Prof. Dharma De Silva: The unforgettable trailblazer in management education in Sri Lanka

Professor Dharma De Silva (extreme left) with Vice Chancellor Rev Walpola Rahula (extreme right) at a book donation ceremony to Vidyodaya University by US Embassy in 1966. Also in the picture are Deputy Secretary K.P.G. Wjayasurendra (second from the left) and US Embassy’s Commercial Officer Dr. Walter Simon (third from the left)
A trailblazer in management education
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logoTuesday, 11 April 2017
Wichita State University’s Professor of International Business, Dr Dharma de Silva, known to his friends as Dharma, had been a trailblazer on many counts in Sri Lanka’s management education. His contributions for the advancement of management education in Sri Lanka were made when he was the Professor of Business and Public Administration at the old Vidyodaya University now known as the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

Now that Dharma is no more, it is time to reflect on his numerous contributions for the advancement of the management education in the country.

One such contribution is the leading role he played in creating a degree pathway for students undertaking their studies in commerce stream in Sri Lanka’s school system.

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Stranded commerce students in schools

These students did not have any prospect of continuing their education even as late as early 1960s. After O Levels, they had to seek employment as bookkeepers or stenographers in private firms or in the government sector. Some could follow a course in bookkeeping or stenography at the Ceylon Technical College at Maradana, but doing commerce subjects for the O/Level examination was not a requirement to join those courses.

There were no facilities at schools for them to do commerce subjects for the Advanced Level examination. Then, a few students in commerce, led by Siri Udawatte, an O/Level commerce student himself, made representations to the then Minister of Education, Alhaj Dr. Badiuddeen Mohamed to give them a chance to study commerce subjects for AL at schools.

The Minister was sympathetic toward their cause and agreed to introduce as a pilot project commerce stream at AL in selected eight central colleges. But the Minister was very emphatic and told them that he could not guarantee a university degree programme for them in the same subject area. That problem, he said, had to be solved by students themselves.
Rejection of commerce students to university system

At that time, there were three universities in Sri Lanka, University of Ceylon located at Peradeniya, Vidyodaya University located at Gangodawila and Vidyalankara University located in Kelaniya. The University of Ceylon had a Bachelor of Commerce Degree programme but students were selected for the degree on the basis of the results at the Intermediate Examination of the University in the Arts Stream offering Economics as a subject. Those who had scored high marks in Economics were selected for the BCom Degree programme.
Agitations by students

The student team led by Siri Udawatte made representations to the University of Ceylon without success. They were told by the university administration that the University was not in a position to change its selection criteria. Vidyalankara University was not interested in introducing a degree programme in commerce.

At that time, Vidyodaya University had started two special degree programmes, one in business administration and the other in public administration. But admission to these two degree programmes was not on the basis of the GCE (AL) Examination but on work experience in a government or a private institution. Hence, those who were admitted to the two degree programmes were adult students and not those fresh from schools.

 

Vidyodaya University: Pioneer in business and public administration studies 

By the time the student team led by Siri Udawatte was getting ready for the AL examination to be held in 1965, the Vice Chancellor of Vidyodaya University happened to be Professor Rev Walpola Rahula, who had personal exposure to modern university education in both France and USA. He was ever ready to modernise Vidyodaya University.

At that time, Dharma was the Head of the Department of Business and Public Administration. He too with his experience in management studies in US universities was anxious to experiment any new thing to upgrade the country’s education system.

Dharma giving a patient ear to agitating students

Thus, when Siri Udawatte met Dharma for support, he foresaw a valuable opportunity for Vidyodaya University to expand its management education programmes with school leavers as the main throughput.

Many years later, Siri Udawatte recalls his meeting with Dharma: “We were at first scared to talk to him because of his coarse voice and our disappointments with other universities. But within minutes, with his usual broad smile, he kept us all at ease. Professor gave us a patient hearing and said that he was waiting for such an opportunity. He undertook to speak to Vice Chancellor Walpola Rahula and set the ball rolling.”
Seeing a gold mine in admitting advanced level qualified commerce students to university

Later I asked Dharma why he decided to take AL qualified students to Vidyodaya University’s degree programme.

