Errol D’Souza | A mountain-climber’s view from the top at IIMA21 min read . Updated: 11 Feb 2018, 12:54 AM IST
IIM Ahmedabad director Errol D'Souza on mountaineering, education and the B-school's plans
In January, Errol D’Souza was appointed director of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, arguably one of India’s most highly rated institutions of higher education. In the most recent edition of the Common Admissions Test, or CAT, nearly 200,000 students wrote the exam, all of whom would have been aiming for a seat at IIMA. D’Souza recently spoke to Mint on Sunday over the phone about his new responsibilities and why he is exceedingly optimistic about IIMA’s future.
I’m very grateful for your time. There must be lots of things to do once you become director.
Unfortunately too much of it is engagement with the outside world.
Has that always been the case for the job? Or is that a recent development?
Recent development, but yes, historically, I think there have always been a lot of stakeholders and also lots of people from various sections of society who would have their own demands for the institute, and the institute has always had to tread this path of looking at its own goals and how to accommodate that too. Steering that path is not an easy one.
Why did you choose to apply for the position?
I didn’t apply, in fact I didn’t even look for this job. I was persuaded by the selection committee, so I listened to them finally because they had some ideas which I thought were important from the point of view of the institute. I would have preferred to continue to be a nice academic enjoying... doing my own research and teaching and engaging with the outside world. But I suppose time comes when people point out a different path to you, and it seems persuasive, so you say OK. I should be doing this.
I know it’s early, but do you seek to bring a new direction or a personal touch to the office? And even if you do want to, how difficult is it?
I think that all directors must be having that point of view. There would be something personal they would be doing.
It is a place which is very flat as an organization, unlike most business schools. So all faculty are treated equally, whether they are assistant or associate or full professors. You would see that everyone has the same office facilities, the same secretarial assistant, same financial assistance.
And then there’s the director, and the director is really just steering the institute and the faculty and collaborating with them to take the institute to another level. So in that sense, it’s a different sort of an institute. And it has always had a large application towards policy, so that’s also been a big historical trajectory. We’re really trying to move it more in the direction of research, while not losing the policy impact. In that sense, I see a lot of continuity and some change.
Before we ask a few questions about continuity and change, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you become an economist? How did that happen?
By mistake. I actually started my career wanting to be a mountaineer. I actually joined a PhD programme because I could get two or three months off in the year during summer holidays to go off to the mountains. That’s what I did. I actually represented India at one stage on an expedition to climb a mountain called Rimo which was then the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, near the Siachen Glacier. This was on an international team. I almost became a instructor at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.
There was a phase when I wanted to do that. However, after I got into big time expeditions, I started to lose interest in the mountaineering thing. Maybe because it became competitive as a sport. It became more about getting to the top because there were large sponsorships, less about enjoying being in the mountains.
Then I sort of moved off to a new form of mountaineering. In those days it was called alpine-style mountaineering, which is basically a team of two or three. You carry everything on your backs. No porters, nothing. You do everything on your own. So you’re really engaged with the mountain in that sense. That doesn’t get you too much of publicity, but you really enjoy it a lot. At that stage, I thought OK, I need also to do something else to make a living, so I continued with the PhD.
What was the PhD in?
My PhD was in Indian fiscal policy… really mathematical models looking at the impact of fiscal policy on economic growth. And I was working on how it is different in emerging markets, and what are the implications in terms of reforms, et cetera. It happened because the department that I was at, the dean suddenly wrote to me saying we notice you’ve been out, you have one option to present a paper, otherwise we have to fire you. Fortunately that paper did well, and they said you can complete your PhD.
And in those days the government of India had a lovely rule, that if you were in the public sector, you would get one month off on paid leave if you went anywhere above 12,000 feet. I don’t know where this rule ever came from.
There has to be one guy somewhere who likes climbing who’s written in this rule, right?
So obviously some IAS guy or some former British service guy had written in this rule, and someone pointed it out to me, so I said great. I should join academics because you get two months summer holiday. I’ll add this one month, I’ll get three months. At that time, it was great to go mountaineering: May, June, July. In the winter, you get one month off. I can go rock climbing, so great! So I get four months of the year to myself. So that’s how I joined academics. Again, it gave me an opportunity to do these things.
What led you to the mountains originally? Did you grow up in a kind of mountainous place? Or a very flat place and desperately wanted to go up?
