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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Freedom of Expression

For the last two days, the media and the social media is busy discussing whether IIT Madras administration is right in what it terms as temporary dercognition of an independent student body.

The derecognition has been reported by almost all newspapers, including, Deccan Herald, Financial Express, Business Standard, Firstpost, and Hindustan Times.

Here is what seems to have happened. An anonymous letter is received by MHRD complaining that certain undesirable activities are being conducted by Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), an independent student group at IIT Madras. The Ministry forwards this letter to IIT Madras for their comments. Soon afterwards IIT Madras temporarily de-recognizes the group for violating guidelines for such groups.

A whole lot of politicians have jumped into the fray, sensing an opportunity to score political points against each other claiming that the Ministry pressurized IIT Madras into banning the group. IIT Madras continues to claim that there is no permanent ban, but only a temporary de-recognition till the beginning of the next semester when the issue can be discussed after all students and faculty are back, and they continue to insist that the ban is not under pressure of MHRD but because of the violation of certain guidelines.

I think the politicization of the event is unfortunate. In these matters, the Dharma of the ministry is to try interfering in an autonomous institution by seeking comments on something that Ministry should not be bothered about. And the Dharma of the Institute is to ignore all such letters. This way a peaceful co-existence can be maintained. The equilibrium gives way to chaos if either side goes beyond its Dharma, that is, either the Ministry sends reminders, uses threatening language, or demands certain actions, or the Institute starts taking such letters seriously and starts taking action on them. In this case, it appears that the action by IITM is not suo moto, but motivated by this letter from MHRD, which only makes them more amenable to interference in the future. So they are causing problems for not their own autonomy but the autonomy of other IITs as well, since such actions become precedents. Even if they wanted to take this action, they should have waited for another event, another time, so that the action can not be easily linked with the MHRD letter. But they seemed to be in a hurry and did not want to wait even for the summer to be over and the Institute to reopen.

I tend to believe (despite the timing and sequence of events) that IIT Madras has taken this action not because they were under pressure from MHRD, but because the administration had a level of discomfort with this group, and the letter from MHRD only acted as a trigger. IIT Madras is quite conservative and has an opinion on what should be allowed and what should not be allowed on things that other Institutes wouldn't care about. That is just the way they are, and poor them, they get into such controversies unnecessarily as a result.

So what are the guidelines for such groups, and which guideline has been violated. The guidelines are available here. The important guideline which seems to have been violated by the group is the second one which says that such entities can not use the name of IIT Madras, or any of its official entities, in any capacity, to publicize their activities or garner support without official permission. And apparently, in their pamphlets, the group had said that they are students at IIT Madras and the event is at IIT Madras.

So what should have been done. The group should have announced that the event will happen in this national institute beside Adyar Cancer Institute, Opposite to C.L.R.I, Sardar Patel Rd, between Guindy and Adyar,Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600036. You see we are not allowed to name the institute in our address. They should have then said that they are the students of the said institute, but can't name it.

How dare they name the institute in their pamphlet. How dare they say that they are students of IIT Madras. For such unpardonable sins, they have to be taught a lesson.

One may, of course, ask, if this is the only independent student group who has mentioned the words "IIT Madras" in their communication. If yes, then the ban is completely justified. If other groups can survive without mentioning IIT Madras in their communications, why does this group want such a huge privilege as to mention its college in a communication. On the other hand, if others too have mentioned IIT Madras in their communications, are they being banned (OK, temporarily de-recognize, such a long word which means the same thing) too. I know the answer, so I won't ask. All of them had sought permission and were granted permission to mention the name of the Institute in their communication. This group did not seek permission.

One may, of course, ask another question whether every student of IIT Madras, when s/he contacts anyone outside IIT Madras for anything, takes permission from Dean of Students to mention in their communication that they are from IIT Madras. If yes, then it is a draconian institute. if no, then one wonders what sin has this group done to deserve such an action.

The IITM Students have an official reaction on their publication, "The Fifth Estate." The APSC students have criticized the ban and have written this letter. They have also questioned on their facebook page whether the guidelines were formally approved by an appropriate authority of the Institute, but others on the same page have said that the guidelines were indeed approved.

