Arguably the most controversial director to lead the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A), India’s top-ranked business school, Bakul Dholakia crossed swords with two Union education ministers, Murli Manohar Joshi and Arjun Singh, as he tried to keep the institute’s autonomy from being curtailed by bureaucrats and politicians. Dholakia, 60, stepped down on Tuesday as director, but will continue to be on the faculty for another five years.

On the evening of his announcement, Dholakia sat with Mint to look back over five tumultuous years and to look ahead. Edited excerpts:

You have been a great advocate of autonomy for IIM-A. But how much autonomy did you offer to your faculty?

I would like to believe that I have followed a democratic process and involved the faculty for all the work that we have done. But one must remember that democracy does not mean unanimity. It can also mean majority rules. IIM-A has intellectuals from diverse backgrounds, cultures and who can have huge difference of opinion on many subjects. So, if one person or a small group of faculty members disagree (on any proposal), what can we do? We can discuss (the proposal) and either decide not to go ahead with it or ask this small minority to reconcile to the decision of the majority.

Stepping down: Prof. Bakul Dholakia, former director of IIM-A.

But isn’t that precisely what both Joshi and Singh (the former and current human resources development ministers at the Centre) said; that majority views should prevail.

But did the majority have its say? You cannot have one or two people enjoying a veto over everything.

What is your concept of autonomy? Do you mean to say that IIMs have achieved their status without any autonomy?

Frankly, it’s not a matter of what kind of autonomy is there or not. Autonomy is like opportunity and you must grab it. I did just that. IIMs are governed by a memorandum of association (MoA). The MoA is very clear on things you cannot do, but there are many things on which the MoA is completely silent. So, it is for the director to either ask for clarification or stay quiet or act in the best interest of the institute and the faculty. For instance, the MoA clearly says that you cannot fix faculty pay scales, but it is quiet on what should be the consulting rates. Nor does it say about the money you need to share that faculty earns as consulting charges. You need to also remember that the MoA was charted out in the early 1960s and nobody ever thought that there would be foreign collaborations or corporate training. Nobody could have imagined the way management education and global management systems have changed. The strategy should be to locate and exploit these silent areas to move forward.

So, what’s your advice to your successor?

None of the former directors had ever cast their shadow over the new incumbent director of the institute. I would be there to offer advice freely, but only if I was asked (for it). I would keep away from giving any advice, but I would surely be around. I anyway give a lot of advice to many directors of different institutes, but there would be no anxiety to give any advice or interfere with the work of the new director.

No organization is built without teamwork. A leader is one who gives direction and charts out the broad vision. One must differentiate between giving direction or providing direction and issuing directions. Involving and empowering faculty and staff is a must for the director.

What have you achieved in your fight with Joshi and Singh? There is a section of IIM faculty that believes that you have had to give in on issues such as other backward castes (OBC) reservations, comptroller and auditor general audit, spending of reserves for infrastructure at IIM-A.

Yes. I have succeeded. The biggest example is CAT exams. Joshi wanted to put CAT exams under Central government’s control. Today, we have more than 100 non-IIM institutes affiliated to CAT and it is still being governed and run by IIMs. Is this not success that we still run the show of holding CAT and such large number of non-IIM institutes are using our system to recruit students?

Then, there was the issue of routing all the donations from IIM alumni via the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (a government universal education plan). This would have meant that the government would have control over all these funds and IIMs would become dependent on the government. This has not happened. The government also tried to intervene by telling us not to raise the fees, but we did not give in. The right to fix the fees lies with the IIM boards today.

As for the reservation issue, I never opposed reservation for the OBCs. What we said is that you come through proper constitutional route, such as a parliamentary Act. If our Parliament passes an Act, we cannot, but implement it. So, when it came as an Act, where is the question of not implementing it? But Parliament does not give direction on ways to implement that Act.

We simply said first create proper infrastructure and faculty strength to enable us to implement the law. Singh said increase the intake of students by 40% and raise the student: faculty ratio from 10:1 to 14:1. The government did not want to invest anything in creating the infrastructure. But it’s the minister’s interpretation of the Act and not my problem. I could not allow additional pressure on our institute’s infrastructure and faculty.

How would you attract quality faculty to the institute, especially from abroad?

We have 83 faculty members for more than 800 students at the campus. At every institute that I have visited in the last five years, I made it a point to meet Indian PhD students. I would meet them and try to find out how many were willing to come back to India after their studies. I would then hardsell my institutes saying that if you want to work in India, IIM-A is the place. Almost one-third of them wanted to be back. I was able to recruit at least seven-eight quality faculty every year.

What have been the worst moments of your directorship?

The worst moment was the IIM-A society meeting of 9 March 2004, when Union HR secretary V.S. Pandey came rushing in like a bull, and I had to catch him by his horns (Pandey is widely believed to have told Dholakia that he could lose his job if he did not listen to the Centre on the issue of deciding the fees). The second instance was the CAT paper leak in November 2003. Our friend Joshi cancelled the CAT exams and declared it null and void unilaterally.

Any grudges against Joshi and Singh?

None whatsoever. The ministers are doing their jobs. I have nothing against them.

What is most satisfying about your tenure as director at IIM-A?

When I took over, 44% of the earnings came from the main activity of teaching such as postgraduate programme (PGP) courses, fellowship programmes, management development programmes and consulting. The rest 56% came from other sources such as grants and donations. The government grant was Rs10 crore every year. Today, 85% of our resources come from main activity and grant from the government is zero.

The number of students for long-duration programmes such as the two-year postgraduate programme, postgraduate programme in agri business management, etc., have gone up from 429 in 2002 to 746 today. The number of students for short-duration programmes have gone up from 1,062 to 1,936.

What are the challenges for your successor?

I have entered into a number of foreign collaborations. These need to be nurtured and kept alive. If you want to expand, you need many such tie-ups because no foreign university would accept more than two students under exchange programmes. When I became director, we had tie-ups with 12 global institutes. So, the number of students that went abroad were around 24. Today, we have tie-ups with 50 overseas institutes and so are able to send 100 students abroad. If you want more students to get international exposure, you need to have more international tie-ups.

Earlier, most of the tie-ups were with European institutes. Today, we have tie-ups with at least 14 North American institutes and also institutes in the Asia-Pacific region. We have also created scholarships for our students going for exchange programmes.

At any given point of time today, there are 30-35 foreign students at IIM-A. This makes the campus more multicultural and multinational.

What gives you more satisfaction—the Padma Shree award or five years as the director of IIM-A?

The award is the fruit of these five years, which are definitely most satisfying.

Any plans to quit IIM-A?

No plan as of now. I would continue as a professor until the age of 65. Before that, I just need to spend a couple of months with family. I would take a decision in January.