The Island today salutes a daughter of Sri Lanka, Dr.
Indira Samarasekera who has achieved the rare academic distinction of being
appointed the President of Canada’s prestigious University of Alberta.
This is perhaps the first time that a Sri Lankan has been
appointed as the head of a prestigious western university and its all the more
creditable because it has been done by a woman.
For a people groping in the dark with little else in mind other
than a search for peace, this is indeed news that will lift the spirits of the
nation. Dr.Samaraekera’s achievement reveals the potential of the nation and what
we could achieve if our people’s talents are permitted to blossom freely. Before
her there were other academics of world renown like Prof. Cyril Ponnamperuma for
his research on the origin of life at NASA and the Maryland University and Dr.
Chandra Wickremasinghe who was associated with world famous astronomer Fred Hoyle
for their theories on space.
Dr. Samarasekera is of a generation known not for academic
distinction but for violence and revolutions that failed. Yet she had proceeded
with her career regardless of the turmoil in the campuses at that time, having
received her BSc honours in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ceylon
She has been awarded an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the
University of California as a Fulbright Scholar and being also awarded a PhD in
Metallurgical Engineering from the University of British Columbia. Her other
academic laurels won in Canada are too numerous to be mentioned here.
What’s notable about her academic pursuits is that she is a
committed researcher. A press release from her university states: ‘A renowned
engineer Samarasekera bemoaned the level of research funding in the arts and
humanities. " My education being an engineer was sadly lacking in humanities and
social sciences cannot be understated. Well- rounded students are conversant in
many disciplines. The university will educate leaders of tomorrow and will be
positioned as a ‘ global think tank’.... The university is also an extraordinary
journey.... It is a road marked by daring, discovery and distinction.’
Academics of our Sri Lankan universities are no doubt well
acquainted with such thoughts but whether they have the inclination, the time or
opportunity to attempt to bring such thoughts to fruition is indeed doubtful. The
intellectual atmosphere in our campuses is far removed from the ideal of campuses
in the west: of light. liberty and learning.
It is often argued that the atmosphere in campuses in any
country cannot be different from the state of affairs prevailing in the country
itself. But does it mean that Sri Lanka’s campuses should continue to be graduate
producing factories, the products in the main being of little or no use to the
Campuses are being opened up with such regularity that a cynic
remarks that they are as numerous as public toilets. Since the demand for higher
education is tremendous, no doubt there is a demand for campuses such as the Uva
campus that is to be opened in this most neglected province. It has been in such a
pathetic state since the British devastated it about 200 years ago to suppress the
There is some sort of planning on the kind of education that
should be imparted in such campuses but whether these objectives are realised is
indeed in doubt. A basic reason for this state of the campuses is their
politicisation. Some political parties use campuses as political nurseries for
their activists. This is the reason why the campuses are more often closed than
It is time that not only our academics but political leaders as
well thought on the lines of Dr.Samarasekera to make our campuses achieve the
ideals of prestigious universities. During the period of the Renaissance in Europe
great universities in Italy, France, Germany and Britain helped them to become the
great nations they are, by providing original thinkers, inventors and the like.
These universities continue in pursuing such traditions and Dr. Samarasekera has
made it quire clear that those are her objectives too.
If Sri Lanka is ever to change from a poor developing country
to a modern developed nation a primary requirement will be the elevation of our
universities to such standards.
Many prevailing conditions have to be changed if we want our
places of higher learning to move in the directions of such universities. One is
obviously academic freedom without which free and independent thinking cannot
Dr. Samarasekera has been chosen as the President of the
Alberta University on her own academic merits. But had she applied for a post of
Vice Chancellor in one of our universities she would have needed one more
qualification: She would either have to be SLFP, UNP or JVP! Little wonder we
remain in the same mire.