On the face of it, it seems that the group has indeed violated the guidelines, and therefore, IIT Madras can justify its action in a legal sort of way. But in my view, the guidelines are typical of control mindset and I am sure have been breached by many people in the past. You want to control everything and everyone, so you create guidelines which allow you unlimited power. At the time of passing the guidelines, either people don't realize that unlimited power is being granted, or they are assured that this will be used in the rarest of rare cases. But once those guidelines are approved, you know that they will be used against anyone with whom the administration is uncomfortable with. And frankly, I can not possibly support ban for violating such guidelines. Unless some new information comes to light, I would consider this ban as an unnecessary restriction on freedom of expression that our constitution guarantees to all its citizens.

Any constituent of IIT Madras should be able to claim that they are part of IIT Madras. What they shouldn't be able to do is to claim that they represent the institute, or their opinions are official views of the Institute, and things of that nature. IITM certainly needs to come up with a better excuse for the ban (they apparently spread hate, for example).

Having such controversies in sister institutions actually do a a lot of good for other institutions. Today, sitting in IIT Kanpur, I realize what paradise I am living in.  Thanks to the culture set up by our founding Director, Prof. Kelkar and the american influence that we had due to support by Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP), the campus is very liberal and tolerant of all sorts of views and allows all kinds of debates.
By the way, Telegraph has as always covered the issues very nicely in their multiple reports. These reports are here, here, here, and here.

Times of India has reported that many student groups in IIT Madras have opposed this ban.


Sriram in the comments below has said that the student groups mentioned in ToI report are not from IIT Madras.

The Fifth Estate, the students official newssite, has many more articles on this issue now.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Retirement Age for Professors and Directors

Today, there is a news item in Hindustan Times which suggests that MHRD is thinking of reducing the maximum age of Directors in CFTIs and also of Vice chancellors in Central Universities from 70 to 65. I have mixed feelings about it.

When a faculty member in these institutes can be given extension till the age of 70, why not Directors and VCs be given extensions up to that age. After all, with so much advance in medical science, people are healthier than ever and working longer. On the other hand, let us understand that such appointments are done almost as a lottery (or worse, sometimes politically influenced), and not based on a solid review of the performance. If the selection is based on a random process, then statistically speaking a younger leader is more likely to perform better, and thus a requirement of being younger may be in the interest of the institutes and universities.

But that is not why I am writing this blog. Actually, I want to talk about the retirement age in general. Why should the retirement age be 65 for faculty, when it is 60 for non-teaching staff in the same organization. If it had come by way of performance evaluation of individuals, I would have no objection to it. But to give everyone a higher retirement age seems counter-productive. We are told that the increase in retirement age is due to shortage of faculty. But is increase in retirement age a solution to that. If the faculty member had formally retired at the age of 60, and is healthy and active, s/he would surely continue to be a faculty member either at the same organization or in another institute/university. So increasing the retirement age does not increase the overall supply of faculty members, but only ensures that they get a right to stay in the same place.

Why should they have a fundamental right to stay at the same place? Shouldn't this be based on performance evaluation and the needs of the organization to have a faculty member in that discipline. Of course, I know the answer. If the extension is on a case to case basis, then politics will play a role. Some good people will not get extension and some bad people will. Is this a good enough reason to oppose discretion. And if this is a good enough reason, why allow this during the age group of 65 to 70. I am not denying that some times decisions on extension will be taken in less than fair way, or at least the perceptions will be that some decisions are based on politics. But the possibility of few bad decisions should not be the basis of a bad policy. After all the loss to the person concerned is very minimal. One can always go to another institute and work there, considering the serious shortage of faculty we face in the country.

I really find it strange that for hard working staff (even if they are fewer in number), there is no avenue for extension and the market place also discriminates against them since there are too many unemployed youth who are willing to work for much less, but for faculty, who has all the options in the world, we want to give an extension (or increase in retirement age) without any evaluation of their contribution.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The quality of faculty

 I have been to numerous selection committees, and I am quite aware of the quality of faculty selection in our tier 2 institutions. As soon as you go beyond IITs, BITS, IIITH, IIITD, and a handful of other institutions, invariably the selection committee meeting ends with the Director making a request to the committee to recommend at least one candidate, any one who was marginally better than the others, so that the next semester's courses can be taught. In any of these committees, I always look at my role as providing my honest views about the candidate, and making sure that there are no biased selections. I don't look at my role as quality control (beyond giving my honest feedback). The primary stake holder in that hiring is the institute and not me, and hence they have to do quality control and not me. So, invariably, I will agree to recommend that one candidate, who could not speak a word about his thesis that he had just submitted, and who could not answer simple questions about the course that he had recently taught, and yet in my opinion, was the best amongst all those who were interviewed. Participating in such committee meetings can be very depressing as they expose this myth about India being the largest producer of scientific manpower. These candidates can hardly be called "scientific manpower" and yet they represent the best that our scientific manpower production factories have produced. What are we doing to our next generation, forcing them to study from these types of faculty members. And this is one reason why I always ask people to seriously consider studying abroad, if they can afford it.

