Thursday, April 23, 2015

I told you so

I was casually browsing some old articles and letters stored on my computer and found a letter of mine published in Current Science in January 2003. I had mostly forgotten what I'd written in it, but it turns out to be closely related to the issues in my last two blog postings.

While no one seems to have disputed any of the suggestions I made, approximately zero percent of them have been implemented in any institute I know of in India. In view of several disasters that have struck Indian academia in the last few years, I'm really tempted to say "I told you so"! Of course my suggestions were hardly original, these are standard procedures in much of the developed world. Sadly it seems quite clear that we in India claim to aspire to excellence but won't put in place the things that would help lead to it.

The original letter can be viewed here, but for the reader's convenience I'm reproducing the full text below.

Science Administration

The editorial ‘Requiem for a missing generation’ has done well to raise pertinent questions about science administrators and governing bodies of science institutions in our country.

I would like to make a few observations in this connection. The present set-up of science administration in India is inherently feudal. This was perhaps understandable at the time the system was set up, but it is now a serious liability. A feudal approach to administration is inherently personalized and based on the whims and prejudices of a small number of ‘eminent’ persons. In such a system, senior administrators are given power without accountability, their appointments are based on cronyism rather than administrative merit, and the administration functions in its own interests rather than the interests of the institution.

In order to pass to a new system, we must codify and implement modern administrative principles, namely consultative, transparent and accountable functioning. A few examples would be the election of Chairpersons and Deans by the Faculty for limited terms, the public announcement of search committees and inviting of nominations for Directorial candidates, and the regular rotation of Governing council members (following consultation with faculty members). Institutions should be subjected to regular peer reviews which critically examine both their science and their administration. Also, those practices in which age or seniority are deemed to be the equivalent of wisdom should be discontinued. Committees should be constituted based on genuine suitability for the given purpose, and we should not panic if the youngest member is made the Chair.

It would also be useful to have a written statement of what tasks are expected to be performed by administrators such as Chairpersons, Deans and Directors, and their performance should be honestly assessed. Reappointment to such positions should be based strictly on past performance. The mission statements of institutions should be formulated or updated, along with their rules and bye-laws (which, for many Indian scientific institutions, have remained essentially unchanged since independence, and today seem rather antiquated and irrelevant).

In this context, I cannot help recalling a famous piece of folklore from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, that a Senior Professor was entitled to commandeer an Institute vehicle, even if another member had already booked it! This pernicious practice may now be forgotten, but it symbolizes the old system, in which it did not matter what was being done so much as who was doing it. It is high time we moved to a new system where personal power and privilege is largely irrelevant and is replaced by consensual, principled functioning in the interests of science.

1. Editorial, Curr. Sci., 2002, 83, 1297–1298.

Department of Theoretical Physics,
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research,

(Current Science Vol. 84, 25 January 2003, page 123)

Postscript: I just re-read Prof. Balaram's editorial "Requiem for a missing generation", to which my letter was a response. The editorial is also remarkably prescient about recent developments!

1 comment:

Neelima said...

It is interesting to see how little has changed in the appointment process of heads of institutions in all these years, especially since so much has changed
in the institutions themselves. Institutions have improved and declined. Many institutions did not even exist at the time the letter and editorial were written. If there were a holistic discussion of the overall scenario in the country and how the strengths of new and old institutions could be used co-operatively, a collective scenario might emerge which benefits science, research and education in the country as a whole. It would then be much easier to identify what each institution can do and who might lead it best towards the overall objective.