He said: “In 1960s, Ceylon’s private sector had been hampered by a shortage of good managers and they had to be trained and supplied to the business. Further, the state sector too had expanded beyond its limit and it too needed competent managers. Hence, young graduates in business and public administration had to be produced and that was the opportunity to do so.  When I heard that the other universities were not interested, I saw that it was the opportunity for Vidyodaya University. So, I couldn’t miss it.”

Vidyodaya University setting a trend for other to follow

As promised, Dharma canvassed with Vice Chancellor and got his approval to admit AL qualified students, as a start, to both business administration and public administration degree programmes. But there was a problem. There were not enough students to fill all the vacancies in the two degree programmes.

He made a very hard choice. That was to admit commerce qualified students to business administration and arts qualified students to public administration. That was how I who had done pure arts subjects for the AL examination got opportunity to do a degree in public administration. But later, the school system was inundated with commerce students and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura had to fill all its vacancies in management studies, including those in public administration as well, with only commerce qualified students.

All other universities now following Vidyodaya example

Now of course getting a university place for a commerce student is a routine matter since almost all state universities are willing to admit them to their degree programmes. That was not the situation in early 1960s. Thus, Dharma’s bold decision in 1965 was path breaking for commerce education in Sri Lanka.
Modernising the syllabuses in business and public administration

Dharma did not stop at that. He wanted to modernise and update the syllabuses in business and public administration and introduce a new annual examination system to assess the students. The syllabuses in both subjects at that time were heavily oriented toward government, political science and law.

That was the British system of management education at that time and Vidyodaya University too had followed it faithfully. But management education in US universities had undergone significant changes and Dharma had personally witnessed them. Following the American system, he designed two new expanded syllabuses for both business and public administration programmes with annual examinations for students.

According to Dharma, the real hurdle began only when he proposed the change. The Vice Chancellor was willing to introduce them but he ran into trouble with his own colleagues who did not think that Vidyodaya should change its examination system.
Offering an additional flower for Reverend Rahula

At a ceremony organised by his students in 2014 to felicitate him, Dharma confessed to the gigantic difficulty he had faced in introducing the new syllabuses and the examination system for the two degree programmes offered by his department of study.

He said: “I had the difficulty in getting the support from my own Faculty, the Faculty of Arts. But the Vice Chancellor Rahula Hamuduruwo was very firm. He told the Senate that the University should go for modern methods and this should be the beginning. Then, the Faculty of Applied Sciences yielded and finally the changes were carried by the Senate.  If not for the insistence of Rahula Hamuduruwo, this would not have happened. For this great service he had done, whenever I offer flowers to the Buddha, I offer an extra flower on behalf of Rahula Hamuduruwo.”

The wide international experience which Rev Walpola Rahula had got from both USA and the Continental Europe had made him see the need for these changes in the curricula of Ceylonese universities. He had wanted Vidyodaya University to set an example for others to follow.

In fact, in years to come, all other universities have emulated this example and the successor to Vidyodaya, the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, has done it all the way even adopting the Grade Point System for assessing the students.

Was Dharma a visionary? In a way, he was.
Dharma, the visionary

In early 1970s when the students at Vidyodaya University and elsewhere became militant to the highest level of extremity, he foresaw trouble for management education if management students are allowed to mix with militant arts students.

According to him, it will not be a healthy combination for professional development and intellectual pursuit. The militant infections which had already consumed the arts students would spread to management students and paralyse their education, he reasoned out.

He wanted to convert the Department of Business and Public Administration to a separate Business School and locate it in Colombo, far away from the main university campus at Gangodawila.
Plan to set up a business school in Colombo

An opportunity for trying this out was provided in 1971 when the main university premises were taken over by the army to temporarily detain the suspected Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna rebels. Consequently, lectures could not be conducted there. Hence, alternative places were arranged and Dharma managed to get a government building at Longdon Place to locate his department. Lectures were conducted at the Thurstan College.

I was an Assistant Lecturer in Public Administration and, therefore, privy to the entire episode.
Opposition to the idea of a business school

The opposition to Dharma came from within his own department. Angered by his authoritative management style, his colleagues were the first to oppose it. Then, it spread across the university like a wild fire. Soon Dharma was branded as a CIA agent who had the contract to destroy Ceylon’s higher education system. It was easy to spread this view because of his connection to US universities from which he had obtained all his academic qualifications.

