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,


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.


THE GRIND Stu­dents from Jamia Mil­lia Is­lamia’s law depart­ment

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