Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hall day skit leads to suspensions

I have used the same title as the article written in the online magazine, Vox Populi, of the students of IIT Kanpur.

As per this report and several other posts on the social media, it appears that Hall 2 presented a skit in which they made fun of two specific girls in a way that they could be identified, and they felt harassed by the same. They lodged a complaint to Women's Cell who investigated and forwarded their report to Senate's Students Affairs Committee (SSAC), the committee which investigates matters of student indiscipline and recommend punishments for the same. The recommendations were sent to Chairman, Senate. However, there was something very strange about the recommendations. They were not arrived at by consensus, which is usually the case, but by voting. And it was the closest voting that one could think of, 5-4. The other four decided to put in their notes of dissent. Now, it is unusual for even one member to write a note of dissent. Here, we are seeing all four dissenting. Considering the unusual nature of the recommendations, Chairman, Senate (Director) decided to take the matter to Senate. And Senate decided to impose stricter punishment than what the majority of SSAC had recommended.

Five students have been suspended for one semester, and one student has been suspended for two semesters.

The article in Vox does not deny that something wrong happened during the skit, nor does Students Senate. All the comments and postings on social media are also only about the degree of punishment and not about the event per se. And yet, there is no statement that we see in any official student forum which categorically criticizes the skit. It is giving me an impression that they want to really argue that boys will be boys, and why punish boys for being boys.

If there is no denying the event, and the issue is only about the quantum of punishment, then Students Senate should applaud the courage shown by two girls in formally complaining about the event, and take steps to ensure that the girls are not harassed by the predominantly male student body, while they keep putting pressure on the Institute to reduce the punishment.

While I do not have all the information to make an informed opinion on whether the SSAC recommendation were justified and the Senate decision of enhancing the punishment is harsh, this whole process does raise an issue which has been raised again and again in the past, that is of variety of punishments on a campus. The viewpoint of students has been that anything other than a quiet warning is far too serious a punishment for any wrongdoing. If you make that warning public, you are humiliating the student which should not be the intent of the punishment. If you ask him to do public service, say in mess, you are humiliating the student. If you put a fine on the student, you are really putting a penalty on the parents, and this is also much more serious punishment for poor students than rich students. If you deny him facilities like placement, you are affecting his career. If you suspend him for a semester, then of course, heavens will fall on him. (Of course, there are many bleeding heart liberals in the faculty who will parrot the same statements.)

Based on such arguments, we have not been punishing students (other than warning) for almost a decade, barring some rare exceptions. And any time, one were to give a punishment which is more than a warning, after having tolerated, ignored, and even encouraged wrongdoings for so long, it is only understandable that there will be a backlash from the student body.

It is absolutely childish to claim that a semester drop will destroy a career. I know of a CEO of a big company, who had a semester drop because of illness. I know of a CSE graduate who was suspended for a semester on a rather trivial complaint, who is having a great career today. Half the graduates of IITK had spent an extra year preparing for JEE. That loss of year does not seem to be affecting anyone's career. A large number of our MTech students spent a year at home after BTech to prepare for GATE. Life is long, and a few months here and there do not impact careers. And in any case, if one has committed a serious crime then s/he has to face the consequences of the same, even if they are serious. (Again, I am not commenting on this particular case whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime in this case.)

It is also childish to claim that monetary fines are fines to the parents. If Rs. 50,000 fine is fine on the parent, a semester drop will actually mean an extra cost of Rs. 75,000 (one more semester's fee, mess, and other miscellaneous expenses) on the parents. In addition, it also means wage loss for six months which could be a few lakhs as well. So opposing a 50,000 rupee fine and then slapping a semester drop which essentially means 75,000 rupee fine and several lakhs of wage loss is so stupid that I am really shocked every time a faculty member or a student says it.

