. Siddhisena to personally write to the former Vice Chancellor, Prof. Savitri Goonesekere on March 8, 2001. In this letter he said that Renuka had been engaged as a research assistant by Prof. Indralal de Silva attached to the Demography Department. Renuka was also a post-graduate student of economic development at the Economics Department in the year 2000. During this time, Prof. Siddhisena states that an incident had taken place where a female was heard screaming "mawa maranawa - maranawa" (I am being killed - killed").  The day was a Saturday afternoon around 3 p.m.

Alarmed students had reported the matter to the assistant registrar of the dean's office in the Arts Faculty. The students had obtained permission from the dean to search the rooms by means of a ladder, but had failed to trace the person who had screamed. The scream had come from one of the academics' rooms at the university.

The incident caused some gossip within the university, but since the source of the scream could not be identified the matter was laid to rest.

Later, an examiner detected that Prof. Indralal de Silva had allowed Renuka to plagiarise one of his own research papers for presentation of her dissertation for the post graduate diploma in economic development. In his letter to the vice chancellor on this issue, Prof. Siddhisena states that it was an open secret within the university that de Silva did this in order to get rid of any retaliation from this victim, whom he had sexually harassed.

An investigation by the Examinations Committee found that Renuka had indeed plagiarised the research paper in question which resulted in her having to face stern disciplinary action which stripped her of her diploma.

While Renuka was penalised for her offence, her predator survived. Prof. de Silva continued to function at the Colombo University and was even promoted as chair of the Demography Department despite him being found guilty of the same crime.   His promotion was awarded despite the serious allegation of rape which for strange reasons the university council has decided to ignore.

Renuka meanwhile returned to her hometown of Akmeemana - stripped of her post graduate diploma, her self-respect and dignity as a woman and her dreams and ambitions for her future destroyed. Renuka's parents are only concerned now in hushing up the dastardly incident and help Renuka move on in life.   

While Renuka's horrific encounter with Prof. de Silva ended with her shameful departure from the university, de Silva's actions related to cheating by resorting to plagiarism did not. In two separate reports to Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, one by Dr. S. A. Meegama and another report by Prof. Swarna Jayaweera, Prof. Chandra Gunawardena and Dr. Wijaya Jayatilake have found Prof. de Silva guilty of plagiarism.

A research paper submitted by Prof. de Silva titled, "Factors Associated With Non Schooling And Dropouts In Sri Lanka" is based entirely on a dissertation by a student called W. D. D. Gunatilaka which he had titled, "Determinants Of Non School Going Children And Dropouts In Rural Areas Of Sri Lanka."

Dr. Meegama notes in his evaluation of this issue that "Prof. Indralal de Silva's article published in 1994 is based entirely on a dissertation for the diploma in population studies submitted in March 1992 to the Colombo University by W. D. D. Gunatilaka."

Meegama has added that Prof. de Silva makes use of not only the data, but also the tabulations in Gunatilaka's study. "In addition, his conclusions are also based on that of Gunatilaka to the extent that some sentences are identical," Meegama asserts.

All this Prof. de Silva did without giving Gunatilaka any credit or even including his name as a joint author before publishing the article in 1994 in the journal Rohana.

Even the field work done by Gunatilaka for this study whilst he was a teacher at Middeniya Maha Vidyalaya is not mentioned by Prof. de Silva when he copied the dissertation word for word.

Statements confirmed 

Another special committee of inquiry consisting of Prof. Swarna Jayaweera as chairperson, Prof. Chandra Gunawardena and Dr. Wijaya Jayatilake as members in July 2001 confirmed the statements made by Dr. S. A. Meegama in this regard. They too stated that Prof. de Silva's publication was based entirely on W. D. D. Gunatilaka's dissertation work without any acknowledgement to the latter. 

This committee noted that when it questioned Prof. de Silva, the latter had admitted he had only made a mistake by not acknowledging Gunatilaka's efforts as a source of information.  He however did not agree that he should have acknowledged Gunatilaka's work, arguing that he as supervisor guided Gunatilaka's research work. 