No, no, no, no. I grew up in a city. I grew up in Calcutta. Then I grew up in Mumbai. I started going for weekend trips, from Mumbai, to the Sahyadri Range. One day, when I was trekking, I same across a small team that was doing a bit of rock climbing somewhere. And I said, can I learn from you guys? That’s how it started. And then I got wild, I had a record of one year, all 52 Sundays I was out in the Sahyadris doing rock climbing or trekking. Eventually I went to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, did a course in mountaineering. Then realized there’s another world in terms of ice and snow, not just rocks. That’s how I got sucked in.
In some sense, it’s the mirror image of the dilettante Indian graduate’s life, who does his MBA first and then discovers climbing or something like that.
There are quite a few people who have done it that way, yeah.
Do you still climb? I wonder if IIMA might be the business school in India that is on the flattest ground, closest to sea level.
I think actually all that alpine-style climbing where you carry 35 kilos on your back, and stuff like that, it weakened my knees. Finally some years back I had to have a knee operation. And I’m grounded. I’m not allowed to trek any longer.
But were you climbing until very recently?
I was climbing until about 15 years back. I took out quite a few expeditions. I must have taken out the first university expedition from India. And then I took out an expedition from the state of Goa. I took out all sorts of things. And I still instruct, do small courses for people, so that they can live and learn the sport.
What’s your personal highlight? If you had to kind of pick one climbing achievement that you’re really proud of...
I think my personal highlight would have been actually climbing the Bhagirathi Massif. This is the massif which overlooks the Gangotri Glacier; from Gaumukh you can actually just see it. In those days it was a challenge to do it in a two-member team. In fact the Indian Everest expedition was trying to do it, and they couldn’t. And we managed to do it.
I did it, just for the experience. For me the whole thing about mountaineering has been not just getting to the top, but the whole experience of whatever comes on the way. It’s basically glorious uncertainty when you’re on a mountain. The weather can change, you may be caught in a snowstorm. You have to figure out different ways of getting back. It’s always questions.
How do you get up this part? How do you get down that? I’m seeing this route, but what is the best way to do it. It’s all about that. So that’s what I used to enjoy. When you get to the top actually you’re deflated. You’re saying, OK, now be careful on that way back.
Actually… one of the things always is… you know in your mind a lot of people die actually on the way down, not on the way up. Because they either go up to the summit and leave in the afternoon, and then they get caught out in the night. Or they just push themselves, thinking they have the energy, and then they let their guard down on the way down and make mistakes.
So you actually have to think through all of these things and be very careful how you go about it.
Is climbing one of those things that changes you as a person? That kind of develops a certain personality in you?
Yes, yes, it does, yes. It makes you more reflective. It makes you more accepting. You get to start to accept more changed circumstances. Things don’t always go your way. You start to understand that better. It’s really about finding some sort of equilibrium within yourself about how to relate yourself to the world around you. Not be pushy about it, because you realize that some things are natural, and some things within you are also natural.
Even though you are striving hard to do some things, you will come up with areas you cannot surmount. That is accepted. There will be instances when you are just 200 feet below the summit and you have to turn around. But you have to take that call because you tell yourself that if I don’t do it maybe there’ll be no more summits because the storm will just blow me away. Things like that. For me it was continuously learning new things about myself. That’s what I enjoyed the most about it.
Did that percolate into your... I don’t want to kind of force you into finding a correlation, but did that percolate into your work as an economist as well?
Economics is a different world, but one of the things it does is yes, you think more of externalities. A lot of my work was really thinking more of the impact of a decision by one agent on others, which that agent does not take into account. I think some of those insights ... I wonder if it was just my internal way of looking at the world, which is common across mountaineering and maybe… I don’t know. Not an easy one to say.
When did you come to IIMA?
In 2001. It was the year the earthquake took place, the big earthquake, just a few months before the big riots of 2002. So it was troubling time to come to Ahmedabad. I initially came in saying, “I’m coming in for a year", because I was in Mumbai University, and it was like going downhill.
I loved the university because in a university you have this fantastic opportunity to meet historians, musicians, geographers, physicists, and you’re chatting about all sorts of things, which in a business school is a little more limited. But Mumbai University was in decline at that time. It was starting to get politicized and things like that.
Anyway, for a few years before that, I was already coming to IIMA and giving lectures. So when they said why don’t you just come and spend time, I said OK, I’ll take a year off. But I think it was more the push from the university rather than the pull of Ahmedabad that initially got me here.
