Needed, Academic Leaders
SOMETIME AGO, I interviewed a large number of young applicants—drawn from the discipline of mathematics—for the position of assistant professor. I was deeply disappointed to learn that even though almost all of them had been exposed to the very practical real-world discipline called fluid dynamics, they were unaware of its important connection to the design of aircrafts. In fact, they failed to cite a single practical application relevant in today’s world. In another case, just after the launch of Chandrayaan, I was just as disappointed by a large group of IIT undergraduates drawn from computer science, electrical engineering and mathematics, because they were clueless not just about the basic ideas behind the orbit of Chandrayaan, but also seemed to be unaware of how to figure out the distance of the earth from the moon and the sun. In yet another case, in an experiment about five years ago, the University of Delhi invited a leading multinational firm for a campus placement exercise. The firm had a few hundred openings, and all they wanted were graduates (BAs/ BScs) who could communicate effectively and had basic analytical skills. The university advertised widely, and shortlisted 1,200 of the best resumes it received. Blind interviews were then organised— the college names and family backgrounds of the applicants were not disclosed. The firm hired only three students, and opined that the exercise had been a complete waste of time.
The country faces several challenges in the arena of education, such as the large numbers of students that graduate high school each year, the lack of employability of university and college graduates and the deficient amount of high quality knowledge generation that could be of relevance to the needs of the nation. Add to this the pedagogical practices that prevent good knowledge from being imbibed, and which are heavily reliant on rote learning. We must recognise that Indian institutions of higher learning generally impart knowledge through the blackboard, in traditional ways that do not engender original thinking, creativity or curiosity. There is also a great lack of recognition that knowledge and skills are two sides of the same coin. Stemming from this is an extreme reluctance on the part of knowledge institutions to imbibe and engender a culture of project-based trans-disciplinary learning.
Perhaps it will serve our purposes better if we try and identify the larger issues first, which subsume the abovementioned problems. Some of us may be tempted to venture the suggestion that what we need is a good policy framework. I differ and I would like to state that essentially, a good policy has to be almost invisible and must gently engender and encourage good ideas and good individuals.
To my mind the biggest threat to our entire system of higher education stems from the failure of the prevailing situation to produce, in a systematic manner, a recognisable group of academic leaders who have a bold vision and are individuals of substance. In the twisted bureaucratic processes that exist for the purpose of identifying such persons, other considerations invariably seem to prevail over true enlightenment,
WE NEED TO TRAIN STUDENTS TO THINK WITH CLARITY AND CRITICALITY ON THEIR OWN AND TO WORK IN GROUPS
and institutions generally end up with lacklustre, and at times, even downright incapable individuals as their heads. Consider these four examples: the first female vice chancellor or university president in the world was Hansa Mehta, who proved herself when she so capably led the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda as its first vice chancellor. The second instance, of similar vintage, relates to the appointment of Maurice Gwyer as the vice chancellor of Delhi University. The third is of the redoubtable Madan Mohan Malviya, whose vision of a university was second to none and who needs no recounting on his vision and capabilities as a university head. The final example is that of Robert Goheen, who was essentially responsible for transforming Princeton University. He was an untenured assistant professor, when, at age 37, he was appointed president of the university. The sad truth is this: under today’s University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations, none of those four would qualify even to be shortlisted for appointment as the head of any educational institution in India.
To my mind, the next issue of importance is that of institutional autonomy. I am compelled to recount an instance from before Independence, when Dr Amarnath Jha was the vice chancellor of Allahabad University. After the departure of the distinguished physicist Meghnad Saha, Jha decided to replace him with Nobel laureate Schrödinger, and succeeded (with no questions asked by the equivalent of the yet-to-be-born UGC!). As luck would have it, the war broke out and Schrödinger could not join. Jha then replaced Saha with Krishnan, who was a rising star. Contrast this with my own experience as the vice chancellor of the University of Delhi a couple of years ago. During an interview, I came across an exceptionally bright young applicant who was holding a tenure-track appointment at an Ivy League university, and who wanted to move back to India. All he asked for was the position of associate professor. The entire selection committee averred that he was undeniably superior to the candidates who had applied for a full professorship. Alas, I was prevented by a crass UGC regulation from offering him even the humble position of associate professor. The same UGC regulation would have denied me the freedom to appoint Srinivasa Ramanujan, had he been around as an applicant.
