More lessons in unreason

Posted on December 8, 2008. Filed under: Education |

More lessons in unreason

Jagdeep S. Chhokar

The Indian Express, Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I seriously doubt if Pratap Bhanu Mehta will get a response from any of the “respected heads of IIMs” to his letter (‘Lessons in Unreason’, IE, April 25). Therefore, as one who came pretty close to being one — having been offered the opportunity of being considered (and having respectfully and in retrospect fortunately declined) for appointment as director of IIM, Ahmedabad, I think a response from me can possibly be the closest to one.

He was being generous in referring to the IIMs as the “mightiest institutions” in India. There are no mighty institutions left in India, and while the “terse one-line order issued by a joint secretary of the Government of India” was the final straw, the bringing down of IIMs “to their knees” was the culmination of a process that began several years ago.

It was in 1990-91 when, in the flush of liberalisation, the government froze grants to the IIMs at the then prevalent levels and asked them to become self-sufficient. The government offered to match the savings these institutions made out of their sanctioned grants, as a contribution to a corpus fund. IIM-Ahmedabad started saving and asking the government for matching contributions. The government made matching contributions for a couple of years but stopped pretty soon.

After this, several factors seemed to have come together. As the corpus and reputation of the institute grew, its capacity to raise money on its own grew, the grip of the politician-bureaucratic combine on business and industry (including the public sector) started loosening due to liberalisation, and the admissions to the institute continued to be completely tamper-proof, the combine decided to look for ways to clip its wings. The mechanism for this which came to be chosen was the process of appointment for the chairperson of the Board of Governors (BoG) and of the director.

Almost out of the blue, the government “decided” to change these two processes. Having witnessed, from pretty close quarters, the process by which the non-appointment of I.G. Patel for a second five-year term as chairperson of IIM, Ahmedabad was ensured, and having seen, peripherally, the process through which N.R. Narayana Murthy was replaced after one term as chairperson, leaves me in no doubt that the search, and attempt, always is to find a pliable person. Of course, it is not a feature limited to the government of the day. Similar shenanigans were observed even in the eras of V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, and Charan Singh.

The change in the process of appointing the director was equally out of the blue. In the new process, the chairperson of the BoG of the institute was made just one of the seven or so members of a committee overwhelmingly stacked with bureaucrats and “outside or external experts” who, by some strange coincidence or by divine intervention, happen to be on many government committees. The role of the faculty of the institute, of course, was made completely irrelevant.

Going by first-hand accounts by some of the “candidates”, the entire process from the time they arrived for the “interview” at the HRD ministry, and what transpired in the interview, nothing seemed to measure up to the dignity and grace that should accompany the selection of the heads of what Mehta has called “India’s mightiest institutions”. The whole process seemed to show these people their correct place in the set up even before their appointment. And what kind of results has this “improved” process produced? One of the directors appointed as a result of this process was effectively sacked and replaced by a lowly bureaucrat of the HRD ministry until a regular incumbent was appointed. Another one was eased out after about two years in the job. And this happened in the two newly set-up institutes!

Institutions are made by people who, as Mehta rightly observes, believe in “logic, morality and reasonableness”, in “what is right and legal”, and above all, in “institutional propriety, autonomy”. Where, pray, are such people? Do you expect them to stand in the musty corridors of ministries trying to get these jobs, and then go on to do these lofty things? I am afraid Mehta seems to be living in an idealised world! His question: “And what can academics do when the political class is hell-bent on destroying education?” is interesting. The very least academics can do is not to be a party to the process of destruction, because even an unwilling accomplice is an accomplice.

The writer was a professor at the IIM, Ahmedabad, where he had also been a dean and director in-charge

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    This blog contains Jagdeep S. Chhokar’s views, opinions, and comments on variety of issues.

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