Unless, we agree to a liberal use of monetary fines, we will keep having such arguments after every case. A warning is just not enough as a punishment, it neither deters nor reforms. And a semester drop may be too much in many cases (again, I am not commenting on this case), and if we keep denying monetary fines, we will keep vacillating between warning and semester drops, both being inappropriate in many cases.

There is also a demand that educational institutes must focus more on reform than on deterrence. But a focus on reform means that we may give lesser punishments or just warning for initial wrongdoings in the hope that going through the process would have convinced him/her of what is right and what is wrong, and that parents too would put in some efforts in ensuring that the student does not repeat those offenses. But if there is a repetition, then the penalty would be harsh. One way to do this in many mature countries is to have a concept of suspended punishment. One gives a small punishment (say, a warning) at the beginning, and suspends the serious part of the punishment for a defined period of time. If there is any other wrongdoing in this suspension period, the previous punishment also applies in addition to the penalty for the new wrongdoing. If there is no wrongdoing for the period of suspension, then the punishment is completely removed.

Very strangely, there is opposition to suspended punishments too at IITK. It seems to put the student under stress. Of course, it does. But having committed a crime, shouldn't the student feel even a bit of stress, if not the actual punishment. And it seems to punish the student for two crimes when s/he commits one crime (the second one). But that is only because his punishment for the past crime has been delayed. I am surprised by the arguments.

If we deny everything between a warning and a semester drop for some reason or the other, then every such incident will be a fight between bleeding heart liberals and the harsh disciplinarians. Every such decision will be criticized by others. Every decision will lead to heartburns, which is not good for the campus. We must find inter-mediate punishments and start implementing them.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Quality of Professors at IITK

The professors in IIT Kanpur (and other IITs) have a scheme for financial upgradation (about 2% rise in salary). They go from Pay Band 4 to something called Higher Administrative Grade. The requirement is that they should have spent at least 6 years as Professors, and of course, they should have performed well. However, at most 40% of the professors can be in HAG scale.

The Institute sets up a selection committee which looks at the performance of all applicants and decide whose performance is good enough to be given this financial upgradation. This process is supposed to take place every year, and the financial upgradation happens from 1st August of that year.

For some reason or the other, it had not happened since Prof. Manna became Director, and for August 2013, it happened a few months ago.

Here are the statistics. Applicants considered by selection committee were 30. (There were more eligible professors, but some may not have applied, or some may not have been recommended by their respective departments.) The number of vacancies (that is, the maximum number of professors who could have possibly received this financial upgradation) was about 20.

Number of professors who were selected by the selection committee was one. Yes, just ONE. (And interestingly, this professor is retiring in two years. Now, we have an unwritten rule that professors who are about to retire and are technically eligible will be given this financial upgradation. So it is not clear whether this professor too got the financial upgradation on the basis of his performance.)

What does this say about the quality of IIT Kanpur faculty when a selection committee finds that pretty much no professor has been performing well after becoming a Professor. (The selection committee is expected to look at only the performance after becoming the professor, with a particular focus on last 5 years of performance.) And these professors are from across the departments. So it is not that some departments are doing well.

I can not possibly fault the selection committee as the bar in the country's best institution has to be kept high. But if the faculty performance is so poor with respect to whatever bar a selection committee sets, I think we all need to do an introspection as to how our performance can become higher. Being a government institute with "permanent" jobs, one does not have the luxury of removing non-performing faculty and recruit others. So the leadership will have to find ways to motivate faculty members. May be there are some structural issues which can be dealt with and which are coming in the way of higher performance. But poor performance by faculty is a sure way of an institution going down. And this can not be allowed to happen.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Flexibility in curriculum or a cruel joke

 We at IIT Kanpur do an intensive review of our under-graduate programs every 10 years. We take two years to prepare a report, two years to discuss that report, and next 6 years to figure out how to implement that report, and then it is time for the next review. The last review happened between 2008 and 2011, and we decided to implement it from 2011 without any preparation or planning.