When I came here I found it is an exciting place. It allows a lot of academic freedom. There’s a pretty convivial atmosphere. You can actually decide on your research parts and just keep at it.
Is that still the case? Will the new faculty joining today have your experience?
I think so. There’s a little more pressure nowadays to publish, but otherwise people are told your research is your baby. You have to drive it. All we’re looking at is outcomes, that you do get something out.
Actually, we look for how inventive people are in terms of the ideas that they are trying to grapple with, and we then give them a lot of freedom and support. If you need funding for research, we give it. We support faculty for conferences, databases. No faculty member is allowed to claim “I can’t do something because I didn’t have money to do it". That is not allowed.
Does teaching and research exist as two separate spheres in institutes like this? Should it be more together? Is it fine as it is?
It should always be together. You teach what you’re researching. You are excited about what you’re teaching, and that excitement trickles down to students. More than that, it also keeps you engaged with what you’re doing, and it also excites some students possibly to think, maybe this is a field I should actually be getting into and doing research in.
So I think it is very difficult for someone who is a pure teacher to continue to be very engaging with their students. Because then you are just transmitting received knowledge, but if you’re a researcher then you know the nuances, where the questions have not been answered. You are more excited, therefore, about what’s going on. At least I see that difference between people who are good at research and teaching, and people who are just teachers.
People who are just teachers are introducing you to a discipline possibly. They could be very good at that and in their communication styles and at telling you what a discipline is about, but they can’t take you beyond that, beyond the introduction phase. So they can’t hold your hand and take you on a journey which can be exciting. For that you need someone who has done some research and who is involved with it.
Vikram Sarabhai once said that IIMA should try to get the best faculty, the best students and the best infrastructure. So even if two out of those three things fail, the third will pull it together, will kind of help pull things together. How does IIMA stand on those three things today in your view?
I think we still get the best students. There is no doubt about that. Infrastructure... it is world class. In fact right now we are building a school of public policy, where we’ve done a worldwide search for an architect, so Rahul Mehrotra, who teaches architecture at Harvard, will be doing that building. When I look at, the plan that he has for it, I get goosebumps because it’s beautiful. So I think those two are there.
Faculty, I think we are always looking for, and we don’t find it easy to get good faculty. That has always been a problem at the institute. We’re very selective about whom we get, and given the way in which we contest for faculty, given the way other institutions around the world hire, we are at a little bit of a disadvantage. We’re really fortunate that the people who decide to come and stay with us are with us. Some of them could have had wonderful opportunities elsewhere. Somehow they’ve come and stayed with us.
That is the one area in which we always strive. Many young people. Many new research teams have opened up. It’s a very changed place in that sense, compared to the past. That is also good because young people engage much more with young students. They bring in new ideas from different parts of the world. It’s good. It’s become quite an exciting place.
In fact, this year we’re looking at all sorts of excitement. Two weeks from now we’ll be having the first Nobel laureate visiting campus and spending time with us. Eric Maskin, who’s an economics Nobel laureate, will be coming and spending time with us. We have top-notch people from other areas who are going to come, from Chicago Booth people are coming, spending one week in marketing area. So it’s getting to be quite exciting now.
Earlier, I don’t think we had these sorts of collaborations. And that was because we weren’t as engaged in the research. We were pretty much tuned into trying to impact the world of policy. That was because the school sort of started out in a pre-liberalization phase. Where a lot of the work was engaging with government. It took us some time to shake ourselves out of that and say, once the economy opened up, our reach is not just here. Our reach should aim to be more global. We should try to show our expertise to the world. So that took some time to do. And I think we are now in a fairly sweet spot. There are still miles to go, of course, but at least it’s started to happen. It’s become quite exciting in that sense.
Are there specific research areas that you’d like to see IIMA become a global authority on?
One area where we’re getting to be recognized a lot is family business. The other area is in small and medium enterprises. We’re also getting to be known in terms of R&D and start-ups. CIIE (Centre for Innovation Incubation and Entrepreneurship) is now 10 years old, I think. That’s become the largest incubator in the country. It is actually doing a phenomenal job in terms of supporting start-ups. So people working in technology, R&D, start-ups. That’s turning out to be a big thing; we’re getting a lot of recognition.
In economics of course, we now have some people who are quite well known internationally. This year, actually, we’re going to have a conference on networks with top people from Stanford, Oxford, et cetera, all coming. So that’s a big thing for us also.
