Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A New Beginning for IITK

In a few hours from now, Prof. Abhay Karandikar would take charge as Director of IIT Kanpur. Here is the bio sent by our Dean of Faculty Affairs to the campus community in the evening:

Professor Abhay Karandikar was Dean (Faculty Affairs) and Institute Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. He was the Head of the Department from January 2012 to January 2015. He was the coordinator of Tata Teleservices IIT Bombay Center for Excellence in Telecom (TICET) and the National Center of Excellence in Technology for Internal Security. He spearheaded a national effort in setting up Telecom Standards Development Society of India (TSDSI), India's standards body for telecom, with participation of all stakeholders. Professor Karandikar is the founding member and Chairman of TSDSI. Currently, he is working as a consultant to provide technical expertise in design and implementation of BharatNet, Government of India's flagship initiative under Digital India program. Professor Karandikar has several patents issued and pending, contributions to IEEE, 3GPP standards, contributed chapters in books and a large number of papers in international journals and conferences to his credit. Professor Karandikar was awarded with IEEE SA's Standards Medallion in December 2016 in New Jersey. His team also won the Mozilla Open Innovation challenge prize in March 2017. He is a two-time recipient of the award for excellence in teaching at IIT Bombay - in 2006 and 2011. He is a co-author of papers which won Best Paper awards in ACM MobiHoc 2009, Workshop on Indoor and Outdoor Small Cells WiOpt2014 and a finalist for the best paper award in IEEE LCN 2012 and IEEE NCC 2014 conferences.
Clearly a very distinguished career, and a lot of admin experience as well.

IIT Kanpur has lost its prestige over the last 10-15 years, but the fundamentals continue to be strong. The only missing ingredient has been leadership and I certainly hope that the new Director brings that in plenty. We will soon know.

The immediate challenge on the campus is to enthuse all stake holders and make them believe that we can bring back the old glory. When I had joined IITK as a faculty, I was made to believe that I was not merely an employee but an owner. That is not the feeling a lot of people have on campus today. And the biggest challenge for any IITK leader is to convert employees into owners. Once there is enough ownership, Director can relax and things will happen.

But this change will not happen in today's atmosphere of fear when we don't know whether a statement made while sipping tea or having dinner will be taken completely out of context, exaggerated, and worse will follow. The faculty members of the Security Advisory Committee have been claiming that instilling fear is one of their planned goals.

The second biggest challenge will be to inculcate a feeling in all the stake holders that IITK has a future despite its location outside the top 10 cities of the country. (I am tempted to say that we have a future because of our location, which hasn't changed since its inception.) Of course, every location has its positives and negatives. We must learn to leverage our strengths and take corrective steps on our weaknesses. There can be enough and more jobs for spouses on campus, if there is a will to solve problems, and hopefully they get paid more than unskilled workers on campus.

There is a belief on campus that we could be either good in teaching or good in research and good teaching happens at the cost of reducing time from research. As someone who has been bestowed with both teaching based awards and research based awards, Prof. Karandikar is perhaps the best example of how good teaching and good research can go hand in hand. We must make sure that our teaching programs are once again the best in the country. This is quite simple. Good teachers just need a word of encouragement. Tell them that good teaching is valued by the leader. And the rest will happen magically.

External stake holders are even more important these days. Our alumni are our best ambassadors. Relationship with them needs to improve. We need to have a vibrant and independent alumni association, even if they disagree with the Institute administration. We need to respect those alumni who have worked tirelessly over a couple of decades to set up channels of supporting IITK from US. We must make sure that we are seen as transparent and efficient by our donors and benefactors. Remember, we are dealing with people who have huge amount of affection for IITK. So the task should be simple and yet we haven't really done well since Prof. Sudhir Jain left office in 2008.

And we can't have great alumni relations unless the student experience while they are here is great too. We have a great infrastructure, not just hostels, but sports, and for other student activities. We have lots of good things going in academics. But there are many irritants too. Can we identify small issues and take care of them. Why should a student wait for 6 months to get a scholarship that is due to him/her, just to give one example. Why should a student be running around all over the campus to get a course in open elective slot.

We need to remain aggressive with faculty recruitment. Not only there are retirements and resignations, but we are growing too. Prof. Karandikar's experience of recruiting several faculty members in Electrical Engineering as Head would come handy here. He can transfer that knowhow to Heads of our departments, though some departments are already doing quite well.

Overall, I believe that IIT Kanpur already has good students, good faculty and good infrastructure. While there can certainly be further improvements, one significant ingredient missing till now is good leadership. And I hope the new Director will provide just that.

Welcome, Prof. Karandikar, to IIT Kanpur.