The biggest change that was envisaged in the new system was the huge flexibility it supposedly offered. The idea was that people can't always get to study the discipline they want to study, and they sometimes develop new interests, and such interests could be satisfied by having him/her study at least a few courses in those areas, if not a full fledged under-graduate degree.

Such a student could do a minor in another discipline (3-4 courses), or a secondary major (about 10 courses), or do a Master's degree in that discipline (a few UG courses and then all Master's level credits). Let us look how this has panned out, now that the first batch is about to graduate. (Actually less than half is graduating.)

Total number of students in 2011 admission batch are 807.

Number of students who have done a minor = 125.
Number of students doing a secondary major = 16.
Number of students who are doing a Master's degree in another discipline = 11.

Appears to be pretty successful. Almost 20% of the students are able to do something in another discipline, which is great. But looks can be deceptive. Let us look into what minor these students are doing.

 Out of 125 minors, 99 are in management. Surely, not everyone wants to study management. One would have guessed that some people would have wanted to study something else. Then, why management. It is because the minor is supposed to be done in your open elective slots. Open electives are courses that you can do from any department. But ask a student what happens when s/he approaches a faculty member of other department for a course. Other than Industrial and Management Engineering department, in which there are many faculty members who routinely teach classes of 100+ students, almost all faculty members shun the non-department students like plague. So students have no options but to do at least a few IME department courses in their open elective slots, and then some would say to themselves, why not do that extra course - it will allow me to have that line in the transcript that I did a minor in management. May be that will help somewhere.

One would have guessed that Computer Science would be the most popular minor. And believe me, it is. A huge number of students want it. How many have got it. Eleven. That is about 1 percent of the batch.

Students doing second major are again mostly in CSE and IME departments.
And students doing second degree in another discipline are mostly doing an MBA as the second degree.

Frankly, these numbers tell a pathetic story of under-graduate teaching at IIT Kanpur. We simply aren't able to cater to the aspirations of our students.

We should either find ways in which we can meet the aspirations of a larger number of students who believe that an institute of national importance like IIT Kanpur wouldn't be lying when it proudly talks about the flexibility in its curriculum. Or we should close down these programs. The administrative overhead of running these programs for a small number of students is simply not worth it. And if we close the programs, we would be more honest about our processes and curriculum.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

IITK Professor is Chairman of Technology Mission for Indian Railways

Prof. N S Vyas of Mechanical Engineering Department at IIT Kanpur has been appointed Chairman of a new body called Technology Mission for Indian Railways (TMIR).
It was reported in media here.

This is a remarkable initiative of the Railways. First of all, the goals are ambitious and yet achievable. To develop technology for Railways within the country, and not just solve immediate problems, which is of course, important, but look at a longer term horizon, safety, high speed trains, state-of-the-art signalling, and everything else. The funding leverages research funds from multiple ministries, thus giving more people a stake in its success, and make sure that the project has good funding. Then they are involving academic institutions, which is the best place to get the long-term research done. Railways has been supporting various projects in different IITs and other places in the last decade or so. They have been pleasantly surprised by kind of output they were able to achieve at a very low investment. This has given them confidence of involving academic institutions on a much larger scale.

And best of all, they couldn't have selected a better leader for this project. Prof. Vyas is no stranger to Railways, having led the Railway Technology Mission in IIT Kanpur several years ago when IIT Kanpur was given several projects related to safety issues in Indian Railways. And under his leadership, many technologies were developed and many solutions were invented for safer functioning of Railways. He has the right kind of leadership experience, having led the Rajasthan Technical University for two years.

And, to us, the fans of Indian Railways, his presence in Delhi would be a fantastic opportunity to give ideas for research and technology development as well as incorporating latest technology into the functioning of Indian Railways. Many times in the past, we have felt that we have many suggestions but they don't reach the right ears. Prof. Vyas has an open mind and he believes in "let the good thoughts come from all directions."