Suppose we had a situation in which the heads of institutions were chosen well, in an enlightened and dispassionate manner. What, then, are the other major impediments that need to be taken care of?
I have noticed that our institutions consistently suffer from a lack of continuity of vision, associated with changes at the helm of institutions. Some change is inevitable with every new appointment at the top, and is necessary as well. The trouble occurs when drastic changes are mindlessly implemented by new incumbents, and institutions lurch from one direction to another. In my own understanding, one sure way of minimising these Brownian motion like trajectories of our institutions of higher learning is to allow successful institutional heads—who have proved themselves in their jobs—a certain renewal in appointment. A simple illustration should suffice: Princeton University was ably served and rose to great heights when
Goheen stayed at the helm for 15 years; Gwyer stayed on for 12 years and elevated the University of Delhi and Amarnath Jha’s 16year stint at Allahabad University brought about a golden period.
There has been much talk of a centrally driven policy to oversee education in India. We have had such policies in the past too. I do not see much good coming from that. I have failed to find any major federally driven policy initiative that made Harvard or Cambridge what they are today. Rather, to the contrary, they were mostly left alone. I feel we are obsessed with centralised micro-management, which is very counterproductive as it kills initiative-taking abilities at the institutional level. The less of a policy we have, the better. Almost every university in India—centrally funded or state funded—has been compelled by the UGC and the ministry of human resource development to have an essentially common curriculum. Contrast this with the examples of Harvard and MIT— which, despite being next door to each other, have such different approaches to the mathematics curriculum, both of which are worthy in their own right. A single genotype will only ensure that the entire system dies out for lack of diversity. Of course, I am not prescribing anarchy—once again, the key words for policymaking are: enlightened, liberal and non-prescriptive.
To this we must add the need to abolish bodies like the UGC, the AICTE and the ICTE, and to create a unified, more responsive and enlightened body that is also in close alignment with a similarly reborn avatar of the Medical Council of India and other such bodies. It disappoints me that not a single medical institution in India worth its name has any worthwhile incorporation and use of ideas stemming from computer science, mathematics, physics, engineering and so on. Incidentally, institutions of architecture also do not have similarly needed connections with mathematics and other disciplines. In the modern world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between ideas of engineering or physics or mathematics or computer science or even the humanities. We were good at this in the past and so we could produce a Pingala 200 years before Christ. Today, we have missed out on producing a Chomsky simply because students of Sanskrit are not exposed to the ideas emanating from mathematics or computer science.
University and knowledge systems have to reinvent themselves. They will have to take recourse to technology—for many reasons—but essentially for pedagogical and research purposes. So much of learning can now be based on what is available on the web. All we need is access to this material for students who shall have been trained to think with clarity and criticality on their own and who work in groups for hands-on projects connected to the real world. Peer-led learning is increasingly becoming the norm and for the right reasons. The teacher of today must become more of a mentor.
Our institutions must recognise that knowledge exists in various ways in the real world and that it is in their interest to dissolve, to a large extent, the boundaries that exist between the real world and formal knowledge systems. Institutions must focus on stimulating undergraduates by connecting them with the needs and challenges of the nation and of society. They must be inspired by such challenges and they will then begin to think in innovative and creative ways. I tried this at the University of Delhi with great success. Undergraduates who went through such exposure in a single year began to produce research papers and patents. They even began to be far more driven by entrepreneurial impulses, and the University of Delhi became a pioneer, of sorts, in the realm of startups.
MICRO MANAGEMENT IS COUNTER PRODUCTIVE AS IT KILLS INITIATIVE TAKING ABILITIES AT INSTITUTIONS
THE GRIND Students from Jamia Millia Islamia’s law department