In Conversation with Dr Shashikala Gurpur, Director, Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Interviewed by Krishnendra Joshi | Correspondent | BW Legal World

Ma’am, would you please take us down the memory lane and tell us about your journey? How did it all start? How did you decide to join academia? 

My professional journey over 26 years now, had a diverse multifaceted exposure, though it started with formal schooling in Kannada medium in Gurpur leading to a degree in science and law from Mangalore University. I was awarded a PhD in International Law from Mysore University where I was also the topper and Gold medalist in LL.M. In the backdrop of long years of experience in legal literacy and gender training, having worked as Co-Director in gender and human rights-based wing of an NGO for 2 years, I headed as HR Manager & Administration in MNC Abu Dhabi, UAE from the year 2004 to 2007. In Ireland, I was teaching law at extension centres to adult community members and thereby earned EU international law exchange program grant. It was a turning point in my career. I was awarded as the Excellent Teacher, entrusted with the placement and internship coordination, membership in student discipline committee, examination work and assessment work, international collaborations and quality issues at Manipal. My stint in NLSUI, All India Radio committee, Charkha an NGO in Bangalore, NST Guruvayanakere and Samagra in Kapu in Udupi gave an excellent exposure towards community development. I also collaborated as a resource person with Syndicate Bank rural development centre, self-help groups, Karnataka Theological college for trainee pastors, University’s Rural Development centre and Biotechnology Department. In Mangalore, I was instrumental in designing and guiding a community-based law reform research project with students, which won the second-best award at National level competition. 

I am humbled for being a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Fellowship as well as the Legal Education Innovation Award of SILF-MILAT in 2011, in addition to being the recipient of many other such prestigious accords since then. 

Now I have 26 years of teaching experience which includes tenures in NLSIU, Bangalore, SDM Law College, Mangalore, Manipal Institute of Communication, MAHE, Manipal and University College Cork, Ireland. My teaching and research interests include Jurisprudence, Media Laws, International Law and Human Rights, Teaching and Research Methodology, Feminist Legal Studies, Biotechnology Law, Law and Social Transformation besides guiding more than sixty Masters and twelve PhD students. 

Your career has been nothing short of an inspiration.  Would you please tell us about your mentors and role models? Who are the people you have looked up to? How did they inspire and guide you in your career? 

In my early stages of life, my parents have been the greatest inspiration in my life. My father set the foundations of courage and justice while my mother taught the importance of relationship building through sacrifice and endurance. My personality was influenced by our Founder and Chancellor, SIU, Dr S. B. Mujumdar Sir. He is the epitome of practical wisdom, universal compassion and resonant leadership! I am spiritually inclined and follow the path illuminated by Paramhansa Shirdi Baba, Anandmayi Ma. My literary creatives have been inspired by Tagore and Kuvenpu the Kannada poet laureate. 

Professionally, I have taken inspiration from Mary Robinson, the former Irish premier for intellect in politics Justice P.V. Reddi (Rtd.), Former Chairman, 19th Law Commission of India, currently in Hyderabad, Dr Veerappa Moily,   Prof. Siobhan Mullally NUI  Cork, Ireland and Member, Irish Human Rights Commission,  Consultant, European Parliament and the UNO for his contributions in the judiciary, Prof. Chimni for research excellence, Adv. Tim, Adv. Mary Robinson and Adv. Madhava Menon for justice education. I was in admiration of the contributions by Dr Rebecca Todd and Prof. Janet Vuccinich that led me towards Fulbright Fellowship. 

What in your opinion is the biggest challenge the legal education industry is grappling with? What opportunities has the pandemic brought for legal education? 

We are trying to reach global standards of legal education and sometimes these compel us to undertake too many responsibilities while managing the student strength where the Law School is itself like a huge University. This involves major paperwork and administrative responsibilities. Another challenge is to remain unique and original, among a plethora of choices that students may have. 

The change that I have noticed is, students are well-read, well-prepared and exposed. Hence, making your teaching interesting is one issue. Use of technology with multimedia and experience-based learning with a democratic inclusion of diverse learners as well as diverse learning styles are required. Pedagogy has to change to facilitate learning rather than being the sole source of information. Due to sudden lockdown under the pandemic situation, our systems were thrown in high gear to adopt the online platforms. Within 3 days our lectures had started again and around 2000 students were in connect with the college on virtual forums. We use MS Teams, Google suit to conduct classes, Insert Learning tools to engage the students, live online guest sessions from experts and foreign professors, SGL (small learning groups) to resolve doubts and have a positive consistent dialogue with the students. 