Best wishes to Prof. Vyas on assuming a very important role.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The New Dean of Alumni Relations

Prof. B V Phani of Department of Industrial and Management Engineering will be the new Dean of Resources and Alumni at IIT Kanpur. He will assume the role on 1st June. Prof. Phani is currently Associate Dean of Innovation and Incubation. Under his dynamic leadership, the incubation activity has increased significantly in the last few years, and the incubation center has received many awards. We look forward to him providing the much needed leadership in alumni relations.

He has his job cut out for him. The Institute has a long history of neglecting alumni relations and fund-raising. The amount of gifts that IITK received in 2007 (the last full year of Prof. Sudhir Jain's tenure as Dean) has not been matched since then. Can you imagine that we now have 40% more alumni than in 2007. We are better connected in the world with social media having taken the world by a storm. We have gone through an inflation which has been close to 100% in this period. The incomes in nominal terms have gone up by more than 100% of our alumni. And yet, we are receiving less amount in gifts now than we did 8 years ago.

And it is not just the total quantum, it is also the numbers. In 2007, about 4 percent of our alumni gave gifts.  In the last year, we had only 2 percent of our alumni give gifts. And this is when we have much better communication facilities today. Somethings seriously wrong has been happening all these years.

Alumni who do give gifts are treated badly. I and my family had given funds for a scholarship in December 2013. Till today, the first recipient of that scholarship has not been announced. This is when I have sent several reminders, wrote to Director, and since I have the privilege of being a member of IIT Kanpur Senate, raised the issue in Senate as well. The two awards that we set up, I had to personally ask the awardees to give me details of their work. The Alumni office did nothing to help me. (Normally, all awardees are expected to write a thank you note, and if the award was based on some work, then an abstract of their work.)

The donor appreciation is unheard of in IIT Kanpur. I recall an event where a large donor had visited IIT Kanpur and a function was organized to felicitate him and his family. Besides the officialdom, I was the only faculty member present. Couldn't we expect at least those faculty members whose work would benefit from the largesse of such a donor to feel obliged and take out a few minutes from their busy schedule. It is very common to hear on the campus statements like, "Oh! he is donating to save taxes." or "He is donating to feel good about himself." As if those donations do not help IITK at all. How the new Dean will change the culture on campus so that we all start appreciating donors will be interesting to watch.

It will be difficult to change the culture. The first rule of alumni relations is that alumni relations start with admission and not with graduation. Treat your students fairly (which does not mean leniently, or give liberal grades, or agree to all demands). But when a SUGC Chairman decides that a student who was ill and who has applied for make up a few hours late due to some very genuine confusion will not be given the make up and instead be failed in the course, this Dean can do nothing about it. But sensitizing all stake holders regarding alumni relations will be an important task of the new Dean.

The Distinguished Alums are not exceptions to this mistreatment. The awards are delayed, the award ceremony is delayed. The award ceremonies are not publicized well. The distinguished alums are allowed only 5 minutes to speak (as opposed to an hour of a proper seminar earlier). Normally, they speak only to other awardees and their friends and family, as the students and faculty normally do not have any interest in such functions. Even the students who are employed by Alumni office to further the alumni relations skip these events. They will come either before or after the event (depending on when the food is), but do not attend the event itself. Every time the office has an excuse - it was a weekday or it was a weekend, it was early in the morning (11am), or it was afternoon (sleep time) or it was sports time (late evening), students are not interested, and so on. And yet repeatedly, I have challenged them that a properly organized function with proper announcements will attract people. I have been asked to prove on some occasions, once less than 24 hours before the event was to be held, and every single time I have shown them that the venue can be full. And yet, on their own, with such a large army of paid students, they can't seem to organize an event. How will the new Dean ensure that our distinguished alumni go back happy, and the campus community can benefit from the presence of such stalwarts on campus will be interesting to watch. Also, an important question to ponder over is whether the honorary doctorate is the new Distinguished Alumnus Award.

