When we are recruiting at more "important" levels like a faculty, we typically ask each candidate to spend a couple of days in the Institute, give a seminar, interact with all faculty members, get letters of recommendations, and we read a few of the top papers. Again a huge amount of effort with several candidates to select one faculty member.
How do we recruit a student in IITs. I don't need to explain the JEE and GATE exams. Even for PhD admission, the interview process is pretty strict and often lasts for more than 30 minutes for any candidate who is serious. And this is when we have lots of ways to test them during the academic programs, and their programs can be terminated if they don't perform well.
How do we recruit a Director of an IIT. After the usual application/nomination process, there is a search cum selection committee which shortlists the candidates and invite these candidates for an interview. You would imagine that to recruit a CEO level position, the interaction with the candidate would last the whole day, and perhaps interaction with multiple stake holders. NO.
The interaction with 36 candidates will be over in 6 hours. That means about 10 minutes per candidate. Yes, we recruit a Director in a fraction of the time compared with the recruitment of an administrative staff, a student, a faculty, or pretty much anyone else in the Institute. (And it is not to blame the selection that happened on Sunday. Even in the past, it had been only about 30 minutes interaction.)
Why does this happen. It happens because of the belief that some people have super-human powers. They can look at you and decide how good you are. Indeed there are people who can just look at a CV and decide how good you are for the position of the Director. (I am aware of the selection of VC of a prominent university where the VC was decided purely by looking at CVs.)
Some of the members of the committee have never even visited the IIT whose CEO they are selecting. They have had no interaction with the stake holders. And yet, it is assumed that they somehow know what are the requirements of that IIT. The process of search cum selection committees where the stake holders are only represented by the Chairman of the Board (who himself or herself may be seeking the next term from the same Ministry) is deeply flawed, but this is the one that we have been using for the last 50 years.
What is even bigger disaster is that the search cum selection committee for multiple institutes is merged for the process. Are the requirements for all the Institutes identical. If I am a potential Director of two of those Institutes, I may want to give two different presentations - one on my perceptions of the issues facing the first institute and what I will do as a leader, and the second on the same about the second institute. Each institute is different and the vision, strategy, tactics, requirements, etc., has to be unique. But the process does not allow focusing on each institute one at a time.
There is an even more serious problem when you merge the selection of Directors for multiple Institutes. The shortlisting becomes much too important. If we are selecting Directors of 5 Institutes simultaneously (and it has happened before), then you either shortlist 30 persons and interact with each of them for only 10 minutes, or you shortlist 10 persons, and interact with each of them for 30 minutes. Clearly, these committee members (which include the Minister) are extremely busy and cannot be expected to spend more time than that on Directors' selections. In the former case, one would be selecting a Director with pretty much no interaction, and in the latter case, while there is a little bit of interaction, the shortlisting is such that you have selected only 2 persons per IIT for the top position, and hence must have ignored the claims of many good candidates.
Contrast this with the selection of a Director by a good private institute that I am privy too. Several meetings with the Board members over a few months. A visit to the Institute. Preparing several vision documents and presenting them, which will be discussed and debated not just by board members but some external friends of the Institute as well. Reference letters, and so on.
The current selection process reduces the prestige and respect of the Director. It is clear to all stake holders that the selection as a Director was partly a lottery, and partly a result of "connections." Indeed connections are extremely important, since we know that the members are not super humans, and make up their mind about someone being good or bad for a job in 10 minutes (or even 30 minutes) only because they knew the candidate earlier. How much respect such a Director would have on campus, when we know that he did not become the Director by studying our issues and presenting a vision and a roadmap for the future. He did not become a Director because he has leadership skills, unless you consider having connections as a quintessential leadership skill. And hence, the common refrain on an IIT campus is that Directors do not matter. Most of the Institutes run on auto pilot anyway, and the Director can only influence so much. We have created rigid systems to safeguard ourselves from such Directors. It need not have been this way if the stake holders trusted the Director with the leadership role.
And I believe that a whole lot of problems in IITs (and other educational institutions) are because of lack of leadership. We are simply drifting with no clear goals.
It is high time we start taking recruitment of Director at least as much seriously as take the recruitment of administrative staff, technical staff, faculty, and students.
Added on 18th April, 2015:After the blog was published, two newspaper articles have quoted this.
Smriti's Process to Select IIT Directors Questioned, Deccan Herald, and
A 10 Minute IIT Puzzle - How to Pick Directors, The Telegraph.
The contrast between the two reports shows how newspapers can present the same story with completely different emphasis. While Telegraph has very sensitively presented this as an academic issue, DH makes a very provocative headline and converts this into a political issue. Telegraph was very careful in pointing out that the selection process was largely the same in the previous government, and hence the issue is not that of current minister but the process itself. While DH fully blames the current minister. A personal blame game will only ensure that we don't make any changes. Very sad to see such journalism.