You have a diverse teaching experience that includes tenures in National Law School of India University, SDM Law College, Manipal Institute of Communication and University College Cork, Ireland. What changes do we need to make or how can India reach a level where we become a part of the global education system? 

Nearly 12 years of experience at SLS Pune has been a journey of growth and learning. When I joined in 2007, I had behind me substantial years of teaching and research experience in reputed institutions in India and abroad. Further, coupled with an international corporate stint and NGO experience, I was looking at how education has to be approached. The approach had to be a blend of corporate management and mentor-guru relationship. My mantra was human development, through capacity building in staff, students and faculty with a carefully structured skill chart, process, team culture. Top management of symbiosis provided the space and support with time-tested experience and brand. Our team with an average age of 30 years then was also a great support, with enthusiasm to learn and grow. We built around the key ideas of curriculum, profound student development and satisfaction, faculty quality and professional identity of public service. 

We looked at the core of ‘doing good to do well’ strengthening community legal service along with engagement in learning by doing. Overall quality and excellence focus in Symbiosis International with its inter-disciplinarity, added the magic. In 2007, our application intake ratio was 15:1 and by 2017 it stands at 45:1. We designed our own law entrance test by 2009, upgraded programs to honours level and grew our international partnerships from 9 to 56. 

SLS Pune spearheads a unique 12-point internationalization under the guidance of our Chancellor Dr. S. B. Mujumdar Sir & Pro-Chancellor Dr Vidya Yerwadekar. SLS, Pune has hosted renowned scholars from across the globe, who have contributed to a rich and vibrant academic culture. SLS, Pune was the only law school in India to be a part of the prestigious Erasmus Mundus Consortium. It has now been selected to be a part of the prestigious Erasmus Mundus programme which is about Capacity Building in Higher Education Project European Studies Revitalized Across Asian Universities (EURASIA). 

I have always treated faculty as colleagues, ensuring a democratic and rights-based approach. I also believe in teamwork and ensure the growth of the teaching and non-teaching staff. This teamwork helps me to realize their strengths and potential and accordingly assign portfolios and other academic and administrative work. 

The governance model is participatory where all stakeholders of legal education such as lawyers, judges, parents, alumni, industry experts, community organizations could engage to contribute to student-training and also provide feedback on governance as well as academic content. 

I can define my leadership style as transformative leadership which is primarily based on democracy, thereby nurturing the growth of the individuals and transforming the work environment nurturing lives and cultivating ideas. 

What are your views on the national education policy? Particularly considering its multidisciplinary approach and its bilingual teaching. What do you think? How is it socially relevant? 

India’s demography with more than 50 per cent looking for legal aid, requires at least a few lakhs of pro bono lawyers. Initially, challenging to earn big money here, but once established say in 2 to 5 years, the sky is the limit for growth. I ask the students to look at success stories of people who, through such independence have grown to be leaders, public intellectuals and advocates of humanity. 

I highly appreciate the new initiative under the recent NEP 2020. It sets the stage for skills development and to impart global competency-driven education. We have introduced these skill-based courses at SLSP viz. contract drafting, legal writing etc. Further, it will facilitate students to become multidisciplinary, to involve socially, to undertake the transfer of credits from other faculty as well as an international university and stretch their minds to enrich their capacity. We already have such proven track record in Symbiosis Law School. 

Ma’am, you stressed upon the need for incorporating digital quotient in the law school curriculum during the insightful panel discussion on the future of legal education at the BW Legal World Conference held in September. What are your three suggestions to make the legal curriculum more relevant and effective in the technology-driven future? 

a) Globally relevant curriculum incorporating courses such as fintech law, train in technology through well-structured curriculum and training 

b) Technology aided teaching and learning process  

c) Data-driven decisions to continually improve the quality of learning and interaction 

d) To have an ICT driven learning management system providing for online and blended learning 

Your law school is consistently rated amongst the best law schools in India. What is your vision for Symbiosis Law School in the next 5 years? 