I don't remember when was the last time Kelkar Alumni Lecture was held in the Institute. Have we decided that having named our library after him, we can let him rest in peace and not remember him on an annual basis.

There are other issues. Do we need an office in New York city with no employee. When I had a meeting close to the office last year, I couldn't even keep my luggage in the office for the duration of that meeting. How do we strengthen our presence in US, or is there a need to strengthen our physical presence when the world has become so well connected.

How do we decide the use of endowment funds (which are not all alumni gifts). Is giving a subsidy of one crore rupees to save a few minutes of a few people traveling between Kanpur and Lucknow the best use of our limited resources. Does it not send a signal to our alumni that we are so rich that we don't need their funds. Will the new Dean stand up and be counted when it really matters.

The social media strategy is non-existent. One will find some posts on some forums almost randomly. The constant complaint of Deans have been that they need a communication expert to handle this. Actually, the Institute just needs a Dean who understands this job and is willing to work hard and learn on the job, instead of complaining about others.

Should we have chair positions only to celebrate research output, or should there also be chairs to promote excellence in teaching and excellence in leadership. This is another question that the new Dean will have to deal with, particularly when the Institute is increasingly focused on PhD output, citation index, H index, and all other parameters of research productivity with very little emphasis on teaching and providing leadership to any office in the Institute. (How do you hope to get good Deans and Heads, if you keep telling people that we don't value their leadership.)

The relationship with the Alumni Association has always been a challenge for the Dean. But it is also clear that without both Alumni Association and Dean of Alumni Affairs being on the same page, a lot of time will be wasted in solving small problems. Being a little generous and a bit tolerant would go a long way.

Welcome, Dr. Phani. You will certainly not have a bed of roses. But can you leave for your successor a bed of roses?

Monday, April 20, 2015

How to select the new Dean of Alumni Relations

The department has received a notice asking us to suggest who could be the next DORA (Dean of Resources and Alumni) of IIT Kanpur. It is surprising since Prof. Prabhat Munshi's term was till March, 2016. Why has he resigned.

In any case, let us think of how we should go about finding the new Dean. First of all, is there a job description. Surely, there must have been some document approved by the Board. The document must have listed what are the responsibilities of DORA. But is that document available to the departments. And is that document sufficient. Unfortunately, the answer to both the questions is in negative.

Nobody seems to care that the document is not easily accessible. After all, we know what the job entails. I can bet my last dollar that most faculty members do not know the full extent of what the job entails. Everyone has a vague idea and we will recommend names based on those vague ideas. And is that document enough. Well, the leader of the organization may have a certain vision for the Institute, and may, therefore, want to focus on certain aspects of that job description. For example, the Institute may want a person who can help in managing resources very well and suggesting how we can make more efficient use of our existing resources and enhance our internal resources, like increase in electricity charges, increase in hostel charges, etc. At other times, institute may want to focus on International relations and do things to attract foreign students, joint degree programs, and so on. Or the Institute may want to raise friends - ensure that our relationship with Alumni Association improves, that our alumni feel positive about the institute. Or the Institute may be keen to raise funds from our alumni and other friends. I am just giving four examples from the job description of DORA, and a focus on each of them require different skill sets. It is important that we know not just the overall job description, but also the focus areas within that job description.

From what I understand, the institutional focus has not been on fund-raising for the last 7 years (three Deans), and now, we want to change that. The next DORA would probably be expected to focus more on fund-raising than on other aspects of his/her job description. Now that the Government is cutting down on the budgetary support, funds from alumni and friends have become more important than at any other time in the past.

Let us understand that asking for money is not an easy task. It has the connotation of begging (shouldn't be, but that is how many people feel about it). Many people are ambivalent about why alumni or anyone else should give a gift to a government funded (and well funded) institution, and they will not find it easy to bring passion to fund-raising. So, if fund-raising is the new focus for this deanship, then we must find a person who believes that giving to alma mater is the right thing to do. And of course, if you believe that this is the right thing to do, then you must have done it. So ask potential Deans whether they have given a gift to their respective alma mater, and that too, not as a part of batch fund or other group exercise where you end up paying as part of peer pressure, but separately. If you haven't paid yourself, you will feel shy of asking, and that is not good for the Institute.