A few weeks ago, I was in a selection committee to recruit faculty for a new institution. The new institution (which shall remain nameless) has this agenda of excellence that they would not want to recruit just about anyone. So they had shortlisted a set of people whose CVs looked pretty good, better than the most candidates that I have met in tier two institutions. Most of them were existing faculty members in our Tier II institutes, which included IIITs, NITs, IIMs, and a few select state colleges and universities with excellent reputation. (IIMs are certainly Tier 1 institutions, but only when it comes to management related programs.) If you were to select faculty purely on the basis of their CV and pedigree, it would be extremely tough to take a call. And I was really excited about a new place being able to attract such CVs.

All the candidates were told to bring in prints of a few papers of theirs, preferably those papers which were recent and in which they had a significant contribution. One member of the committee had a very sound strategy for the interview. He would ask the candidate which paper is the strongest work. He would then ask a simple question about something in that paper, and the result was often hilarious (actually, very sad, given that these represented the second tier of institutions in the country).

The hottest area of research amongst those was "optimization." Can you explain what is a generic problem of optimization (not in your specific context). Sorry, I don't understand the question. OK, you have this equation in your paper. Can you give us an insight into this equation. Sorry, no. I just copied this equation from Matlab help files. Do you think it is ok to copy from Matlab help files without understanding. What's wrong, everyone does it. But then this appears to be a central equation in your paper. Why are you using this one and not anything else. I don't remember. But this is your recent paper, with you as the first author. I am the first author, because I am the supervisor. How do you avoid convergence to a local maxima, and guarantee that you will find the global maxima. I don't understand the question. Do you know what a local maxima is. Yes, the points that are close to global maxima. Thank you very much, you can leave now.

There were a few senior professors as well amongst the candidates. There was a faculty member who said that he is very strong in Operating Systems. When we asked to narrow down the area further, he said memory management. OK. Why do we need virtual memory. Virtual memory is needed to allow a program of larger size than the physical memory of the computer. Really. But it means that if the physical memory in a computer is larger than the addressable memory, then we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory. If we can somehow enforce that all programs will be smaller than the RAM in the computer, we don't need virtual memory. Yes, we don't need virtual memory in such a situation. How would you ensure that two programs who are using the same address space will not conflict with each other's memory. Sir, I have been teaching OS every year for the last 20 years. My students have got jobs in top CS companies, and you are telling me that I have been teaching wrongly all these years. Yes, my dear professor, you have been teaching wrongly for all these 20 years.

I suspected this, but did not want to believe this. In the last 20 years, I would have asked this question on virtual memory to at least 100 potential MTech/PhD students, and till date, NOT EVEN ONE (other than those who have studied at an IIT) has answered it correctly. The sequence of exchange that I had with this senior professor of operating systems in one of the good institutes of the country, was exactly the same I have had with students from such colleges. And yet, I always believed that they were taught correctly, but they didn't pay attention. Or they are learning from poor quality text=books. I could not believe that they learnt wrongly because their professors did not know.

I can go on and on, but the summary is that most of these faculty members with great CVs did not know even the basics of what they were teaching, or what they were doing research in. They did not know that copying content from elsewhere was plagiarism. They did not know that they should understand what they write in a paper. It was almost as if the papers were generated with some automatic paper generating software.

And what is worst is that when we investigated further with these faculty members who all had substantial number of journal papers, it turned out that many of those papers were in paid journals with no peer review. And yet, they would defend the practice by saying that everyone else did it too.

Since most of these faculty members were young and recent PhDs from similar institutes (IIITs, NITs, and good state colleges), it also puts a question mark on the kind of PhDs being produced in the country.

And yet in a country where the quality is determined primarily by the amount of money their graduates can get in the market, these institutions are rated very high by the society. So there is no hope of any improvement either. If they are all doing very well, where is the pressure to change. The only positive of these institutions is that they have successfully created a culture of self-learning (necessity is the mother of invention), which will ensure that their alumni keep learning on their own throughout their careers.

But is this enough for the "Make in India" to succeed. Are we really on our way to harness our demographic dividend.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Do you want to kill your ward?

