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Monday, April 20, 2015

Selection of Academic Leaders

I had written about the selection of IIT Directors last month. Since then MHRD has been able to complete the selection process, and the names of the three selected Directors have been announced. In the meanwhile, my blog resulted in some discussion both in public as well as in private.

One of the justification for the current process which kept coming up was that an academic leader would be a good Director or Vice Chancellor of any institute/university.  There are no skills specific to one institution. Second, anyone who has had an excellent research record would be a good academic leader, as his record will inspire everyone in the organization to perform. Three, all those great souls who are part of the selection committee are generally aware of great research being done by people in different fields. And, therefore, it is possible for those great souls to pick a Director within 10 minutes (or earlier 30 minutes).

I disagree with all three assumptions. I have seen enough people functioning well in one environment, and not working well enough in another environment. Leader of a new institution requires very different skills compared to an old institution. In some situations knowledge of the local language is almost a requirement, while in some other institutions, knowing English would be just fine. Attracting better students is a very different ball game compared with attracting alumni funds which is completely different from attracting top class faculty. But the selection committees won't agree since they really don't want to spend their time in understanding each institute. After all, they have no stake in the institute. Their only interest in being a member of the selection committee is to feel important, and hope to get some benefit out of proximity to other powerful people (like an extended term as a Chairman of the Board).

About a great researcher being great Director or VC, often I hear a question. Aren't US university Presidents (of top universities at least) very accomplished in their respective fields. Don't we too deserve highly accomplished Directors and Vice Chancellors. Of course, we do. However, I would ask these selection committee members to take a closer look at US university presidents. They have demonstrated research excellence AND demonstrated great leadership in previous administrative jobs before they were considered for the President's job. We have a rather small pool of people who have demonstrated research excellence and great leadership. These people should, of course, be given important roles. But unfortunately, not only such people are in short supply, many of them are reluctant to take up administrative roles. So we get to have a choice between research excellence and leadership, and that is why the comparison with US model breaks down. We just don't have those kinds of people. And frankly, it is not clear to me that people with research excellence (purely in terms of awards) and weak leadership skills will always be better academic leaders than those who have less number of papers but have displayed strong leadership in every job they have held.

Selection committees talk about CV, awards, research excellence, because that is easy to measure. Someone has already looked at the CV and decided to give Bhatnagar award or some fellowship and so on. Leadership can not be judged by the CV, nor can it be checked in 30 minutes. The CV will only say that I was a Dean. It will not say, how good or bad a Dean I was. To judge leadership, they will have to spend a lot more time with each candidate (which any search-cum-selection committee for leadership in private sector would do). But why should our selection committee members spend that much time for an institute, in which they have no stake. And where they can perpetuate the dogma of their own greatness. Remember, they too grew in the same fashion. They are today in the position of power because they had great research excellence and poor leadership.

And of course, whether they can judge someone's research excellence is not even relevant. The process does not allow them to judge someone's leadership potential, even if one of them wanted it.

Those who disagree and continue to claim that all those three assumptions hold. Well, then why have an interview at all. Look at the CVs and make the offer. It will speed up the process so much. We won't have a situation where there is no Vice Chancellor for a year or more.


gautam barua said...

As we all realise, there are no easy or simple answers. However, as far as IITs go, I think having the MHRD Minister as the Chairman of the Selection Committee is a good idea. The selections are under the glare of the TV media and so blatantly unfair selections will not take place as it will be very difficult to influence the Minister. After all, inspite of all the drama, no one has complained about the final selections that took place in the case of the three IIT Directors. All are reasonable choices. Unfortunately, the TV media is only interested in the IITs. So selections in the other CFTIs, or even the Central Universities go ahead without any publicity. This makes the Ministry vulnerable to pressure from interested parties, and the Minister is not even in any of the selection committees. Should we decentralize the process to Boards? But then Board appointments must be above scrutiny. Are they? (this is a general point; no reflection on so many eminent members of Boards of IITs)? So a Board level selection will be even more susceptible to pressures.
As you have mentioned, reasonable shortlisting can be done based on the CVs (there have been problems sometimes, when certain academics have exerted influence that only Bhatnagar awardees or Fellows of Acad bodies(or similar such "stars") be shortlisted, but this seems to have passed now). So, from a reasonable list of shortlisted candidates we go through a a "10 minute job" to select one. I think it is the best we can hope for considering what our society is like right now. But the bigger question remains. How do we "fix" (pun intended) the appointments in other Central Institutes and the State Institutes?

Punit Kumar said...

Leadership can not be judged by the CV, nor can it be checked in 30 minutes.