Prof. Swarna Jayaweera points out that her committee is of the view that instances when a supervisor guides a student on research work does not justify the supervisor claiming that the dissertation is the work of the supervisor. Furthermore, that it does not justify the supervisor using the material without proper acknowledgement.

With regard to Renuka's case of plagiarism, at the oral evidence gathered by this committee, Prof. de Silva had stated that he instructed Renuka to use the tables in his publication "Population Projections For Sri Lanka : 1991 - 2041" and not the text.  He had also stated that although he went through all the chapters, as chapter two was brought to him just two days before the deadline for submission, he could not go through it.  He tried to convince the committee that it was a genuine mistake on the part of the student and not a case of plagiarism, which the committee has stated it found difficult to accept or believe.

The committee in fact confirmed that chapter two of Renuka's dissertation was copied almost entirely from Prof. de Silva's publication "Population Projections For Sri Lanka" as well as having copied other large portions of the text.

"It is surprising that the supervisor has not noticed this and recommended the acceptance of the dissertation for evaluation," the committee states.  Prof. Jayaweera refused to believe Prof. de Silva's claim that he had no time to read chapter two of the dissertation in question or that he could not recognise his own work when he read large portions of the text in Renuka's paper, which she had copied extensively from his own publication.

Prof. Jayaweera's three member committee added that it considers a supervisor permitting a candidate to plagiarise off his own publication and thereafter recommend the acceptance of the dissertation as being a serious violation of research norms and conferring undue advantages to the student.

On the other hand, Prof. de Silva had himself gained undue advantage by using the material of another student under his supervision for his own publication without due acknowledgement, thus gaining advantage for himself.

Appointed despite objections

Despite these two reports to Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Prof. de Silva was recommended and appointed as chairperson of the Demography Department.  The former Dean of the Arts Faculty, Prof. Arjuna Parakrama objected strongly to Prof. de Silva's appointment by the selection committee, complaining that Prof. de Silva could not be nominated to the post on the basis that he had been found guilty of plagiarism.

Parakrama was not alone in his objections. In March 2001, the University Council received a written complaint from Prof. K. A. P. Siddhisena.  He requested the council to address the issue of plagiarism of two articles by Prof. de Silva and improper conduct in supervision and an allegation of sexual harassment sent to him by a student supervised by Prof. de Silva.

The council however, decided that the complaint of plagiarism had already been addressed, and that this matter should not now be re-opened on the basis of a new allegation of sexual harassment and improper supervision of a thesis. The council determined that since the alleged incident of harassment had taken place several months ago in the year 2000, and no complaint had been made on this matter by the student, there was no necessity to proceed and investigate the matter.  

The council also decided that taking action on a collateral complaint of this nature by another applicant to the post (Prof. Siddhisena was the other applicant) would create a dangerous precedent and that if the appointment was delayed pending an investigation, the university would face serious management problems. The council therefore decided that it would request Prof. Siddhisena to provide specific information on the allegation of sexual harassment and connected matters of supervision for the purpose of holding an inquiry.

Another committee of inquiry headed by Prof. Swarna Jayaweera was subsequently appointed. Even this committee's recommendations and finding's did not serve to bring about any form of justice. Instead, at a subsequent meeting of the council, it was merely stated that the report of the inquiry committee was tabled. It was noted that the student complainant had not come for the inquiry. The committee considered this and her letter and recorded that no further action could be taken.

All this despite the fact that Renuka had handed over to the council a packet of love letters allegedly written to her by Prof. de Silva.

On this issue Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, Dean, Arts Faculty, resigned. After 17 years of service at the Colombo University, Prof. Parakrama stated that he could no longer respect the values and judgement of the University Council.

Prof. Parakrama as far back as July 1999, when he was Dean/Arts wrote to Prof. Savitri Goonesekere about the allegations of plagiarism against Prof. de Silva, at the time when his (Prof. de Silva's) application for chair, Demography was under consideration.

In November 2000, Prof. Parakrama even submitted to the Vice Chancellor in her capacity as Chairperson of the Council, copies of the articles in question as well as a detailed analysis of the relevant sections which were common in each of the two instances.

Yet, seven months later, the council saw it fit to appoint Prof. de Silva as the Demography Department head in March 2001.

