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?