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A word of advice for the IITs

A word of advice for the IITs
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 09 01 PM IST

Payback: Alumnus Vinod Gupta gave IIT Kharagpur (above) $2 million to establish a management school in his name. indranil Bho umik/Mint
Payback: Alumnus Vinod Gupta gave IIT Kharagpur (above) $2 million to establish a management school in his name. indranil Bho umik/Mint
Updated: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 09 01 PM IST
In every IIT batch is a ‘Daad’, a person of uncommon comprehension who practically teaches the teachers. For the class of 1985 of IIT Bombay, that person was Pandurang Nayak, who topped the IIT-JEE when entering, got the highest grades throughout and exited as a gold medallist. Nayak currently works at Google in the search area. He was at IIT Bombay’s campus a few weeks ago for his 25th reunion, a slim bespectacled man with grey-flecked hair and an easy smile.
A similar legend from IIT Madras was Joy Thomas, also a topper, who currently works at a Silicon Valley start-up. These are the men who are never forgotten and always held up as the gold standard of intelligence, unsurpassed during entire careers spent on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and other moneyed professions. Ask an IITian where he met the brightest people in his career and he will most often answer, “IIT”.
Payback: Alumnus Vinod Gupta gave IIT Kharagpur (above) $2 million to establish a management school in his name. indranil Bho umik/Mint
Engineering is not intuitive. It demands an intellectual rigour that doesn’t come naturally, even to those blessed with logical thinking and a facility for numbers. Every guy (and they are still mostly guys) in IIT topped his class in school and was lauded for his brains. The first time many of these brash young men experience the bitter taste of humility is after they enter IIT. There, they learn what it is like to be average, indeed mediocre. Naturally, most IITians end up libertarians, entirely self-made, self-possessed, and until recently, travelling abroad to make their fortunes. Today, according to IIT Bombay, only 10% of the graduating class goes abroad, unlike 90% of the 1985 batch.
Over the years, these men give back handsomely to the institution which made them men. According to IT-BHU Chronicle, the monthly online news magazine published by IT-BHU’s alumni association, “the class of 1985 pledged R4.5 crore to support technology and sustainable development…” Vinod Gupta gave IIT Kharagpur $2 million (around R9 crore now) over a decade ago to establish a management school in his name. Vinod Khosla gave IIT Delhi $5 million to establish an IT school. Romesh Wadhwani gave IIT Bombay $5 million to fund a centre for biosciences. IIT Madras has about five websites dedicated to alumni, which is confusing. Featured donors include Krishna Kolluri, Sunil Wadhwani, and others. Among Indian educational institutions, the IITs are fundraising stars. Yet, what interests me is not how much the IIT alumni give, but how little they give, relative not just to their net worth but also their desire.
My friend, Vatsa (not real name), an alumnus of IIT Madras, answers it this way: “Desh (Deshpande) and Kris (Gopalakrishnan) have thrown a lot of money at IIT. But the government, the college, the faculty, all want a piece of it. Is the money used well? I’m not sure. Then why give?”
I have spoken to several other IITians about why they don’t give as much as they could or want to. Those settled abroad say that they usually start with a “nice round sum, say $100,000, which somehow gets whittled down to a few lakhs after a round of peer appraisals”.
Why does this happen? The IITs, relative to other Indian institutions, have a strong alumni network. I searched the IIT Kanpur’s alumni website and found all sorts of things. But there were no numbers about who gave what. IITians respond to numbers. Alumni donations should be right up top in the IIT Kanpur website, next to the Satyendra Dubey award—starting with the highest donation and down from there. IITians are competitive. They’ll want their name at the top of the list.
The other factor has to do with how the money will be used. This is something that every Indian educational institution struggles with. The default assumption seems to be that the money will be frittered away. If the IITs can correct this, they can gain the sort of money that will allow for nanotechnology labs and stem cell research. But in order to get large cheques from rich alumni, the IITs have to do one thing right; and this, in my view, is key. They have to gain fame as research institutions in their own right and not merely universities famous for churning out bright engineers.
The IITs are resting their laurels on the strength of their alumni and not the strength of the work that is going on within their own campuses—along the lines of MIT’s Media Lab, Columbia’s sociology programmes, or Stanford’s entrepreneurship programmes. Faculty at American institutions work at getting into the popular press—featuring in Malcolm Gladwell’s books, for instance. There are several Indians who appear in Gladwell’s books—Nalini Ambady, Sheena Iyengar and Sudhir Venkatesh, to name three. All are academics in American universities. Why not an IIT professor or department? Sure, there was a 60-minute episode about IIT in CBS News a while ago; and it was featured in Michael Lewis’ book, The New New Thing. Both were flattering portraits but they focused on the students.
The IITs need to take what they do up to the next level. They need to turn into true academic institutions, not just colleges for engineers. They need to attract star faculty or turn their own faculty into stars. They need to better connect with alumni and make them a part of the colleges through campus visits, mentorship programmes and visiting lectures. A few such steps will turn this remarkable success story into a model that can be duplicated all across India. As a well-wisher of the IITs, that would be my hope.
Shoba Narayan’s husband is an IIT graduate. This column doesn’t have inputs from him. The views (and any attendant errors) are entirely Shoba’s own. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 09 01 PM IST