Under any circumstances an allegation of plagiarism is extremely serious, but it is all the more so in a university context where academic integrity and respect for intellectual property are among the cornerstones of this profession. 

Amazingly, the Council at the Colombo University in fact decided that even though there was evidence of unacknowledged borrowing or plagiarism, that this was not unacceptable from a senior academic to be appointed to the highest position of academic merit within the university system.  The council was of the view that despite Prof. de Silva having been found guilty of using others' material without acknowledgement, certain extenuating circumstances existed which mitigated the wrong-doing, and hence need not affect his appointment to the chair of the Demography Department.

Worse, was the case when Prof. de Silva certified as original research, a dissertation of one of his students that another examiner and professor of the university had pointed out had been plagiarised from de Silva's own published work. Even this was not taken into account by the council when it decided to name Prof. de Silva as chairperson of the Demography Department.

Rot at the top

Even more shocking are the allegations of sexual harassment and even rape, which Renuka, being the student whom Prof. de Silva allowed to plagiarise his own work, has alleged, after she was stripped not only of her dignity and self-respect as a woman, but of her university diploma as well.

The most troubling issues that underlie the specifics of this cover-up concerns persons in high authority. Surely, this points to the rot that has set in within our university system. We are fond of blaming students for all that ails the universities, but here's evidence that the crisis of values has deeper roots.

For instance, what can be said in defence of the then Dean, Arts Faculty, Prof. Hettige, who set himself up as a watchdog of democratic values and good governance, and yet whose "investigation" of the alleged rape which took place in his faculty did not even bother to check with his own assistant registrar who was present on the campus when the screams were heard, before he declared that no such incident took place? Or the current vice chancellor, then a member of the council as Rector, Horana Campus, who had told fellow council members that he too had been "plagiarised" by Prof. de Silva, and yet chose to remain silent on this issue.

Perhaps, most troubling is Prof. Goonesekere herself who went ahead with the appointment of Prof. de Silva despite these serious allegations and the unprecedented dissent of two senior deans. It would appear that global good governance, international gender sensitivity and the end of discrimination against women are all much easier to articulate than plain old decency and fairness at one's own workplace.

Baseless allegations

Prof. Indralal de Silva refuted the allegations made against him as being "totally baseless and the work of jealous contenders to his post as head of the Demography Department."

He said the issue of plagiarism had been taken up extensively "and in a very professional manner by the former Vice Chancellor Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, who appointed me as chair of the Demography Department despite these allegations."

He explained that he had only made a mistake in not acknowledging his student W. D. D. Gunatilaka when he copied his work, "similarly Renuka also forgot to acknowledge me when I allowed her to copy some of my work for dissertation," he said.

He charged that the allegations of sexual harassment against Renuka are completely false, accusing Prof. K. A. P. Siddhisena of deliberately fabricating the charges, "because he was also vying for my post."

He said that he has letters from Renuka stating that Prof. Siddhisena forced her to write a letter alleging "she had been raped by me."

De Silva added that Prof. Arjuna Parakrama and Prof. Siddhisena together, "planned a mud-slinging campaign against me due to professional jealousy, but they both failed resulting in Prof. Parakrama having to resign."


Case filed in the Supreme Court

Prof. K. A. P. Siddhisena said at the time the alleged incident of rape took place with Renuka he had been away on sabbatical leave in Japan. "When I returned in December 2000, I was told this story of a girl screaming one Saturday afternoon and that the scream emanated from Indralal de Silva's room."

Since there was no proof, Prof. Siddhisena said he too did nothing until three weeks later he received a shocking letter from one of his students, Renuka, claiming she had been raped by Prof. de Silva. 

"Later, when I contacted her she confirmed what she had written to me, which is why I brought it to the notice of the then Vice Chancellor Prof. Savitri Goonesekere."

Prof. Siddhisena charged that he has now filed a fundamental rights application in the Supreme Court for not having been awarded the chair of the Demography Department on the grounds that Prof. Indralal de Silva did not qualify due to the evidence revealed by two committees that he is guilty on two occasions of plagiarism. 

 

 

 

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