The subject student union of the Vidyodaya Campus, led by its militant President S.B. Dissanayake, now a Cabinet Minister, gave notice to the President of the Campus, Dr. V.K. Samaranayake, that there would be bloodshed if the President failed to bring breakaway Dharma back to Gangodawila.

The Faculty of Arts in which the Department of Business and Public Administration had been functioning issued a notice that it would in no way support the idea of an independent Business School away from the main campus. The Dons at the Arts Faculty sensed that they were to lose their power if such a proposal were accepted. Thus, it was a battle of Dharma versus the rest of the university.

But the animal spirit within Dharma did not allow him to yield to pressure. He started a lone battle for reforming the university’s management education. In the Department, another Assistant Lecturer, W. Wimalathissa and I were branded as Dharma supporters. But little did they realise that we as assistant lecturers had no choice.
Sri Lanka to become a hub

in management education

I asked Dharma why he wanted to go for this lone battle. He had a fine explanation. “Management education in the future will be a specialised subject area. All universities in USA have now set up separate business schools. Ceylon doesn’t have one. The best place is to set up one in Colombo under the main university, Vidyodaya University. It could be called the Colombo Business School or CBS. If it is located in Colombo it will be easy for business and industry to interact with students and the Faculty. Colombo will be a management education hub and Vidyodaya University would be yet another trailblazer.”

In an email he sent to me in 2014, he told me that his objective was to connect it to the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad or IIMA, to upgrade its quality standards. It would have helped Sri Lanka to realise his dream of building a management education hub in Colombo, since IIMA’s MBA programme has been continuously ranked within top 30 in the world by London based Financial Times.
Midnight order by Campus President to relocate at main university campus

It was most unfortunate that the rest of the University and students could not be convinced of this foresighted vision. It was a communication failure on the part of Dharma. The President of Vidyodaya Campus, Dr V K Samaranayake, did not have a choice. He had to go with the majority. Hence, he instructed Dharma to decamp from Longdon Place and relocate himself at Gangodawila.

But Dharma did not listen. He was still pursuing his ambitious objective defying the majority judgment. Then, one day before the deadline for Dharma to decamp from Longdon Place, Dr. V.K. Samaranayake made a surprise visit in the evening.

Only Dharma, an office assistant and I were present. The two giants began arguing with each other without yielding to anyone. Even by midnight, no agreement had been reached. Finally, fully exhausted, Dr Samaranayake, as President of the Campus, gave a verbal order to Dharma. He said that by 8 a.m. the following day, if Dharma were not present at Gangodawila, he would be deemed to have vacated his post. Dharma knew by that time that it was a lost battle. He was visibly down.
PIM fulfilling Dharma’s wish later

After the President had left, Dharma instructed me to make arrangements to shift back to main university premises at Gangodawila. For the first time, I saw tears flowing down the cheeks of this giant management Guru.

But years later, Dharma’s student, Dr Gunapala Nanayakkara, fulfilled his dream by locating the postgraduate education section in management of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Colombo as the Postgraduate Institute of Management or PIM.
The unceremonious departure from Vidyodaya University

Dharma continued to develop management education at Vidyodaya Campus, set up its first Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce and became its founding Dean. But his stint in that position was short-lived. His opponents became active once again when reports reached the University that he had been convicted of shoplifting in London.

Dharma said that he was falsely framed but it was not acceptable to his opponents back at home. They agitated till he resigned from the University. This time, Dharma yielded but he was accepted as a full professor at the Wichita State University which he served till his passing away last week.
Continuing to help both USJ and PIM

Dharma did not have any animosity toward Vidyodaya University which ill-treated him. On his visit back to Sri Lanka from Wichita State University, he was a frequent visitor to both USJ and PIM. He even helped both PIM and USJ to complete the requirements for obtaining accreditation from the prestigious club of world’s business schools – Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business or AACSB.

Both these institutions of higher learning are on their way to obtain this accreditation now.
A teacher not rated by all equally

Was Dharma a good teacher? The feedback he has got from his students had been mixed as shown by the Wichita State University academic ranking website. Some students have been extremely critical of him, while some others have praised him. But that was what was to be expected. No teacher could satisfy all the students at all times. But one thing about him was certain. He was a visionary par excellence.

(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, could be reached at waw1949@gmail.com.)

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