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A file photo of the IIMA. Photo: Hindustan Times
A file photo of the IIMA. Photo: Hindustan Times

Why vaccinate against excellence?

Barring a few institutions of excellence, interference by politicians, bureaucracy is the norm, rather than the exception

Educational institutions are the primary instruments of formatting minds and fomenting turbulence for social change. When we deliberately try to vaccinate such institutions against excellence, and sometimes even relevance, the task of change agents becomes so much more difficult.

The efforts for such vaccination have been going on for decades. Barring a few institutions of excellence, interference by politicians and bureaucracy is the norm, rather than the exception. If despite that India has produced outstanding students and scholarship, the credit goes to the learners and their unsung teachers and, in some cases, their tolerant parents and mentors.

Why are policymakers so obsessed with tinkering in cases where they can contribute more by keeping their hands off? There are so many institutions under complete control of the human resource development (HRD) ministry and a majority of them need surgery. But minister after minister, over the years, has ignored the widespread mediocrity and only tried to meddle with institutions that are better and stronger. It’s this malaise that policymakers entrusted with the responsibility of blending excellence, relevance and expansion need to urgently reflect upon.

I completely agree with Ashish Nanda’s views (mintne.ws/1J1uvdL), where he says the easiest way to expand excellence is investment in existing institutions of excellence in higher learning. Institution building takes time. Good systems and norms evolve slowly but can be destroyed fast (or attempts can be made to destroy them). Fortunately, despite such attempts, sometimes from within and occasionally from without, most of these institutions have proved their mettle over time. The reason is that many of the leaders who have led these institutions didn’t have to earn their reputation from their position. They had, in fact, lent their stature to the position. The problem arises when people seek positions to prove their merit and start succumbing to pressures from myopic meddlers.

To be fair to policymakers, it should be acknowledged that not a single institution of excellence, recognized today in India and abroad, could have achieved their excellence without positive and constructive support from policymakers over the years. Then why are we losing out on stronger spines at different levels? Why do educational leaders start succumbing to pressures of extension and other small gains.

No politician can really meddle in the affairs of an institution of excellence, if the bureaucracy does not lend a helping hand. However, a leader can contribute even if the bureaucracy comes in the way. There is an old story about Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc). An Indian civil service officer was the controller of administration at Barc. H.J. Bhabha headed the laboratory. Once the officer went to Jawaharlal Nehru and set him an ultimatum: “Either Bhabha stays or I." Nehru replied, “Decision is made. Bhabha stays." Such is the stuff of which institutions are made.

During the early years of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA), there were one or two attempts to influence admissions from Delhi. All such calls were transferred to the admissions office. When the call came repeatedly, the call was transferred to lower and lower ranks. The message was conveyed in no uncertain terms. Today, the country can be proud of not one but many institutions where the sanctity of the admission process is beyond doubt.

Similarly, in the matter of recruitment, a majority of institutions of excellence have followed peer processes of search and selection. By not interfering in the process, the policymakers have made a positive contribution for which they must be thanked. However, when an HRD minister decides to interview candidates for top institutions instead of relying on the search committees set up for the purpose, something precious is lost.

Ministers can exercise their choice while recommending the panel to the cabinet committee on appointments. But to expect that the minister will be able to judge the merit in a short interview is perhaps stretching matters. What can be the excuse for tampering with the time-tested peer process of selecting leaders of institutions of excellence?

The professional accountability to one’s peers is generally a strong regulator of one’s motivation. The earlier process when the HRD secretary chaired the meeting for selecting directors of the IIMs was equally dysfunctional. A deliberate attempt to create bureaucratic oversight over academic dispensations can never be justified on any criteria of institution building.

Some colleagues refused to legitimize that process by not appearing for such an interview. As a matter of fact, a reluctant leader is likely to be far better than an eager seeker of the position. That process is enough indication of what is likely to follow. Wherever people lobbied or used political connections to seek such positions, they inflicted sufficient damage. Though it goes to the credit of these institutions that they could quickly recover from such damage. On the other hand, the culture of peer review and regulation of academic decisions has stood its ground. Whenever directors have tried to reverse the centre of gravity from faculty-led governance to board-led management, the motivation levels have dipped. There are no shortcuts to building ownership among all stakeholders, particularly the faculty, the staff and, of course, the students. The contribution of students in governance has sometimes been muted and the result is lack of bonding. However, whichever institution has listened to students more has also received higher alumni contributions. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are a good example.

That brings me to another disturbing feature of professional culture. If the ability to imbue fortitude among students is the characteristic of a good institution, then we must admit our failure as a nation. During various global and national crises, not many professionals, particularly from the management discipline, have blown the whistle. The silence is too conspicuous to be considered a random error. Maybe there is something missing in our pedagogy or purposefulness that needs a fresh consideration. It could be partly a weakness of our own fraternity, that is, the teachers. A good artisan doesn’t blame his tools. If students have felt shy, have teachers stood their ground? When they have, they have earned the respect of not only students, but also the larger society.

The time has come to ask some basic questions about the direction in which the relationships between policymakers, institution builders and societal expectations are going. By appointing a mediocre person as the head of any institution, one doesn’t have to do anything further. The decline is inevitable. Numerous programmes, whether space, atomic energy or railways, have achieved outstanding results precisely through the trust the country showed in the able leadership. What is the new evidence or compulsion which warrants a change in a paradigm that has delivered well?

Anil K. Gupta, apart from being a professor at IIMA, is the executive vice-chairman of the National Innovation Foundation and the founder of Honey Bee Network. He is also the coordinator of SRISTI and member of the National Innovation Council.

This article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.

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