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.


  1. Dheeraj: Correct me if I am wrong, but won't a semester drop mean that there will be no fees paid that semester as well? He can in fact choose not to stay in the hostel as well, paying no hostel fees either.

  2. It depends on which semester. Normally, the students prefer that the current semester is dropped so that they don't have to stay at home for long, and they don't have to answer to neighbours and relatives. In that case, they forfeit the fees this semester and pay again the next semester. On the other hand, if it is the next semester which is dropped, then you are right that there would not be any fee to be paid. Only wage loss for a few months, but that too is serious money.

  3. Dear Dr. Sanghi,
    I applaud you for making an effort to explain the Institute's position.

    With due respect, these students are merely the manifested symptoms of a wider problem.

    Their actions are also an indictment into the failings of the Institute to address the root cause of the problem here. This unfortunate incident could have been averted had there been some guidelines, and a proper vetting process for such performances in place, for instance?

    If we want to create engineers and scientists who would become parts of prestigious global organizations, we also need to train them about fitting into diverse workplaces. Many companies I have worked for had simple but effective, (and mandatory) "diversity awareness" programs that sensitise all employees towards words and actions that might cause offense even unintentionally, and could be illegal. Once such guidelines are in place, there is no ambiguity about "did I really cross the line?" or "was my simple joke judged as racist/sexist too harshly?" even in the minds of the offender (and his/her friends). You see far fewer cases of ill-judged, tasteless or offensive jokes (including the Sardarji jokes, that a large number of faculty members themselves may have shared at one point or another, for instance).

    I strongly urge IITK to look into fixing the root cause, than merely creating an example via "an eye for an eye" retributive justice. Harsh punishments have been tried several times in the past too (e.g. 1992) and clearly are NOT effective. I would argue they have even been detrimental, and have poisoned the environment with more hatred and suspicion.

    Respect out of fear is usually only temporary. These problems will only go away when a large number of boys genuinely stand for the girls in such cases of harassments. All said and done, I am confident that a vast majority of IITK boys are fairly righteous and conscientious individuals, and would NOT side with a wrong doer just for the heck of it.

    However, the perceived lack of transparency, and the unexplained procedural issues are bound to cause resentments, and would be seen as disproportionate by a lot of boys. THAT is not going to help solve anything - misogyny will only increase. None of us want that.

    Thanks and Regards,

    1. Dear Vivek, I fully agree with you that IITK must include awareness as a way to deal with the issues. I do not know what happened in 1992, but I have gone through each and every case of SSAC in the last 10 years, and in almost ALL cases, the punishment, if we can call this a punishment, has been a warning. (Barring a couple of cases.) And hence to assume that the current punishment could possibly be retributive and meant to create an example of "an eye for an eye" is little far fetched, till we know more details.

      When we consider punishments in general, besides reformative and retributive punishments, there is something in-between, which is deterrence. And in all the discussions that I have ever had in Senate and other bodies in IITK, the debate has always been reformative versus deterrence, and in most cases, it has been decided that we should try to reform, just issue a warning, etc.

      I can understand that even a single incident where the students felt that an unusually harsh punishment had been given would remain with that student for life, but I think after 20+ years, we can look at the Institute record over a long term period and then judge whether it has indeed been following "an eye for an eye" approach.

      While in this case, I do not know the details, but my view has been that the Institute has been unusually soft by giving warnings for even serious things in the last 10 years, so much so, that the copying in exam (I am not talking about copying in assignments and lab reports) has become very rampant. Even after getting caught red-handed, students have been issued warnings. I am not aware of any university in the world, which would have done that repeatedly for every such case.

      And my contention is that it has happened because every time, we discuss the punishment, it is felt that a semester drop is too harsh, and somehow every inter-mediate sort of punishments (the examples of which I give in the blog) are rejected on one ground or the other.

      And through this blog, I am pleading that in all serious cases, we must look for something between a warning and a semester drop, because besides reformation, we do need some deterrence, particularly when it comes to cheating in the exams.

      Thanks for writing your views here.