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An alumnus returns to find out what keeps IIM-A at the top

An alumnus returns to find out what keeps IIM-A at the top
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First Published: Thu, Sep 11 2008. 11 18 PM IST

Dressed for success: Students in convocation robes at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The ceremony is held for graduating students at the Louis Kahn Plaza in late March-early April. Ami
Dressed for success: Students in convocation robes at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The ceremony is held for graduating students at the Louis Kahn Plaza in late March-early April. Ami
Updated: Fri, Sep 12 2008. 04 32 PM IST
Ahmedabad: For the purpose of this journey, call me Khujli—Khujli the PGP 6.
Or so I thought as I sat in my hotel room in Ahmedabad and, for the first time in a long time, logged on to the online noticeboard system of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, or IIM-A. Alumni like me use it to post wedding invitations—but on this day, I wrote a message on the dormitory 20 noticeboard.
I had arrived.
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And I wanted to avoid any complications that might arise due to the golden rule of alumni revisiting campus. The rule helps you estimate what reception you will get at your alma mater—depending on how long you were on campus, what you did while you were there, what you did later and how attractive you were.
In my case, I have two versions of this rule: No one on engineering college campus remembers you four years after you graduate unless you were one of those T-shirt-wearing, body-piercing women who studied architecture. Those babes are never forgotten; instead, their myth gets passed on from batch to batch like family heirlooms.
Dressed for success: Students in convocation robes at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The ceremony is held for graduating students at the Louis Kahn Plaza in late March-early April. Amit Dave / Mint
And the business school version: No one on business school campus remembers you two years after you graduate unless you are part of a recruiting team from an investment bank or consulting firm, incubated a glamorous lingerie design start-up or are Chetan Bhagat.
So, an hour or so before leaving for campus, I posted a desperately enthusiastic message on the dorm 20 board: “PGP 6 on campus!” That meant I had entered the postgraduate programme—hence PGP—six batches ago. There’s nothing as deflating as loitering around a college campus—one suffused with personal memories—and feeling like a stranger.
The return
I was back at IIM-A three years after I graduated with a postgraduate diploma in management—not just to relive some memories, but also answer a few questions: What makes IIM-A the best business school in the country? How has it maintained its position of excellence since 1961, the year it was founded by pioneering space scientist Vikram Sarabhai? What are the people inside this institution like? And had things changed in the last three years?
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I began my fact-finding and updating mission with a short, 20-minute auto-rickshaw ride from my hotel to the oft-photographed, bustling main gate of the institute.
Five years ago, when I first landed in Ahmedabad and took an auto rickshaw to the institute to sign up, I remember being consumed by a sense of apprehension. Not because of the institute, but because of the city. Ahmedabad had seen its fair share of turmoil—both man-made (riots) and natural (earthquakes)—and while I shook and rattled my way to the campus on a cold, hazy morning in 2003, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an uncle’s earnest advice: “Why are you going to Ahmedabad when there is an IIM right here in Kozhikode?”
Kozhikode is just 3 hours from home. Ahmedabad was half the country away.
But, of course, there was no question of turning down an admission offer from Ahmedabad. Then, as now, IIM-A was easily the highest regarded business school in the country. Each year, thousands upon thousands of applicants hope to make it to the institute and take the notoriously difficult Common Admission Test (CAT).
There is a thriving business in coaching students for CAT, and an admission to IIM-A is seen as the ultimate prize. But with just around 270 seats available in each incoming batch—there were 230,000 applicants last year—the competition can get insane. The handful that clear the exam are then subjected to a round of group discussions and personal interviews to further whittle the list of applicants to a chosen few. There is a wait list of course, but it seldom moves up even 10 positions.
After my written test came a group discussion about a tractor servicing company with customer problems—the service centre was contemplating going on a training session but then they would have to shut down and thus inconvenience farmers; the dilemma was whether to go for training, which was also important for good service in the future—and then after a short, but high-intensity, “stress interview”, I was informed of my admission on the IIM-A website. Come results season, like clockwork, the website crashes due to excessive traffic.
As I walked through the main gate, it was difficult to keep up with the instant recall of memories. While the postgraduate programme, or PGP, lasts for only two years, the institute tends to foster a strong sense of community among residents as a whole and dormitories in particular.
The director
My first port of call is Samir Kumar Barua. Back in 2003, Barua was chairperson of PGP—the institute does not actually award an MBA, only equivalent diplomas in management on completion of the programme—and responsible for all academic activities. In November last year, Barua was appointed director of the institute, succeeding the formidable Bakul Dholakia.
During a term that saw severe turbulence in the institute’s relationship with the government, Dholakia emer-ged a strong proponent of IIM-A’s autonomy. Barua, by contrast, is a firm but friendly administrator who, unlike previous directors, continues to teach. “I find great relaxation in taking classes actually. It takes me away from the labours of being director,” says Barua, as we chat.
