Scholars split on Indonesian president’s leadership intervention

President’s appointment of new Islamic university rector raises academic freedom concerns

June 30, 2019
View of Jakarta
Source: iStock

The Indonesian president’s decision to intervene in the appointment of a university rector for the first time signals a “bad precedent for democracy” and academic freedom, according to a scholar.

Joko Widodo recently appointed Komaruddin Hidayat, rector of State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and an eminent scholar of Islam, as head of the new Indonesia International Islamic University (UIII). Local reports suggested that Professor Hidayat was a “moderate Muslim” and was appointed in an attempt to curb radicalism in Indonesian universities.

However, questions have been raised over presidential interference. Under the current system, university senate members select three rector candidates and then the education minister decides who will be appointed. In the case of state Islamic universities, rectoral appointments are made by the minister of religious affairs.

Moeflich Hasbullah, an expert in Islamic history and culture at Sunan Gunung Djati State Islamic University Bandung, said he was “concerned with academic freedom” in light of the case.

“I am worried that if the president goes too far in interfering with campus policy, it will limit and even castrate freedom of speech...and this will be a bad precedent for democracy,” he said.

However, other academics said that the president’s involvement in UIII should be considered a special case.

“I don’t think there’s anything problematic with Joko Widodo’s appointment of Komaruddin Hidayat as the founding rector,” said Greg Fealy, associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

“Widodo has been involved in discussions about founding the UIII from its early stages and the understanding was that the new university would have special status...Komaruddin has also led the preparations to establish the UIII.”

Dr Fealy added that given that the minister of religious affairs usually appoints rectors at state Islamic universities, “government involvement in paramount appointments at state universities is the way the system works here”.

Martin Surya Mulyadi, an independent academic and expert on corporate governance, said he doubted that the president “wants to limit academic freedom”.

“Being in a democratic country, I believe every Indonesian higher education stakeholder will retain their academic freedom. However, it is important for a university to have a leader that can set a right vision for the university going forward,” he said.

Last year, universities across Indonesia signed an agreement with the country’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT) to develop an intelligence body to monitor campus activities in a bid to prevent extremism.

Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University also made global headlines for banning burkas on its campus in response to growing concerns of extremism.


Print headline: Scholars split on Indonesian president’s intervention

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