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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Is Kanpur City a Liability for IIT Kanpur?

Recently, Vox Populi organized an event called Campus Dialogue where students could ask questions from faculty members on an issue. The issue for the first such session was, "Is Kanpur city a liability for IIT Kanpur."

I was invited as one of the faculty members to answer the questions. I thought about the issue and to prepare myself for the session, wrote a long article. I feel that writing about an issue clarifies your own thought process, and leads to more cogent viewpoints. Of course, there was no time to read this in the session, but I thought that this would be good to share with people at large, and hence this blog article.

Why would anyone blame Kanpur city and call it a liability.

The first and foremost issue that I am told is that it is difficult to hire faculty. And the reason for that difficulty apparently is that faculty spouses do not have as many opportunities in Kanpur as they would have in a big city.

There is something seriously wrong with this argument. And that something is not even that we are considering a city of 35 lakh population as small.

Every location has its own disadvantages. Delhi has the highest pollution in the world. And I know of people who have refused to stay in Delhi because of that reason. Mumbai is a city which evokes extreme emotions - some just love it, and others hate it equally strongly, and again there are people who get offer from IITB and don't join there. I can say the same thing about every other city. So what is the big deal if some people refuse our offers. May be the rate of rejection at IIT Kanpur is somewhat higher. That is hardly a big deal. It only means that our recruitment efforts have to be somewhat higher.

How many faculty members do we need to recruit in a year. Well, we have about 15 faculty members resigning or retiring every year, and since we have a current shortage of faculty and we want to grow, we need another 10 faculty members in a year. So a total of 25. Is it possible to recruit 25 faculty members such that either the spouse is so qualified that s/he can be recruited in the faculty, or her qualifications are such that an appropriate job can be found on or near campus, or the spouse does not want a job.

The answer is absolutely yes. Finding 25 faculty members of good quality in one year in all disciplines put together is such a trivial problem that if the Institute can not do it, it is a leadership issue and not a geographical issue.

And indeed, if we look at the last two years, we have recruited more than 30 faculty members in each year. How has that happened? Have we lowered the standard of recruitment. Are new faculty members less qualified than our recruitment in the past. Are we simply lucky, or has IIT Kanpur shifted out of Kanpur. No, none of that has happened. What has happened is simply that we have become more professional in faculty recruitment.

The problem in the past was not location, but our mindset. I know of earlier Deans of Faculty Affairs who would refuse to do anything to search for a faculty member. It was always said that we should not try to attract faculty but consider only those who apply on their own. Marketing is not something that a top class educational institution should do. We were slow in responding to even those who applied.

I remember that even 20 years ago, IIT Bombay would encourage its faculty members to go to top conferences and talk to PhD students and post-docs who are attending those conferences. I talked to many Deans here, and every time it was said, IITB is a lower quality institution, and hence they need marketing. We are the best, and hence we don't need marketing. (Not in these exact words, but something similar.)

In my own department, when Pankaj Jalote became the Head, he took help of a TA to visit the sites of top 50 CSE departments in the world, note down the names and other details of all "Indian" PhD students, wrote to them, also
wrote to their supervisors, and heads of the departments, encouraged them to visit IITK on their next trip to India, and in his 4 year term, we got many faculty members. If Kanpur was not a liability in his term as Head in CSE department, how come it was a liability at the same time in other departments.

Any time we have gone out and told the world that we want good faculty, we have been able to recruit them. But the problem is that as an institute, we do not wish to compete with the likes of IITB and IITD. In the last two years, we have had for the first time in this Institute, a young (below 50) DOFA, who is really focused on faculty recruitment and the results are for everyone to see.

The obvious question then is why do we not compete with IITB. Why do we not try to attract faculty (and students). The answer lies in the history of IITK. Right from the first convocation in 1965 when many graduates went to US for higher education, IITK has been considered as the topmost institute in the country. When I was a student, you would not say that there were 5 IITs, the statement to make was that there was an IIT in Kanpur and there were 4 more IITs. You couldn't equate IITK with other sundry IITs. And it was not just people from IITK who believed that, but even other IITians grudgingly admitted the same. So for a very long time, more than 3 decades, we enjoyed being unquestioned number one. When you are number one for such a long period, you forget what is competition, and eventually, when your competitors catch up with you and even go beyond, you don't know how to respond to this new situation.

But when people start saying that IITB is better or IITD is better, someone who is used to only hear IITK being the best will not suddenly admit that yes, we made some mistakes, we did not know how to compete, we did not advertise, we did not do marketing, and so on. These people have to come up with an excuse which says, "it was beyond my control." Or even better, "I am still the best academically. They are only good at managing perception." And what can be that excuse. Well, geography is an easy excuse and it is indeed beyond anyone's control.

So Kanpur being a bad location was a perfect excuse to do nothing. We continued to deny that we had gone down or others had come up. We kept saying and continue to say even today that the problem is Metro versus non-Metro.

So the problem is our lack of response to the competition. And consider this. There are a large number of positions that we could potentially create on campus for faculty spouses. Did we do that. We are doing something in the last two years. But not enough. Several spouses would be happy working in a school, and thankfully, we do have a campus school, which by the way does recruit some faculty spouses. Do you know that these spouses are paid less than the lowest paid Institute employees.