Indeed, in 2003, when our batch had just joined and my class, section A, had assembled for our very first session, Barua had taken us through our first case study. A federation of handloom operators were having trouble scaling up, and Barua taught us how to prepare, analyse and present various possible solutions.
With a class full of budding, young managers, all eager to perform and impress, our first session was enthusiastically attended. Every few minutes, eager students would throw their arms into the air like dismounting gymnasts and speak at length. Some of the suggestions—such as e-marketing and online retailing—were utter nonsense, but Barua did not rebuke us. Over time, we would get better and Barua would become less forgiving.
I asked Barua about one recent development on campus that was mildly disturbing. Five years ago, three-fourths of the incoming batch was made up of engineers. The latest batch had a staggering 94% engineers. “The diversity of the batch has come down in the last five years. And this is actually a direct consequence of things like the Right to Information Act (RTI),” said Barua.
He says that because of RTI and extreme pressure on the IIMs and IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) to explain admission procedures, the institute could no longer be “fuzzy” in the selection process. “Previously, we ensured some sort of diversity by picking up a mix of people from those who cleared the written test. We could introduce a level of subjectivity at the interview stage. But now, because of RTI, applicants who don’t make it demand to know why they weren’t selected when they scored better than another admitted student in the written test.”
But this seems to bother me more than it does Barua. “I think engineers are just as creative as arts or commerce graduates. What irks me is that I lose the ability to pick up someone even if they scored a little less on the test but impress in the discussions and interviews,” he adds.
The manager
While Barua spoke at length about the institute and his vision for the future, there is one other person on campus who has been here even longer, who has been on campus as a student and then as faculty since 1976.
On the ground floor, a stone’s throw from the iconic Louis Kahn Plaza, Shashi Nair was working in the PGP office that handles all the administrative affairs of the MBA programme—from scheduling classes to conducting exams and tabulating grades.
Nair remembered me instantly. But then, Nair remembers everything instantly. With 40 years of experience in various administrative functions, he is a human Wikipedia on all things IIM-A. Every PGP student leaves campus with at least one Nair moment. And not all of them fond.
In 2003, Nair was manager of the PGP programme. When I met him, he was just two weeks away from retirement, but the institute has asked him to stay back and help.
Even while we talked about old times and new stories—“What! No children yet? Why not?”—Nair kept processing work on the side. A second-year student on exchange in London had forgotten to choose her electives. She had missed the deadlines, and most of the courses had been booked solid (even though the institute now offers an unprecedented 70 electives in the second year, there is still a keenly fought and digitally managed process for students to choose their courses). The PGP office kicked into panic mode. Two people hit the phones immediately, asking professors to allocate an additional seat.
Nair is like the tough love coach in a B-grade Hollywood sports movie. He is not there to be your friend. He, however, is there to ensure you get the best educational experience possible.
“We take our academics more seriously than anybody else anywhere. That is really the secret,” he says when I ask him why the IIM-A programme is so solid.
Nair describes how, even 47 years after its founding, the institute still sticks to its mantra of combining the best students, the best faculty and the best course content: “That way, even if one of those elements go weak, the other two will maintain standards.”
When I finally got up to leave for my dormitory, there was a sense of triumph in the PGP office. Nair and party had managed to draw up a list of courses for our forgetful friend in London. As I was leaving, Nair’s voice rang out loud and clear through the office: “It is her mistake. But we must still give her a few courses to choose from!”
The walk from the PGP office to dorm 20 serves as an efficient primer to the architecture of the institute. The institute is a gem that attracts both students and aficionados of architecture. Designed by architect Louis Kahn in his trademark unadorned style, the institute is crafted entirely out of red brick. Or, to be more specific, the old campus is. The new campus on the other side of the road, reached by a subterranean tunnel, is somewhat of a tribute and built entirely in bare, grey cement.
Yet, both campuses are striking to most eyes. The plain exterior is more than made up for by shapes, geometry and sheer size. And within these plain, soaring walls is infrastructure that is state-of-the-art. The week before I arrived on campus, the whole complex was covered in a wireless network.
The dorm
“The infrastructure is spectacular. We may crib about it now and then, but the institute does provide everything you need to ensure you can focus on your academics and extra-curricular activities.” Speaking to me about things such as Internet connections, washing machines and refrigerators was Pratik Ved, the student media coordinator. We sat at one of the three tables that occupies the central courtyard of dorm 20 in the new campus. Dorms 1-18 are in the old campus. The rest in the new.
I sit and talk to Ved in the exact same spot where, in late 2003, Nikesh Agarwal had tried desperately to make me understand what provision for taxation means in accounting. Agarwal, a short, slight chartered accountant with a quiet demeanour, tried his best all through the night and finally gave up. He aced in accounting, while I barely scraped through. But a friendship was formed that we maintain to this day. We were even roommates in Mumbai for more than a year after graduating.