Obviously the answer to the provocative title is a strong NO. However,  your reply in negative does not exonerate you of the charge of causing stress, anxiety, and even depression. And yes, this can on a few occasions even lead to him/her taking the irrevocable final step.

Yet another young life with a bright future will be lost. Yet again, the media in the country will ask what are the top educational institutes in the country doing to ensure that these things don't happen on their campuses (with the obvious implication that it is alright to lose a young bright life outside these few campuses). The curriculum, the pedagogy, and everything else be scrutinized with a fine comb. Suddenly, the press will become expert on everything related to education.

IITs have tough competition. What does this mean, and who is responsible for it. Is having five courses a semester too much load (if yes, then close down all engineering colleges, they all have more courses than this). Is having an assignment every other week too much. Or should we just do some theory in lectures and ask questions in the exam from a set of pre-defined important questions. No, that is not what brings stress to the people. What brings stress to the people is their relative position in the class. And ANY system you create, if students are going to be worried about their relative positions, they are going to be stressed.

People say IITs put too much focus on academic performance, on this one number, CPI or CGPA. Shouldn't an academic institution worry about academic performance. And what is this too about too much focus. Yes, there are some academic decisions based on academic performance. But by and large, the institutes invests huge resources in creating avenues for non-academic pursuits. If there are awards for academic performance, there are also awards for projects, awards for sports performance, awards for leadership, and everything else. How many faculty members in an IIT will ever consider you less than a human being just because you are not in the top half of the class. The chances are that it never happens. It is the parents, the neighbors, the relatives, who worry more about your CPI and CGPA than IIT faculty. And they are the cause of stress and even depression, and not IITs.

The goal of most students in an educational institution is to get a good job. Who puts that focus in their mind. Certainly not the institute. Almost no faculty in IITK would tell students that the goal of IIT education is to get a 50 lakh or even a 10 lakh job. Most will actually tell them that they should think beyond placements, may be go for higher education, do what is their calling, be entrepreneur, and so on. So why do people get depressed when they don't get a job on day 1 of the placement. It is the parents unfortunately. Students are scared of calling up parents and telling them that their friends have a job and they don't. Even if they have confidence in themselves that they will get jobs on day 2 or later, they don't know how to get their parents off their back.

When a student falls sick, particularly depressed, the counselor tells us that the student needs family care and affection more than anything else, and we suggest that s/he goes home. It is the parents who don't want him/her home. He will manage, is always the statement that we hear. Do they know more than a professional counselor. But to them, the worry is not child's health, the worry is, what will people think, and the financial loss of a delayed graduation. Has anyone in an IIT ever said that you must finish your under-graduate in 4 years. We have a credit based system, and everyone is free to take 5 years to complete. No, the pressure does not come from the Institute, it comes from parents. For them, their own position in society and the money is so important that they are willing to play dice with their ward's life. (And of course, less than 0.01 percent of the students will die. So they can all say at the end, we told you so. Except that we can't tell that one parent, we told you so.)

I will get about 1000 calls/emails/messages in the counseling season asking for advice on what college/program to join. 900 out of these 1000 will ask me directly - which places have good placement. Out of the remaining 100, most are not asking the question only because they have read my blogs and know my strong view that quality of education is more important than placement statistics, and it is easier to find out about the quality of education than to find out about the placement statistics. These parents are guilty of pushing their wards on the path that will certainly have stress and anxiety and may have depression as well. Only very few will commit suicide and everyone else will believe that they are better parents, they knew how much to push, the other parents perhaps didn't, or even that the Institutes are responsible. But sorry guys, you just got lucky. You tried your best, but your ward survived, just because 99.99% will survive. It didn't have to be that way. All of them could have not just survived but enjoyed the college life.

And many of those students survived because IITs helped them survive. Because the counseling system works there. Because the other students are more compassionate than parents. Because the faculty works hard to help the weak.

When people say that parents left the child in your custody and parenting now is faculty duty, they are just passing the buck. First, they have not left the child in our custody. They call up every day, ask the score in every exam, ask for relative performance, and interfere in every aspect of student life. They don't realize that the student is now an adult. Second, faculty members can not be parents, should not be parents. That is not their job. By doing that job, we are being unfair to the tax payers. Being a faculty member is a very expensive proposition, and it is wasteful to use such an expensive resource for parenting, something that they may not be greatly skilled in. They should better do teaching and research in their time.

So, the next time you ask me about the placement statistics of this college or that college, think about it, you could be pushing him/her to take the extreme step.

Please focus on quality of education, and stop blaming IITs for every suicide.