So, if the problem was spouse employment, we could have sorted this for a large number of spouses. But the problem was not spouse employment. The problem was that we did not know how to compete. Otherwise, if a city of 3.5 million population can not provide opportunities then are we saying that IITs should be set up only in the top 5-6 cities.

I recall a Senate meeting where JEE report of that year was being discussed and that was the year when for the first time, IIT Bombay had more students in top 100 than IIT Kanpur. One of the senators said that we should set up a committee to look into this. The committee would advice whether this is due to things beyond our control, or it is something that we should ignore or should we take this as an indicator of things to come and take some steps. Senate was so sure that it was things beyond our control that it even refused to ask some people to look into it.

I am an engineer by training. As an engineer, I do not crib about problems. Problems are simply constraints within which we need to find solutions. And to me the goal is simply this: Can we get 25 good quality faculty members in a year to join IIT Kanpur. And the answer, as the current DOFA has clearly shown, is a clear YES.

We can talk about other issues as well. Placement, for example. We complain that placements are poor and of course, we quickly blame location for it. There is no doubt that the number of companies coming to Kanpur are less than the number of companies coming to IITB or IITD. But does it mean that our placements are poor. No way. I am told that we have a greater percentage of students employed than in other so-called Metro IITs. We have a comparable median salary offer compared to Metro IITs. We have similar fraction of students getting dollar jobs. Why are we focused on number of companies alone. Why not look at other parameters of placement. Well, students can look at other parameters only if the Institute thinks it should do something to cheer our students up, and it should do something to attract other students.

I think we as faculty have failed in communicating to students that placements are not indicators of quality. The average career span of today's graduate is likely to be 50 years. The average time spent in the first job is 1 year. Do you really believe that the first job will determine your career. What you do over those 50 years is lot more important than what you do over that 1 year or what kind of job you get on the campus. Even money wise, your latter jobs will be a lot more important than the first job. And of course, if you only consider money as the sole criteria for happiness, I can tell you that you would never be happy. If you are not happy by being richer than 99% Indians, you won't be happier if you are richer than 99.1% Indians.

On the other hand, if placement is indeed an issue, what have we done. How many faculty members would call up their friends and contacts in various companies and ask them to visit IITK or ask them to interview our students on skype or whatever. Unfortunately, very few. Again, the reason is historical. We were number 1 for more than three decades. Students got jobs easily, sometimes on campus, sometimes off campus. No one had to be on the street. We can not appreciate this change where we have to attract companies, we have to market ourselves as an Institute.

If Kanpur as a location is a problem, what have we done to mitigate the effect of that problem. The biggest complaint of students in terms of placement is that some very good companies do not come to campus. Now these are sory of companies who will shortlist may be 10 students and select 1 or 2 finally. Can we not take these 10 students on a Saturday to a hotel near Lucknow Airport and ask the company to come to that hotel. Again, the reason we have not done that is because the issue is not location. The issue is our mindset that placement is not important.

Note the website. It has been pathetic for years. Do faculty members worry about it. No. It is mostly alumni who write nasty emails on this. Again, that cultural thing. We don't want to advertise, we don't want to market ourselves, we are not a commercial organizations. And of course, we have an excuse in not competing with others. We are still number 1, the only reason for IITB and IITD to do better in some respects is that they are in Metro and we are in poor geography. This is beyond our control.

Same thing happens about recruiting students. We did not advertise ourselves for more than 3 decades. So today when we are not getting students whose first choice is IIT Kanpur, again we are not bothered. I suggested in Senate last year that we should give out name and email address of one contact person in each department who could be reached by PG applicants in April and by UG applicants in June. The Senate decided that we should seek help from professional agencies for marketing. Faculty should not be involved in such affairs. Is there any good university where faculty members don't take part in any activity related to attracting potential students. I as a Dean insisted that there has to be a contact person for PG admission, since departments handle that part, and I was getting all the emails and phone calls till then. But for UG admission, no department agreed to put up a contact person, not even students and alumni contact information for potential students and their parents. Again, that historical mindset. We are the best. An educational institute should not advertise. Marketing is a cheap activity.

What is sad in this whole thing is that IIT Kanpur continues to have huge strengths based on which we can compete with anyone in the country. Our hostels are way better than any other campus. Our infrastructure, in general, is excellent. Our faculty have received more awards than any other institute. Academics is still taken far more seriously on our campus (despite a big erosion in the last 10 years) than other campuses. Our placement record is excellent. Yes, there are issues with Kanpur. But then there are issues with Mumbai and Delhi as well. There are people for whom IIT Kanpur may not be the best choice, since they want to do something specific in which other campuses may have strengths. But same is true for any location. We must be able to leverage our glorious track record, and current strengths to attract students and faculty members to IIT Kanpur. But if we ourselves keep talking about Kanpur in derogatory tone, we will not sound very convincing to those potential students and faculty.

To close, I think the problem is really that 30-40 years of unchallenged dominance has made our mindset totally opposed to fighting it out in a competitive environment. It is not Kanpur which is a liability. But it is our mindset.

Thankfully, marketing our strengths today does not require a big budget nor does it require a significant faculty time. If we can simply improve our website (which we are currently doing), and build a strong presence on social media, that would be a great step. And to have a presence on social media, you can ask one or two faculty spouses to handle this. You kill two birds with one stone. You improve your image and you have improved the chances of retaining two faculty members.