Thursday, July 5, 2018

Marketing New Programs at IITK

The year was 1976. We had been running an inter-disciplinary M.Tech. program in "Computer Science and Engineering" for a few years. Even earlier, we had a specialization in Computer Engineering as part of Electrical Engineering department. We had been running short term courses in computing right from 60s. Pretty much every one connected with computing in India had attended some program at IIT Kanpur. And yet, the general feeling in the country was that Computer Science would never succeed in a poor country like India where the labor was so cheap. The Government would not allow use of computers since that could only reduce jobs.

The faculty took a very risky decision. They will offer an under-graduate program in Computer Science and Engineering, the first in the country. This was bound to fail, critics warned. We will get only those students who cannot get admission to any other program. The Senate refused to allow this. After a lot of persistent effort by the then CS faculty, it was finally approved to start in 1978 with just 20 students. Prof. Rajaraman went to several cities just after the announcement of JEE result and met students and parents and convinced them why Computer Science had a bright future ahead. Faculty members also went to other IITs on the day of counseling to answer any questions that students and parents may have.

When the counseling results came out, this new program which was predicted to be a failure had closed ahead of all existing programs in all IITs at that time.

Today, we think that "marketing" is a four letter word.

Economics program was started in 2005 after Mr. Arjun Singh, the then Minister of HRD made a public statement that IITs should widen their offerings and he particularly mentioned Economics as one program that we could offer. I was quite excited about this program. If this program was available in my student days, may be I would have seriously considered it instead of Computer Science. But it was a risk that IIT Kanpur was taking. We had a small faculty, and we really were not prepared for it. The students and parents were not ready for it. Most people were of the view that those who give JEE want to do engineering. Some of them do science because they had done science in 11th and 12th and enjoyed it. But things that they had not done in school and are not engineering, they would not be interested in. It was pointed out that other such programs like Architecture, Pharmacy, and certain science programs like Geology had extremely poor closing ranks compared to other programs. And Economics was going to be right there, at the last.

I talked about it on my blog and encouraged people to opt for it. I was sure that after some teething troubles, this will be a great program. Frankly, I had very little support till Prof. Vimal Kumar joined the department in 2009. We worked together on social media, reaching out to students and parents, answering their queries. It helped that the first batch graduated in 2010. He was also able to rope in students. And slowly Economics has become a reasonably popular program. I am convinced if people like Vimal were there in the department in 2005, this would have been a top choice right in the beginning and continued from there onwards. If a program is not a top choice in the beginning, fighting the argument of last year's closing rank is extremely difficult.

Next program to start was Earth Science in 2016.

Lest I should be misunderstood, I am not at all suggesting that marketing is all we should do. I am only suggesting that we share our passion with future students. And I am also saying that "Marketing" is not a 4-letter word, but a 9-letter word. :-)

People believe that good things will happen when they see faculty members are passionate about those things. To give an example of this, when I was SUGC Chairman, I organized a session on "branch change" where I invited faculty members from each department to talk about their discipline to first year students. At the end of a couple of hours, we distributed the branch change forms. That was the first time when Maths was more in demand than Electrical Engineering. Never happened again.

While I have written about under-graduate programs, the same is true for graduate programs as well. As a Dean, I started insisting that during admission time, each department must provide the name of a person and his/her phone number on Dean's website for any admission related query. Most departments gave the number of an office clerk. A couple of them gave the number of a graduate student, and a couple of them gave a faculty member's number. It took a lot of cajoling to get a faculty name for all programs.

I have often heard in various forums that it is not the duty of faculty members to attract students. I am glad that the pioneers of Computer Science at IIT Kanpur did not share this view.

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