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Monday, April 16, 2012

Professors under attack in West Bengal

Dr. Partho Sarothi Ray, a molecular biologist of international repute from IISER, Kolkata, is in jail for peaceful protests. The charges include activities on a day when he was provably elsewhere. This is the price of protest in West Bengal today. For more details and updates, please see the blog by Rahul Siddharthan.

Some of the related news items in media:

IT: Kolkata biologist Partho Sarothi Ray's arrest shocks nation's scientists
ToI: Public figures write to PM on arrest of Kolkata scientist

And then you have Dr. Ambikesh Mahapatra, Professor of Chemistry in Jadavpur University, jailed for sharing his cartoons, which apparently show the Honorable Chief Minister in poor light. Thankfully, he could get bail, but the harassment goes on. Here are the links to some the newspaper stories on this.

ToI: Kingdom of cards: Mamata Banerjee reacts to a political cartoon in cartoonish ways
HT: Prof arrested, univ rises in protest against Mamata
Hindu: A bonfire of free speech
IT: Professor held for caricature of Mamata Banerjee on social networking sites
Washington Post: India arrests professor over political cartoon

See the cartoon here.

This comes soon after the West Bengal Government decided that the readers in its 3000 odd libraries can only read a small set of newspapers. It is alleged that only newspapers having a connect with Trinamool Congress (and hence are less likely to criticize the Government) are being allowed. Here are the news articles from Times of India, Hindustan Times, and Zee News. The last article claims that a minister in the government has openly said that only pro-government newspapers will be allowed. This is really dangerous.

Of course, like any other respectable party that comes to the power for the first time in any state, we will be seeing change of curriculum soon. Already there are reports in the media on this. Here are the reports from Hindu, Economic Times, and DNA.

With all this action, it would be difficult for the educational institutions in West Bengal to attract faculty (and students) from outside the state, and this provides an opportunity for the institutions outside West Bengal to attract faculty members from the state.

Finally, an excellent article by Ruchir Joshi in Telegraph. Thanks to my good friend Suhas for forwarding this to me.

People of West Bengal deserve far better than this.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Last JEE and Autonomy of IIT Senates

Yesterday, IITs conducted the Joint Entrance Examination 2012, and many newspapers have reported the event as the last JEE, as we knew it. I really hope that they are wrong, and the Directors, along with the ministry, will reconsider its imposition of a new admission process.

While we have debated a lot the pros and cons of the change, there has been less focus on other issues around it. To me personally, a very important issue is autonomy of the Institutes. In an earlier blog, I had pointed out that the Act gave powers to Senates regarding admissions. Now, the ministry has come out with a document whereby they point out that Senates can play a role in the admissions only if IIT Council wants them to. It essentially says that even in academic matters, if IIT Council wants to take a decision, Senates have absolutely no say in the same. (Prof. Acharya, Director of IIT Kharagpur, read parts of it out during an interaction at IIT Kanpur last week.)

Stupid me. All these years, I was under the impression that Senate draws its authority and autonomy from an Act of Parliament, and hence we are largely immune from political and bureaucratic interference at least in academic matters. But now I am being told that Senate draws its autonomy only from a happy coincidence that most Directors in the past have allowed it to express itself. Directors could get together and decide to take up an issue in the IIT Council, even academic matters, and just take a decision. Senates do not even have to be consulted. This is shocking. In the earlier years, the opposite used to happen. Even in matters where the IIT Council clearly has been given powers to decide, if there was an academic angle to it, they will first seek the views of Senates. They may still do things that Senates did not like, but at least they consulted. From seeking views of Senate on everything, to declaring Senate as an unnecessary evil, we have indeed come a long way.

And what is the motivation for this assault on Senates. Apparently some of the Directors feel that their political bosses may not want any change in 2014, an election year, and a majority of Directors would have changed by 2015. So what if the new set of Directors do not believe in this change as passionately as the current Directors do. Of course, the current set of Directors know everything, what is good for all of us, and the new set of Directors would obviously be wrong. Hence you can't leave this important agenda to the next set of Directors. The problem is that there are not enough guts to ask the Minister if he is politically ok with a change in 2014, and there is not enough time to seek views from Senates for the implementation in 2013.  So tell the Senates that they are powerless.

The implications of this strategy are far reaching. Today, when the ministry wants to bring about a change, it takes Directors into confidence on most things, if not every thing. They know that Directors have to sell the idea internally, and it is not obvious that Senates will buy every suggestion from the top. But once it is established that Senates have no powers, then Directors too become powerless. They no longer can withstand pressures from the ministry. The delicate balance of power where everyone respect everyone else breaks down. The impact would not be visible immediately. In India, things happen due to relationships, and the current set of Directors and current set of administrators in MHRD already have an ongoing relationship. But slowly the power structure will change. The next set of administrators may not be as nice. The next set of Directors would have a much more difficult time.

But there is hope. There is a meeting in MHRD on 11th where they have invited several faculty members from all 7 IITs to hear their views. The hope is that we will be able to convince the ministry to follow a consultative process for such an important change.