Finance, we’re getting more and more involved in the area of financial inclusion. And we’re just looking at a big grant which is coming in, to set up a centre on financial inclusion because people are recognizing the work that’s going on there. These would be the sort of areas. Again, in organizational behaviour we have people working in workplace bullying, which is getting a lot of attention worldwide.
Even though you’ve moved away from policy, a question that some people ask from the outside is, a lot of your students get good jobs, many of them move abroad, what does the institute do for the country? Clichéd question, but is that something on your mind? Is this something that the institute thinks about?
I think we look at it positively. Wherever our students are, they’re our ambassadors, not only for us, but for the country. In fact, I worry about the other thing, which is we should have more students from abroad coming here. That, I actually would like to see. It’s very difficult to do, given that we have reservation legislation to accommodate. So it’s not going to be easy to do that, but we’ve now started to make a small push. To say we have to go and do road shows abroad and talk about what we do and try and attract students to come.
So we now also have dual degrees, as of a few years back. Where students come and spend a year with us and they get a degree from us and their own home institution. Every year now, it’s small. It’s a trickle. They are about five students who do this. So there are about three or four schools that have this dual degree programme with us. ESSEC, HEC, Bocconi and so on. We want students to come in larger numbers and also faculty.
One of the things I did as dean (faculty) was hire some international faculty members. So we now have a Norwegian. We have someone who is from Germany. And we have someone from the US. And we would like that also to grow because the more diversified is your faculty and student body, the more you have a chance of doing things which are quite global and also asking larger questions.
Do you think the institute needs to tell more to tell India what it does?
No, no, there is enough attention on us, I think. I don’t think we should be doing more of that.
Does IIMA get the right kind of attention?
Yes, yes, we get quite a bit of the right kind of attention. We get a lot of good attention, and that’s good for us. I think more often people would be unhappy with us because maybe we don’t do enough for them. And that’s because there’s only so much we can do, as a management school. We are actually under-scale. We have about 100 faculty members. Top schools, anywhere in the world, would have closer to 200 if not more. So that is a big challenge for us actually.
We have a lot of demands, a lot of corporates want us to do training with them. Lot of government departments wanting us to help them, but we can’t respond because there are constraints on time that our faculty faces. I don’t think people realize the constraints we face.
You sound very optimistic about the institution and about the future. How has the new IIM Act worked out for you?
I am. It is a great time actually. The IIM Act actually has been good for us because there is lots more autonomy, lots more questions now can be asked of the institute, which is good. We need to be do more reporting of the sort of stuff we do. I think the Act has been by and large good... I think the only thing I would have asked from the Act was that they take out this benchmarking of our salaries with government servants. That’s the only thing that has sort of put us back.
Was that because IIMA could then hire more faculty from abroad and so on?
Yes, yes, that is a big thing that is sort of holding us back. But otherwise in terms of how we operate and our vision for the future, et cetera, the Act is sort of saying just go ahead. The ball is in your court, and if you don’t deliver now, it’s your problem. In fact, I’m quite happy with the way in which the government has finally brought out the act.
Now you said before that the job is one of both continuity where continuity is required and change where change is required. I think you’ve given a sense of the continuity that should be maintained, what changes would you like to make? How would you like to see?
We talked about some of that. I talked about diversity, in terms of nationality, little more diversity in terms of gender. I mean we need many more women hopefully coming in. Diversity in terms of academic background.
In an interview some years ago the then director Samir Barua told Mint that working on diversity is difficult because of the way in which students are selected.
That’s true. But we’ve tweaked that. We originally said, OK, we realize that it’s a public entrance system, but what we should do is from each discipline, we should pick the top 50 people from that discipline. Then from that based on quality, 15 for an interview. There you might see something that you aren’t seeing in the CAT exam.
Then we found it didn’t make much difference because there were disciplines where people didn’t do as well in CAT. I mean, they were still having 98 percentile or maybe 98.5 or something. But they were bright, and they have a different view of the way the world functions, what their motivations were. So as long as we put it out in the open, publicly stated, that we are doing our admission in this way. We thought that should be a good way to go, and we tried that. And I think that’s helping.
You seem kicked about your new job.
Yeah, I’ve been kicked about my job the last three years. Ever since I was appointed dean (faculty) I have been involved in getting things changed. I think it’s great. And this is a wonderful opportunity, wonderful place. Great support from board and alumni. Fantastic. You can’t ask for better here.