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.


  1. Prof. Sanghi, these excellent observations remind me of your excellent posts on the erstwhile iitk.misc!


  2. Dear Prof. Sanghi,
    Unfortunately I have to disagree with you on this one. IITK is indeed an excellent place with the best (atleast in India) infrastructure, amazing faculty members and a truly vibrant atmosphere. That said, IITK is literally an oasis in the vast desert of poverty and mismanagement which is the Kanpur city.
    I do not think that Kanpur is remotely located. It is quite close to Lucknow airport so transportation is not an issue. However the big elephant in the room is the larger city itself. Kanpur might have 35 lakh people but a very small silver of that number is involved in progressive and creative activities.
    I am currently doing my PhD at UPenn in Philadelphia. While UPenn has a great and a happening Ivy league campus with excellent research activities, I feel I learn a lot from the larger city itself. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Yale or Brown which are located in New Haven and Providence which are cities in decline.
    A faculty member or even a graduate student chooses a university largely based on academics, but the overall quality of life in the city also matters a lot. I am sure you do not suggest that faculty and students stay in there silos and do not venture out in the city. Exploring the larger community and interacting with other smart people who happen to be non scientists brings out creative thoughts, which are important for the overall development of a person and specially for that of a scientist.
    Prof. Sanghi, do you think Kanpur city provides these opportunities to the faculty or students?
    Moreover Sir, we have a different societal structure now than before. As we develop into a more individualistic society, we reduce our socialization time with family members and instead look towards more opportunities to unwind and relax in the city. Unfortunately Bollywood movies do not provide that kind of stimulus anymore. Theater and music which were once big in Lucknow/Kanpur are now dying down completely. Unless the city has a large number of progressive and creative people (not just a contingent of 3.5 million people), the city will be soulless. I am sorry but most people would not like to live in a soulless city.

  3. Dear Varun, as I mention in my blog, there will be people who would not want to stay in IIT Kanpur for one reason or the other. And that is absolutely fine. If one Varun wouldn't study in IITK, I don't see that as calamity as long as I do get my 6500 good students. To me the question remains, has IIT Kanpur done enough to attract 6500 good quality students, or there is no way IITK it can get that many good students, irrespective of whatever it may do.

  4. Dear Prof. Sanghi,
    IITK will always have an overabundance of talented and smart, students/faculty but the question is will it always retain the tag of the premier Indian institute.
    Please do not get me wrong. I got carried away and I apologize for it. I belong to Lucknow/Kanpur area and the plight of these great cities, makes more emotional than I should.
    I was only replying to the original question which was "Is Kanpur City a liability for IIT Kanpur". I think it is a big liability.Accepting the fact that it is a giant liability is the only way the institute can grow in the long term.
    Marketing etc. are only temporary solutions to the ticking time bomb in front of us. IIT Kanpur has the potential to be a great institute, which can really contribute to the growth of the Awadh region in particular and the entire nation in general. However for that to happen not only the mindset would have to change, but also folks will have to realize that Kanpur is a big liability for IITK and the administration will have seriously lobby to improve Kanpur city in general.
    If Kanpur city will remain a mess and the institute will not focus on improving the larger metropolitan area, then in no certain way IITK can remain the best Indian institute in the future.

  5. Hi Varun,

    I would echo your view. An institute cannot be great in the midst of filth and squalor surrounding it. I studied in IIT-KGP from 1993-97 and also in University of Texas at Austin thereafter. I saw that our university in Austin was very much a part of the city, and the people in the city of Austin could enjoy the facility of the university - like renting their auditorium, local school and community college students were offered summer courses - after all the people of the city and the state paid the taxes, the money which actually ran the university, right ? The IIT's should also recognize that and actively work on to improve the surroundings in which they are based- particularly Kharagpur and Kanpur (not only some NSS program) - because it is easier to do it in a small town or a small city - and the concomitant reward is also more.

    It may be a little tough for Professor Sanghi to acknowledge the truth of your sentence, Varun- in public and in written words - and his silence at your latest reply is an acknowledgement.

  6. On a different note, I'm Born and brought up in kanpur. Did my engineering from Roorkee. Currently running a startup based out of kanpur and Gurgaon. I wanted to get associated with IIT Kanpur due to proximity (kanpur being my hometown) for some kind industry-academia connect but surprisingly find IIT madras and others more active than kanpur. Not sure if it is more to do with kanpur city or IIT Kanpur itself!

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