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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Selection of an IIT Director

How do we recruit an employee in an organization at the lowest level, say an office assistant or a clerical staff. We take out an advertisement, and receive a large number of applications. We use a shortlisting criteria to call lots of them to spend a day at the organization. We have a series of tests, check their language skills, check their basic analytical skills, and check their computer skills. After each stage, keep reducing the numbers, and finally we have an interview. It is a pretty rigorous exercise that takes a significant amount of time and effort by several persons in the organization.

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.

Added on 19th April, 2015:

Recently, Dr. Sunil Mukhi has written two blog articles on selection of academic leaders. They are available at the following links:
Checklist for hiring in academia
Checklist for hiring in academia (II)

Added on 20th April, 2015:

Frontline has a report on the process and controversy about selection of TIFR Director. (via Abi's blog.)
Disappointing a Director


iitmsriram said...


Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Dear Dheeraj,

[This is a long comment. Allow me to split it in three parts.]

You write interestingly, even engagingly. Well, at least, you write---as in contrast to mostly just excerpting from Internet links!

I don't mean to fully defend the practice that has been adopted. I just wish to note down out a few points that seem to be contrary to the flow of your argument, a few points that passed through my mind.

When you recruit a lower-level employee, a PhD student, or a professor, you do follow the meticulous process you mentioned; it involves lengthy interviews, too. Why might someone not follow a similarly long interview while recruiting IIT directors?

I think that some at least plausible answer may be hidden right in that question.

For the starters, when it comes to the candidates for the director's post, as against the other posts you mentioned, simply because all the candidates have already been subjected to a meticulous process, throughout their prior career, typically spanning over decades.

They have been observed and evaluated at the senior and responsible positions for at least a decade or more by multiple, disparate, parties. ... Any comments they make at professional conferences, any viewpoints they offer at the industry-institute interactions, the quality of the documents they write for obtaining funding, etc. Also, the blogs they write [ ;-) ]. And, they have been continuously evaluated by various parties: h-Index (certainly), student evaluations (if these are taken seriously at IITs)---and, certainly, via the annual reviews from their seniors, which includes mandatory remarks from the viewpoint of their potential as leaders. The CRs (annual confidential reports), made over a decade+ times (through various political dispensations, under many different HoDs and Deans and Directors) do have some purpose, you know---i.e., if these are taken seriously at IITs!

They also have been short-listed by the formal selection committees. Presumably, the committee's role does not end only with providing an unordered list of names. Presumably, the short-listing committee takes its job seriously.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

[This is part 2/3 of my comment]

IITs are not private institutes. The top decision makers here, by explicit organization structure, are the concerned ministry/ministries. Whether you like it or not, they do have their regular input channels, too---channels other than the selection committees. In India, in case you have happened to overlook it, we have more than 10 central agencies for internal intelligence gathering. When the body called the Planning Commission got dismantled, another one stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Another point: At the director's level, IITs also typically do not go for rank outsiders. Most, if not all, of what I say would remain valid even if the candidate is an outsider.

The cumulative input from multiple sources thus is already there. It is distilled, and available, just in case not already factored in, by the time the short-list is made. And, then, there are internal reviews.

The final interview, thus, is more or less just a formality. Shocking? Why should it be, to you?

Dheeraj, since you are a senior IIT professor, I must ask you: If similarly detailed and well-processed inputs were available personally to you, for all the candidates applying for a post-doc position you had in your group, would you ever bother talking with each of them for 30+ minutes? ... Please concretize the situation; it is unlike what actually happens when you select your post-docs. When you select your post-docs, you mostly don't know about all of them. ... Suppose if you or your IITK/other IITs colleagues that you trust, themselves had personally seen all your post-doc candidates right from their fifth standard (if not the first standard), and suppose you had maintained your own reports about them, including from the viewpoint of their potential as post-doc researchers, and if you had had the opportunity to go through everything about every one of them, how much time would you want to allocate for merely chatting with them?

And, doesn't this happen in the USA anyway---and I mention this point, because I know that at IITs, esp. at IITK, a top-10 US PhD is routinely valued better than a PhD that COEP graduated after a failure at a PhD program in a 50+ USA school. Thus, mentioning the US practice should be perfectly acceptable.

Would a colleague of yours in the USA---one who values your word---even bother to talk with someone you strongly recommend, i.e., with a personal touch of yours? Do they? actually? even for just five minutes? Especially if they themselves know someone trustworthy other than you, who personally knows the post-doc applicant? Do you find their practice offensive? Did you find it offensive when Manindra Agarwal's students received offers for post-docs etc., even before submitting their PhD theses at IITK? Did you begin blogging something about the fact that there was no 30 minute interview, not even 5 minute interview for them? Do you hasten to wear your skeptical glasses if an IUCAA PhD student gets a post-doc offer at Princeton or CalTech even before submitting his thesis?

