Saturday, May 12, 2012

Perverted alchemy

"Resume work or quit": this headline from today's paper may appear to refer to Air India pilots, but it refers instead to teachers of Bombay University. Apparently they have "refused to participate in evaluation work across state universities". A box in the middle of the paper says "City aghast at a great institution's downhill ride".

The situation with Air India is hardly any different. I'm blogging at this moment instead of being somewhere over Dubai on a London-bound flight, only because of the ongoing strike. The striking pilots belong to the international segment of the airline, which is known as "Air India". Their demands are, apparently, that they get exclusive rights to train for the new Dreamliner aircraft, instead of sharing this training with pilots in the domestic wing of the airline, which is confusingly also known as "Air India" (a few years ago it was called "Indian Airlines" and while there was little logic in the naming system, at least people knew what was what).

So is India full of lazy teachers and selfish pilots? That certainly is the subtext of most newspaper articles and middle-class complaints (how selfish of them to do this in the summer season! who is going to compensate us for the lost vacation! etc etc). A colleague of mine yesterday argued eloquently that the AI pilots are a spoiled lot who want not only their immediate families but parents, in-laws and grandchildren all to have the right to free flights in First Class aboard India's nationally owned jetliners. Apparently this was the source of a previous strike. This colleague gets his facts right, so I don't doubt his word. Likewise, I assume (though I haven't checked) that Bombay University teachers are indeed refusing to participate in the allotted work. A leading retired judge feels this is a sign of a "general decline in our character".

But is that it? The press does point out that political interference has precipitated the decline in both Bombay University and Air India, and most would agree with that. So is it the problem that politicians have hired "sub-standard" pilots and teachers? Or has the political interference somehow turned people lazy, interested only in free flights, selfish about shared training? Is it "genetics" or "environment", to make an analogy?

This is a point that I find important but is rarely raised. A nice anecdote was recounted at the TIFR tea table yesterday. In some institution, a survey found 30% of staff were highly motivated and over-performing, while the rest just did what they were told. But then these 30% were plucked out to form a separate institution, and it was found that 30% of them remained highly motivated while the rest just did what they were told. The probable explanation is that the best ones in a group feel encouraged by their own relative success and are the ones who out-perform, while the rest, discouraged by not being seen as outstanding (and therefore not seeing themselves as outstanding), lapse into mediocre work.

I doubt this story has any factual basis, but it provides a nice model. The same person can be a good performer or a mediocre one or a total slob, it doesn't depend just on what material you are made of, but in what environment you find yourself and more crucially on how it makes you see yourself. Quite possibly, in Bombay University 10% of teachers are highly motivated, 20% do what they are told and 70% refuse to participate in evaluation work. The key reason has to be that poor management at the top, over a long time, has made the teachers see themselves this way. The poor management often comes from political interference, but there are cases all around me where instead it simply comes from - poor management!

So I believe that the problem is not as closely related to politics as it may seem. After all a national airline and a major city university are bound to be political institutions and in every country, politicians take major decisions about such entities. And things go wrong everywhere too because of political interference. Just a couple of months ago over a pint of ale at "The Mitre", an elegant Cambridge pub, I watched my British colleagues fulminate about idiotic politicians (and politicised faculty members) in their country coming up with stupid ideas that, in their view, were harming academia. (As an aside, during my time in the UK the most prominent theme of conversation by far consisted of academics bitching about other academics and politicians!) However a precipitous decline in standards is not a necessary consequence. There is some level of accountability in the UK and other countries, so even the "idiots" are aware that they have a job to do and they have to be seen to be doing it. Moreover the cadres largely have an independent standing based on their work and don't rely for their self-esteem on their bosses.

Our problem is that in India there is no accountability. In addition the standard survival tactic of a senior administrator is to humiliate and lower the self-esteem of everyone else around, and in India this technique works very well because, probably for historical reasons, we tend to have very fragile self-esteem. I've tried to distinguish lack of accountability from political interference because there is a solution to the former, which is the key problem, and I want to propose it here and maybe elaborate on it in the future. As for humiliation and self-esteem, that is also a root cause of the problem and its solution is a part of the big solution.

The solution for non-accountability is called evaluation and election. I would like to see a careful, proper, fair, just, objective (as much as possible) evaluation of people in authority everywhere, and I'd like to see leaders (such as heads of airlines and universities, and for example - at my Institute - Chairpersons, Deans and the Director) elected openly and professionally by a well-defined and sufficiently large category of voters who are an integral part of the system.

Could the Vice Chancellor of Bombay University be elected by the entire faculty? Oh this is absurd, people will say. This would lead to even more politicisation!  And if the entire staff of Air India voted for their CEO, wouldn't it just lead to free travel for every clerk and their auntie? In short, wouldn't the "well-known" problems of Indian democracy now be visited on airlines and universities?

Not so fast. As Mark Twain said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Note that the VC of Cambridge University was recently elected by the entire faculty and all past degree holders, if they bothered to show up (in an entertaining tale that I'll save for another time). The faculty and students thereby see themselves as stakeholders in a system and vote for the person who in their view will perform the best. They may make a wrong choice but they are empowered and their choices can slowly evolve for the better. Contrast this with any state-run Indian institution, and not just universities.The top jobs are rarely advertised, voted for or evaluated. Senior administrators are brought in secretly, they often humiliate people and screw up the system, and then disappear with scarcely a murmur. You can tell them they are screwing up, they can ignore you and continue to do so, the predicted horrors are visited on the system, but they are never held accountable. Compared to that, nothing like open advertisement, open discussion and a free and fair election. At least those who have failed in one place won't get indefinitely renewed or worse, shunted around from place to place - as happens today.

And finally to the humiliation problem. This is a deep psychological problem and has a psychological remedy. A top administrator needs to be a counsellor who can encourage and reassure, who can bring out the best in each person regardless of how that person starts out, and who is committed to influence the so-called 30-70 ratio described above by bringing as many people as possible into the first category. It is possible and it's been done. Some organisations are not 30-70 but 70-30, or even better, and these are the healthy ones. But sadly at least in India this only happens by pure accident. This ability is not considered a positive trait to look for when people are sought for top jobs. In fact a humiliator is somehow seen as a stronger (ergo better) leader, even though such a person is truly the scum of the earth - a perverted alchemist converting human gold into base metal.


Neelima said...

Mumbai University teachers are on strike because their arrears for the VI pay commission have not been paid. Do you recall when we all got ours? They are not even going to get theirs from the date when they should. This comparison with AI pilots is completely unfair to my erstwhile colleagues. Pl check your facts with friends who work for MU.

Sunil Mukhi said...

@Neelima: The view I tried to express, maybe not with complete success, was that both groups are right (and also possibly wrong). Their dissatisfaction if any, as well as their unprofessional actions if any, are ultimately due to incompetent and unaccountable administrators.

One should surely talk with people who work for Mumbai University AND ALSO those who work for Air India to understand their grievances in detail!