Sunday, April 19, 2015

Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Last Sunday I quoted an article in Nature about hiring at top levels in academia. I listed some of the recommendations from that article about how such hiring should be done, and today I'd like to continue the discussion by looking at the instruction "Articulate the offer clearly".

There are several aspects to such articulation. If hiring is being made to a definite institute or agency, the goals of that institute/agency should be stated. Is it dedicated to teaching, or research, or both? If the last, then in what combination? What areas fall within its scope? What standards would it realistically like to achieve and what resources would it provide in order to achieve those standards? Does it have some additional responsibilities besides its primary mission (e.g. mentoring another institute, providing some assistance to the underprivileged etc). An important detail is the duration of the position, and the agency/committee/board to which the hired person would report. Finally, the role to be played by the person has to be eludicated in some detail, including the degree of autonomy that he/she would, or would not, enjoy.

If you seek the opinion of any senior academic in India on this matter (though I haven't personally tried), they would most likely brush it aside impatiently with "it's all obvious, isn't it. If someone of any calibre is applying for a position then they would know about the institute and its goals, they would figure out whom they report to, and they would dynamically work out the role they have to play". Readers are invited to verify/falsify my hypothesis by asking a senior person of their choice...

Personally I'm all in favour of articulation, and I'm not completely alone. In 1996 the Lord Porter Committee, which carried out the first-ever academic review of TIFR, recommended that TIFR should formulate a brief statement of its goals and put this up prominently in the institute. They even offered a draft of such a statement. It was briefly discussed in the faculty, where someone humorously suggested it should be put up prominently outside the Registrar's office! (This was a comment on the series of dubious Registrars at TIFR from the late 1980's for the next three decades. These gentlemen all held the view that faculty members were the main problem. A research institute without faculty, like the famous hospital without patients in Yes Minister, would evidently have suited them better). Anyway, this recommendation of the Porter Committee was buried and, to my knowledge, there is no such statement of goals in existence even two decades later.

People may still be wondering why articulation of a job offer is important, so let me try to articulate this here ;-). Different people carry different models in their mind of what a particular institute is intended to achieve, and what the role of the chair/registrar/director/board of governors really is. In my three decades at TIFR I could identify widely varying models that were implicit in the discussion. Later when the Hyderabad campus of TIFR came into existence the debate sharpened and people came up with truly divergent models that, at the root, were based on entirely divergent assumptions. Today, looking at the five IISER's and the differences between them, one can see that varying models are still the norm.

I'm referring to variations not just in fine details but in major conceptual issues. Given an institute X, is it predominantly a teaching institute where a little research is done? Or the reverse? Does the institute train students primarily for its own benefit (because they contribute to research) or for their benefit (because they, or rather their parents, are taxpayers)? Are faculty members in an institute considered part of a pyramidal decision-making structure that evolves academic goals and standards, or should such goals and standards be decided exclusively by the top bosses? Do students have any statutory rights and authority (in some institutes they are part of the Senate). Is it ethical for a Director/Vice Chancellor to institute major changes that affect faculty and students without consulting them? Or even against their will? Besides ethics, is such a thing practical? Is the Institute responsible to raise funds for its faculty's research or is that the sole responsibility of faculty members? I have posed each of these questions as either/or, but in fact there is a continuum of possible answers and I believe it helps to know where on this continuum the true answer lies in every case.

Look at the recent history of TIFR, BARC, the other DAE research institutes, IISc, IIT's, IISER's, central and state universities. The newspapers are full of stories about controversies and disagreements (as a widely known example, consider FYUP). I claim that these have at least part of their origin in the lack of articulation of what the institution is for, and what the role of the Director/VC is supposed to be.

I'm sure many readers will also cite political interference (then, as well as now) as another important source of controversy. That could be true enough, and I can propose a related solution. When a citizen puts her faith in a politician at the voting booth, she should be asked to "Articulate the offer clearly". That would perhaps be hard to record or take into account, but it would keep Arnab Goswami busy for years, and for a change this is something the nation really does want to know.


Sunil Mukhi said...

Anyone who found this post interesting may also want to look at:

vbalki said...

The fundamental problem you have raised is an extremely complex one, as all of us know, and there can be no quick fixes. In my personal opinion, there is one major cause contributing very significantly to the schizophrenia, or lack of clarity regarding institutional identity and role, afflicting just about all major institutions of the kind we have in mind. And that is the fundamental error of a near-total divorce between institutions of higher learning on the one hand, and autonomous research institutes, on the other. This mistake, initiated with the best of intentions and for the best of reasons, has been perpetuated for far too long. And the solutions proposed in recent times to rectify it are even more untenable (and laughable) than the malaise itself --- the attempt to create what is essentially a parallel university system by declaring research institutes to be "deemed" universities. Is anybody 'up there' in the echelons of power thinking at all?