The dorm is a powerful binding force in IIM culture. During the insanity of the first year—both Barua and Nair admit that the first-year syllabus is hugely challenging—it is almost impossible to cope without the help of friends. And most of the time, those friends are your dorm buddies.
All the dorms, both in the old and new campus, have at least a couple of blackboards where student often take tutorial sessions for each other. I still remember one of Agarwal’s tutorials on accounting that went houseful—more than 70 people turned up.
I asked Ved what his dorm name is. “Burger! And the guy who lives in your old room is called Ducati,” he says. I politely shared mine in a quiet voice: “Khujli...”
Every newbie is bestowed a dorm name within the first month or so of joining. The name normally has an elaborate “funda”, the details of which are sworn to secrecy by the seniors in the dorm.
So, sorry, I can’t tell you why I was called Khujli. Or why various other people were called Paro, Chunni, Kaaliya, Tempo, Disco, Turbo, Massa, Scratchy or (excuse please) Dildo. Urban legend is that the “Vindi” in M.S. “Vindi” Banga—the former head of Hindustan Lever Ltd, now known as Hindustan Unilever Ltd—was his dorm name, bestowed upon him while on campus.
Things such as dorm names—often bestowed with great ceremony—tutorial sessions and a vibrant dorm life build a strong sense of community that more often than not extends to life after campus. Most alumni use their dorm names in perpetuity and, to this day, I cannot tell you many of my friends’ real names with any certainty.
I ran into Ducati a while later, while walking around the dorm and making small talk with residents. He let me into my old room, and memories flowed back thick and strong. Random facts and hundreds of pictures flew through my mind in a blur.
I remembered the time I lent a yellow permanent marker to a girl in my class who had come over to the dorm for a study session in somebody else’s room. Many days later, in jest I assure you, I told her to give it back or pay me for it. She, alas, took it seriously. So when we were randomly allocated adjacent seats in class at the beginning of the second term, our relationship was a tad frosty. She thought I was an anal retentive. And I thought she was hot.
But then one thing led to another, and we have been happily married for almost two years now. Nair, whose office does the random seating, was the inadvertent matchmaker.
The graduates
The next day, I came back to campus to complete two important errands. The first, to meet Barua again and ask him a question that has been on many people’s minds. The second could wait until it was time for me to leave campus once and for all that evening.
For all its fame and reputation, the institute is still largely unknown for anything besides placements and salaries.
Barua agreed animatedly, thumping the table with his palm, when I told him the media just doesn’t get the multidimensional nature of the institute. “I think it is terrible that all they care about is placements and higher salaries, and so on. There is so much more to the institute and its people.” And this myopic image, in his view, is largely responsible for the elitist image the IIMs have been loaded with over the years. And for its precarious love-hate relationship with the government.
Only recently, for instance, has the media picked up the story of the charity organization called Prayaas, founded and run entirely by IIM-A students, that gets poor children into schools. The founders were in the same batch as me, and it was heart-warming to note that Prayaas has grown in scope and size.
I asked Barua the one question that I have had to face many times during and after my two years at the institute. I asked him if IIM-A is just churning out droves and droves of “capitalists”, all hungry for a quick buck and a fast life. Barua was perceptibly disturbed by the question. “You should be the last person asking me that, Sidin. You became a journalist, didn’t you?”
Barua then went on to rattle off a list of names of people and organizations, all run by alumni, that are making a difference to people’s lives. There is Prayaas, of course. And then there is Basix, which started the micro-finance revolution, and GiveIndia that channels funding to certified non-profits from donors.
IIM-A alone, according to internal estimates, carries out more than 30% of all managerial research in India. “And we don’t think we are doing remotely enough research even then,” Barua says.
The previous day, Nair had chipped in with the fact that the institute is producing more entrepreneurs than ever before. At least eight or 10 people in each batch now opt out of placements to start something of their own. It may be a minuscule fraction of the total, but it is a start.
Before leaving, I popped downstairs to bid farewell to Nair and the rest of the people in the PGP office. “Come often,” he said, “when we see an alumnus doing well in life, it makes us all the more proud to be working for the institute.”
I closed my jaunt all over campus with a trip to Rambhai’s tea stall. The tea stall sits next to the institute wall, a stone’s throw from the main gate. But in cognizance of 25 years of tradition, the authorities left a hole in the compound wall when they rebuilt it three years ago so that students and faculty could still buy cigarettes, tea, maska bun and omelettes without having to go out.
Rambhai smiled in vague recognition. I asked him for a maska bun and chai.
When I finished eating and trying to eavesdrop on conversations around me, I asked him to pack one maska bun for me. “Make it well, Rambhai!” I shouted through the little window—errand No. 2.
Showing a mouthful of paan-stained teeth, he grins, “Aha! For the wife! I know, I know.”
Sidin Vadukut graduated from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in 2005 and is a staff writer for Mint Lounge in Mumbai. He also co-authors a Mint blog, Play Things.
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First Published: Thu, Sep 11 2008. 11 18 PM IST