Monday, March 31, 2014

Nine New Associate Deans

IIT Kanpur has decided to create new administrative roles (in some cases, it is just renaming of roles), and nine faculty members have been appointed as Associate Deans. They are:

  1. Dr. Suchitra Mathur (HSS): AD for Under-Graduate Studies
  2. Dr. Pankaj Jain (PHY): AD for Post-Graduate Studies
  3. Dr. Jiten Bera (CHM): AD for Faculty Affairs
  4. Dr. B V Phani (IME): AD for Innovation and Incubation
  5. Dr. Siddhartha Panda (CHE) AD for Industrial Collaboration
  6. Dr. Vimal Kumar (HSS): AD for Student Activities
  7. Dr. Shalabh (MTH): AD for Hall Affairs
  8. Dr. Anupam Saxena (ME): AD for International Relations
  9. Dr. Ashish Dutta (ME): AD for Digital Infrastructure

The appointments are with effect from 1st April, 2014 and are for a period of two years.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should we terminate the programs of academically deficient students

Every semester, we go through a very painful exercise, spending more than one thousand person hours of faculty time. We look at the performance of the students in that semester, decide whose performance is below par, and then decide to issue them a warning, place them in academic probation, and in a small number of very weak students, terminate their academic programs, and ask them to leave the Institute.

After the programs are terminated, the students send an appeal, giving reasons for their poor performance, and try to convince us through a variety of arguments that in future, they will do much better. We believe those stories from a majority of such students and re-admit them to the Institute, but some are not taken back.

What is the academic rationale for terminating any student's program. I have tried to read various manuals, gone through the Senate records, and talked to many experienced professors. I am not sure if we all understand the rationale, since I hear different things from different people. But, if I can make a summary of the reason told most often, it is the following (taking the UG example, but the reason is same for other programs):

The Under-graduate program has a maximum limit of 6 years, that is, a student has to complete all graduation requirements within 6 years. If the student is unable to finish all requirements in 6 years, then s/he has to be sent out without a degree. If we can make a reasonable guesstimate long before 6 years are over that the student will not be able to complete the requirements in 6 years, then the student should be let go immediately, rather than allowed to invest more time in a futile exercise. So what we do is in the larger interest of the student.

Fair enough. But why 6 years. why not 8 years, or 10 years, or for that matter, 5 years. Is it just a random number. 6 years because we had to draw a line somewhere, and we just chose this line. For any particular number that we would have chosen, someone would have questioned why not 6 months more. But then, do we at least understand what are the various reasons to put any limit at all. If we at least understand those reasons, we can then argue that a limit is necessary. The reasons may even guide us to a limit within a narrow range. But frankly, I have never heard of any good reason from any IITK faculty member for placing a time limit on each program. And by now, I would have asked at least 50+ faculty members. (This is not to say that there are no good reasons. I have looked at reasons given by other universities. It is just that we as an institute are unaware of why we have placed 6 years as limit of UG programs, and similar limits of other programs.)

This lack of rationale for time limits has obvious side effects. If an under-graduate student completes 6 years and still has a few courses left, and then requests Senate for allowing him to spend another semester or two to complete all graduation requirements, how does Senate determine whether to give such an extension or not. Frankly, in the absence of rationale for the time limit, there can be absolutely no reason not to extend the stay of such a student. And this is exactly what we see every semester. A fairly large number of students apply for extension (mostly, PhD, but an odd under-graduate or Master's student too), and ALL of them are granted extension without any discussion in Senate. There is really no other way to deal with extension requests without articulating a rationale for the time limit.

So de facto there is no time limit for any program in the Institute. If there is no time limit, is it fair to ask a question whether a student will be able to complete the program in 6 years, right in the first year or second year. In my judgment, that question is unfair, and hence the termination of the program, the way it is being done today, is unfair to the students. And, if the termination is being done to help the student, well, s/he might as well want not to be helped. Why should we force that help on to the student.

This is not to say that there should never be any termination of program of any academically deficient student. But to do that, one needs a rationale for time limits, and that rationale be taken into consideration while deciding the extension of the program by Senate. This is unlikely to happen at IIT Kanpur.

One can, of course, ask alternate questions for termination. For example, is the student so weak that s/he is unlikely to complete the program even in unlimited number of years. If that is the case, we should ask the student to leave and try another academic program somewhere. Obviously, this will mean that termination of programs will become rarest of rare cases, particularly in UG programs.

There are other alternatives that can encourage self-selection. That is, the student will decide whether s/he wants to continue. We may limit the total amount of subsidy that each student will get, and after that subsidy has been provided, tuition which reflects the total cost of education will have to be paid. We may limit the number of years for which certain facilities will be provided, such as hostel. So the student will have to manage accommodation outside the campus. These ideas also have problems.

One, the academically deficient students from rich families will still manage to do the program, but academically deficient students from poorer backgrounds will not be able to. Does not seem terribly unfair to say that subsidy will be given only if you are not in the bottom 1-2 percent in the class. But still a question to be debated.

Two, and more importantly, how do we determine what is the right limit on resources for a student. We are back to the same problem that we wanted to avoid solving.

In summary, there is no short cut to rational decision making and articulating that rationale, particularly in today's era of openness and transparency, thanks to RTI. We have to either articulate a reason for time limits on our programs, or give an alternate reason for termination.