SLS, Pune team aspires for the following in the next 5 years: 

  1. To be among the top institutions of the world, to start with, in Asia; to tune into our university’s motto of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) and Founder Dr. S B Mujumdar’s vision of promoting international understanding through quality education (in our case, read as quality legal education). 

  1. To set up various chairs and thrust research projects in niche areas of law with law labs and archives. 

  1. To work as a think tank for national and international law community and to contribute towards legal education and law reforms in a collaborative manner. 

  1. To strengthen centres of excellence in core areas of law under a consolidated research centre weaving the strands of practice, research, and operation from a profession, judiciary, stakeholders and legal education together. 

  1. To establish robust collaborations with foreign universities for further increasing student and faculty exchange programs as well as undertaking joint projects and research. 

  1. To further strengthen the Community Legal Care Centre which will develop 24x7 helpline to provide legal aid, establish clinics in the field of business law, IP law, ADR, Family Law, Cyber Law, etc. 

  1. Establish specialized skill centres and ADR centre. 

  1. Develop unique area study centres providing LL.M and research/practice specializations in European Legal Studies, Asian Legal Studies and African studies. 

  1. To incorporate project-based learning within mainstream learning because, at once, it facilitates knowledge, skills, values with multiple dimensions such as teamwork, communication, planning, time management, application of knowledge, reporting, presentation, and empirical research among others. 

  1. To teach law to common people in the line of New Education Policy and also facilitate ‘barefoot lawyers’ as first responders to injustice in the rural community. 

Do you still find time to pursue your hobbies given your busy schedule? Would you please recommend any movies or books that have left a profound impression on you? 

I am an avid reader of professional literature, self-help books as well as literary works. In spite of my hectic schedules, I am focused on physical, spiritual and emotional fitness as well as wellbeing through Reiki. I devote my morning or evening slots for yoga and gymnasium routines besides swa-adhyay, meditation and virtual satsang. The media and films have always been in my attention and coax me to document it as a tool to legal education. I am equally passionate about public speaking, social activism for reform and love to guide the students, faculty, researchers as well as professionals on different national and international forums. The book that left a profound impact on me was ‘The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari’, ‘ Tibetan abbot’, ‘Living with the Himalayan Masters’, ‘Oldman and the Sea’, ‘Feminist Jurisprudence’, ‘Man the Unknown’ among many. I loved classical movies by Indian and international directors such as ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Samskara’, ‘Phaniyamma’, ‘Gejje Pooja’ ‘Three colours’, ‘The piano’ among others. 

What is your one message to the young and aspiring lawyers? What qualities would you like to see in them? 

Legal education creates lawyers who serve the ends of justice. This role is performed not only in formal forums of dispute settlement, namely courts but also in other avenues such as governance, business, family, international interactions etc. In the core, it trains one in problem-solving and social equilibrium according to the rule of law. It is the only profession which is validated in the constitution. I remind the students to be proud of their choice, make the best use of these learning years and also ensure that  they contribute as  top-level human resource to the judiciary, legal practice, social good and businesses in India and abroad guaranteeing efficiency and professionalism 

They must defend justice and contribute to nation-development/human welfare. The youth should imbibe the true spirit of a lawyer & justice worker;  remain loyal to logic, rationality and humanism. 

The traits and qualities desired, would include empathy, communication, independent thinking, courage not to agree without forensic examination of facts, to stand alone for justice and maintain that free mind, to be ready on feet anytime when justice is endangered or the vulnerable suffers. Further, once a lawyer, always a lawyer. Practise this justice virtue everywhere, at home, at profession, in society. With every one, you are a special person, who is looked up to for your communication and strength of conviction. Law questions power, questions deviation from ethics, so should the lawyer.  So be a truth-seeking person, research well, have a good command of the language, be ready to change your views with a readiness to learn.  

Also, a profession builds through mentoring. So, see a guru in every experience and every interaction, and be ready to be a guru to next-generation than wielding authority. We owe it to the community and the cause of human good. 

Please hold tight! BW Legal World is soon releasing the inaugural edition of its print magazine. It will feature Dr Shashikala Gurpur's full interview and much more from the world of law. Stay tuned! 

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