It is also very important that the person has a good understanding of how social media works. That is the way to keep in touch with alumni today. Of course, one does not have to be an expert in social media oneself, there will be staff for that, but if you strongly believe that facebook and twitter are complete waste of time, then there is a problem.

Travel will be an integral part of fund-raising. You need to personally meet people multiple times before things happen. If you are the kind that can not sleep well in the overnight train, or need a day or two to relax after an inter-continental flight, or just hate to be in the cattle class even for short domestic flights, then you are not the right person for this job.

Most importantly, how excited the person is about learning new things. Fund-raising is like nothing else that a faculty member would have done in the past. (Some may have had some contact with alumni, having worked in alumni association. Some may have done some outreach in terms of courses for industry, and may have learnt a bit of marketing. But fund-raising is really very different from all this.) So one has to see what is it that the faculty member has done in the past which was very different from his/her routine job and how much learning did the faculty member had in that job, and what new things the person did, etc.

Fund-raising will require support from everyone else on campus. It will be good if the potential Dean is acceptable to most stakeholders on campus (and preferably off campus as well).

With the gap between funds raised by IITK and other IITs increasing every year, it is extremely important that we find the right person for this Deanship. the right person can make a difference of Rs. 5-10 crores per year in our budget.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Giving to IIT Kanpur

About 1000 students are about to graduate from IIT Kanpur in the next couple of months. Most of them, I would guess, would have enjoyed their stay at IIT Kanpur and would have positive feelings about their soon-to-be alma mater. They have expressed those feelings through a campaign to give a graduating batch gift to IIT Kanpur, which I believe has been fairly successful. Would this be a one-time effort, or could we expect them to keep giving in future.

The past experience has been that very few alumni give gifts. There are many reasons for this. IIT Kanpur does not approach them properly (or not at all). The lack of trust in how the money will be spent. Difficulty in the process of giving, and so on. All these are issues which the new Dean of Resources and Alumni will have to deal with. But there is one reason that I want to address today. A lot of people say that they don't have enough to give. That a small amount is meaningless and a big amount is not affordable.

That a small amount is meaningless is a wrong notion. There are many activities in the Institute that are supported by small gifts - like support for international conference travel, which is extremely important for recruiting good graduate students. Also, it needs to be understood that most alumni will be able to give only small gifts, and if we actually get those small gifts from a large alumni base, we can actually march towards excellence at a faster pace. Even more importantly, these small gifts allow us to be in touch with you, to engage you and seek your help in multitude of ways. Can you influence your company to come for the placement at IIT Kanpur. Can you help a couple of students get a summer internship. Can you visit us and give a talk to our students. Can you mentor them. The list is endless. While the alumni relation should not be transactional in nature, a transaction helps in keeping that bond. Further, alumni funds make sure that the level of accountability in the Institute go up substantially. With the government money, we tend to be little less serious. If the scholarships are not distributed this month, and instead are given out next month, heavens will not fall. At least the Ministry will not ask questions. But alumni will, and there is really no reason for that delay. So your funds actually will cause significant improvement in the internal processes of the Institute.

And I can tell from my own experience (I have been giving upwards of 1 percent of all my income every year) that it feels good when you receive a thank you letter from your alma mater. Most of us would be giving small and big gifts to causes that we consider are important. And giving a small gift (like one percent) is not an issue of affordability for most, but an issue of priority, even for someone who has just earned his first month salary. And while I can not insist that your alma mater be a high priority for you, I certainly hope that it will be. Remember that your gift is extremely important to your alma mater in maintaining its excellence and continue to provide quality education to future students.