Tarun Khaitan

Tarun Khaitan baking croissants

Tarun baking croissants

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up in a small town in Bengal. I went to a secondary school run by Pentecostal missionaries in a nearby city—not terribly far away, but poor road conditions meant that buses took about an hour and a half each way. The quality of education was largely mediocre, although the school tried its best with very limited resources, and a few teachers were very encouraging. At any rate, my wise mother knew the missionaries would teach me English—the language of power in postcolonial India—and they did.

What led you to a career in academia?

A series of happy accidents. A visiting city cousin passed on the law school prospectus to my teenage self—the internet had not arrived in my hometown, so information was mostly acquired serendipitously. I took the national entrance exams, and was accepted at India’s premier law school in Bangalore. The ‘National Law School’ opened a world of opportunities that were previously unimaginable. One of my undergraduate internships was with a farmers’ union in rural Rajasthan. Its leader, the formidable former civil servant Aruna Roy, asked me what I wanted to do with my life. On hearing my plans, she thoughtfully said: “A democracy needs its scholars. But make sure you speak in a voice the people can understand.” It was a formative experience. Always nerdy, I wanted to study further, and got the Rhodes Scholarship to go to Oxford for graduate studies. Once here, there was no question of any other profession but the academy. I started teaching part-time alongside my MPhil, and was hooked.

What are your research interests and why have you chosen those particular areas?

Most of my research concerns the possibility of our living with difference. Substantively, this abiding theme has resulted in a focus on discrimination law as well as constitutional design. Currently, I am working on the role of non-judicial constitutional institutions (primarily, political parties and fourth branch institutions such as electoral commissions) in defending democracy. I suppose I am interested in these issues because the Republic of India has been an experiment in living with difference—you cannot grow up in that country and not be struck by the fragility of peace and justice in the face of deep divisions, astonishing pluralism, and unfathomable human suffering; but also with the resilience of human optimism, hope, and kindness.

Why did you want to take on the role of Vice Dean?

Very few academics ‘want’ to take up these executive roles. Apart from lost research time, they can be quite challenging too. Yet, if we want to preserve academic freedom, leadership positions within the academy must remain primarily with academics. We have witnessed significant ‘professionalisation’ of top university administration elsewhere and in Oxford. Many of the problems afflicting our sector are down to the increasing marketisation of the idea of a university—what it is for, how it should be run. The call concerning the position was a surprise and it took me a few days to decide. Ultimately, I agreed to undertake the Vice Deanship at the Faculty to do my bit and pass on the baton.

What do you see as the challenges the Faculty faces over the next 2 – 3 years?

Brexit and the pandemic have both introduced significant uncertainties for the university sector generally. Many of the issues facing the Faculty are also Oxford-wide issues: whether it be work-life balance for academics or the need for more scholarships for students. At the Faculty level, I hope we will be able to raise funds to increase the number of graduate scholarships we currently offer. As someone whose education at Oxford would have been impossible without a full scholarship, I think this should be one of our most significant priorities.

What do you hope to achieve in your role as Vice Dean?

My portfolio as Vice Dean covers recruitment and teaching at the Faculty. With respect to recruitment, my focus will be on ensuring that we continue to attract the very best of global talent, and especially to broaden the pool of candidates who apply to us by reaching out to exceptional scholars from regions and groups that have traditionally been underrepresented at Oxford. With respect to teaching, Oxford rightly prides itself in the vast degree of academic freedom it affords its scholars. I see my role as ensuring that we maintain our proud tradition of offering some of the most rigorously taught courses in law anywhere in the world, and to ensure that colleagues continue to be able to do what they love doing without undue hardship.

What else keeps you occupied?

I am the General Editor of the Indian Law Review. I believe that the academy is a discursive check on power, and therefore key to any system of separation of powers in a democracy. The journal is India’s first academic run, peer reviewed, legal platform for world standard scholarship. I have recently started the Junior Faculty Forum for Indian Law Teachers—a virtual forum that monthly work-in-progress workshops for scholars in the region who tend to lack such spaces in their home institutions. As Director of the Indian Equality Law Programme at Melbourne Law School, I host 4-5 Indian scholars every year for a month of mentorship and supervision, using the funds from the Letten Prize I won in 2018.

What is your favourite thing to do in your spare time?

I can watch nature documentaries for hours. Cooking is how I unwind. I recently learned to make croissants!

What charity do you support and why?

Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA)—a charity that encourages and supports kids from marginalised communities go to law school in India.

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