At this point, you should be a bit bemused, perhaps even a bit agitated, but you would still not be convinced. There is a bit of valid reason for it, too. I can understand and sympathize with your viewpoint.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

[Part 3/4---not 3---of my comment]

You see, I myself have undergone a similar kind of a process---the kind that you criticize. When I applied for a professor's position at COEP, what actually happened was that, apart from submitting my application (manually making sure that it was duly entered into the inwards register), I then dropped by a few professor's cabins in the department, and then, also the Director's cabin. I broached the metallurgy-to-mechanical branch-jumping issue with him, and sought his opinion about it. To cut a long story short, he bluntly told me that he has had no objection on that count (it was he who had given me an opportunity to teach an FEM course before my PhD thesis was defended), but that, as a director, what the department thinks, he said, was more important to him. And, while the department had thought differently earlier, when my PhD guide was still in it (or had just left it), now the department had begun "thinking" some "different" way.

I was duly short-listed, called for the interview, and it became evident to me within the first 1--2 minutes the nature of what to expect. (Doesn't it, if you are past your 40?... In my case, I could tell right when I was in my 20s.) The interview did last for about 30 minutes---I stretched it, because I wanted to tell them in sufficient detail---while all along, they were just wanting to hurry it up and wrap up it all. ... To cut a long story short, in the end, they selected someone whose thesis had been examined by a low-ranked NIT's low-ranked professor, whereas every one in COEP knew that my guide had, on my informal remarks, dared contacting people from top 5 univs in the USA for examination of my thesis (including Frank Wilczek). That none of them bothered to examine it is a different story. The end result was that after almost 1.5 years, my thesis was finally picked up for examination by two senior professors from one of the five old IITs---both of whom had been HoDs and Deans, and one later on was a Director of a central lab. Now regardless of this difference, COEP showed me the door. As expected and made clear right during the interview process. ("Are you now casting aspersions that we don't know what is good for this institute?" etc. When I say I had stretched them to 30 minutes, I mean it. After taking the decision, they did not take care to inform me of the outcome. I saw the director. He managed to sympathize with me. Though he didn't say a thing, I knew that he knew that I knew that I should have known that I would not get selected.

Just a COEP professor's post and an IIT director's post, there is a difference, you say?

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Well, Dheeraj, you then speak more like a typical IAS officer or a second-rate corporate MBA, than like a professor. If a director directly impacts some 500 faculty members over his entire term(s), a professor impacts some 500 students every year. And the impactees in the second case are both far more sensitive and powerless. And, with far longer period of their future at the stake.

If there were to be betting rackets for IIT Directors' positions, the going rates would almost consistently get the selections right, regardless of change of political dispensations, and without the benefit of even a one minute interview. Why is a five minute interview so difficult to get by top ranked IIT professors, cognitively speaking.

And if you still say that the five minutes interviews still are not acceptable because the process can result in wrong/bad selections, well, you only join me, my argument---you cast doubts on the short-listing and the real reviewing processes, on the grounds that some people who could easily become second-rate directors, too, had got short-listed by the selection committee. Exactly similar to what happened to many other candidates in the COEP process. Not just short-listing, but the internal reviews before the interviews even began.

But then, who blogs about a non-JPBTI anyway---let alone for him? Who defends him? Answer: None---if his PhD guide is dead.

These are some of the things that passed by my mind, while thinking about this directors' selection issue. I don't pretend to know or understand the full situation. But I do know that what I said is, in many important ways, relevant.



R. K. Ghosh said...

This is bold and factual posting on the process of selection involving IIT directors. Stake holders are completely marginalized. I am reminded of Kothari commission report, which did talk about an elaborate process for ensuring that not only the best and the brightest but the ablest among the candidates is chosen to lead. It yields a lot of space to stake holders for a say in selection process. Unfortunately, every govt wanted pliable directors. Networking appears to be the key factor to become a director. MHRD bureaucrats along with their political bosses play a pivotal role in selection game.

rajumds said...

The selection process had been by and large acceptable so far since no one was found to be a misfit (may not be the best fit). But with clutch of new IITs coming up, the selection process has to differentiate between IITs, since the skill requirements of Director of the new IITs is different from that of older IITs.

The recent agitations at IIT Jodhpur where students and faculty are protesting against the Director is a case in point which shows all is not well with the selection process