Professor H M A Herath, a renowned Guru on development administration at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, succumbed to a prolonged illness last Saturday night. Till he let out his last breath, he was in high spirits, writing his latest book and welcoming his students, despite the severe pain and physical disability he was undergoing due to his illness.
He had an extraordinary ability to identify hidden talents in students and show them the path to have such talents developed. Some time back, I met such a student who said that Herath was the turning point in her life. Herath who was a senior lecturer at that time had taught her management for the degree. When he had noted that she had meticulously highlighted the main points in the textbook with appropriate marginal comments, he had shown that book to other students and asked them also to follow such good learning practices. This open appreciation of her work by Herath had persuaded her to study hard and become a very senior officer in one of the leading public sector banks later.
That story summarises the typical nature of Herath. If there is a need for appreciating someone or someone’s work, no matter whether he is a friend or a foe, he doesn’t hesitate to do so. During his academic career spanning over three decades, there have been thousands of students who have been privileged to be coached by him. This applies to the junior academic staff of the department as well. They could always look up to his humane approach for wise counsel. I know several cases of junior staff members who had found it difficult to get admission to good universities or funding for commencing their postgraduate work. In all those cases, he had helped them either as the Dean of the Faculty or Head of the Department. His philosophy in this respect was clear: unless you develop your young staff, you will not be able to help your institution grow. You may be in charge today. But, when the time comes for you to hand the baton over to your successors, they should have capacity to run it better than you would have done it. There is a dozen of such staff he had helped to develop and they have now taken the baton from him to run the relevant undergraduate and postgraduate programmes at the university.
I had the privilege of associating myself with Herath from around early 1990s. First, it was in his capacity as the Head of the Department of Public Administration. Subsequently, he became the Dean of the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce. When he had the Orientation Programme for the freshers, I was always a guest at the event. It gave me an opportunity to observe how he made plans for the future of those students. I recall that he was emphasizing on the need for them to make use of the facilities available at USJ and develop themselves. If the students expected to have a bright future, they should wholly rely on themselves and not on others. He gave examples from his own experiences. Coming from a backward village in Monaragala District, he said that his biggest challenge was to improve skills in handling English language. There was no shortcut, he advised the students. It is through hard work, devotion and perseverance that one could master the language. This was specifically challenging when the family or school background was not supportive. But everyone had the same brain capacity and it was up to students to try again and again until they succeeded. He told me that he emphasized particularly on learning English because that was the passport for those students to explore the unknown territories.
Herath, as the Dean of the Faculty was credited with so many ‘firsts’ started at the Faculty. A bus for the Faculty, a state of the art new building, a computer lab and a scholarship scheme for staff to commence their postgraduate work in leading universities in the world are worthy of being mentioned. However, before some of them were officially declared open, he had to leave the post of dean of the faculty. He did not make any complaint about it. Instead, he immersed himself in a kind of a spiritual joy to witness their success like a farmer who enjoys himself when he sees the blossoming of his labour on the plants he has nursed.
Herath was the ‘live wire’ in the Public Administration Alumni Association. He had the capacity to keep all those in the Association together. The secret was his obsessive devotion to its cause, on the one hand, and ability to marshal the support of past students, on the other. He could address any past student by his first name and it did the trick. The financial hardships he himself went through whilst studying at USJ were the cause for him to develop numerous student support schemes and get others too on board to support that cause. At every AGM of the Association, he made it a point to acknowledge the support given by others in helping the needy students. Yet, being the man of humility he is, he was very careful not to reveal his own contribution toward that cause. As a result, only a few in the Association knew that he had established a scholarship for a needy student in the name of his own late brother.
I also got the opportunity to participate in two international conferences in which Herath read papers. One was on e-Government initiative in Sri Lanka hosted by Monash University. The other was on universalizing socio-economic security in South Asia, jointly organized by the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, and the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi. The two papers he read at these conferences were breakthrough studies well appreciated by scholars present. I was deeply moved by the honour he brought to USJ, in particular, and Sri Lanka, in general. His scholarly contributions have not stopped at that. Recently, he has released four scholarly books including a revised edition of his doctoral thesis submitted to Canada’s Carlton University. Two recent books had published had been on development administration and power sharing in Sri Lanka.
USJ has promoted him recently to the post of professor in public administration. This was a belated recognition of the scholarship he possessed. However, it was not the fault of the university. Professor Herath, though he had been qualified to apply for a professorship long time ago, chose not to do so. That was because he gave priority to his work to the exclusion of personal advancement. But, recently, urged by his students and colleagues, he submitted his application and USJ unanimously resolved to honour him with this rare distinction. But for us outside the university as well as for those inside, he was always a de facto professor at the university system.
Professor Herath is a father to students, a mentor to junior staff, a friend to colleagues and a scholar to rest of us in the country. By any standards, he is an academic of rare breed.
He leaves behind his wife Priyani who attended to him for many years after he was bound to sickbed and three sons, Pubudu, Dilan and Thilina. Like us, all of them miss him. But they have reasons to be proud of him because of the extraordinary courage he showed in attending to day to day work despite his illness.
W A Wijewardena
fomer Deputy Governor - CBSL