Tuesday, September 02, 2008

War on resource-hogging senior faculty!

This rant post (with a mandatory disclaimer at the end!) has been triggered by an Inside HigherEd article making the case for a higher salary for assistant professors than for 'full' professors:

Although it is far from the norm, a few colleges pay their assistant professors more on average than they do their tenured professors. Although such pay scales might harm the egos of tenured professors, they can benefit colleges. [...]

Assistant professors in many ways have harder jobs than tenured professors do. They have more pressure to publish. They usually spend more time on class preparation because they have taught their classes relatively few times. And, keeping in mind their looming tenure bids, they often feel compelled to be more deferential to their senior colleagues than they would prefer. Those who care about economic fairness consequently should support the idea of assistant professors making more than tenured professors. And those who care about markets should understand that the less pleasant the job, the higher salary you must pay to attract top talent.

Well, that's all in the American context, where the laws of supply and demand play a huge role in determining the salary. In Indian institutions, the salary structure is fixed by the government (even in many private institutions, the salaries tend to follow the 'UGC' scale); this leaves the 'other resources' up for grabs. I have been saying that giving these resources to young faculty is essential if we want to set them up for success:

... The long answer is here, but the short answer is that IITs should do better than what they have done to create conditions for setting up their junior faculty for professional success. In operational terms, this would translate to things like a 10 to 20 fold increase in start-up grants, generous travel grants (Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year, for example), a spiffy, individual lab for each faculty member, a world-class research infrastructure (no power cuts, for example), and a faculty-friendly administration. Taking additional steps to attract and retain excellent graduate students would also help!

If an age-wise resource audit is done in many of our institutions -- with the possible exceptions of resource-rich DAE institutions (such as TIFR and IMSc) -- I bet it will reveal that a huge fraction of the money is cornered by their senior faculty. What I'm talking about here is not external funding, but internal funds (left over after taking care of salaries, utilities, etc). IMHO, the bulk of these internal funds should flow to those who need it the most: junior faculty who are setting up their labs while waiting for their own external grants to come through -- a process that could take as much as three years or more.

BTW, it's not just the money; you take any other resource that would make a faculty member salivating profusely -- lab space, travel grants or endowed fellowships -- you would find senior faculty chewing on huge, juicy chunks of it.

In a cruel twist, the MHRD decided recently to hike the retirement age for faculty members to sixty five. I call it cruel because the justification for this move was that the senior faculty would help with teaching. If you talk to folks in our elite institutions, you would find that this justification is a sick joke: many senior faculty 'teach' seminar courses and highly specialized electives in small classes, while junior faculty are given required courses and large classes. Worse, not only do these biggies not carry their fair share of the teaching load, they get three more years to continue doing what they do best: hogging more and more of their institutions' resources.

[Instead of extending the tenure of all of them by three years, MHRD should have suggested using an existing mechanism: re-hiring of some of them on contract specifically for teaching. This would also have had the additional benefit of their lab spaces -- some of the most prime real estate! -- becoming available for re-allocation.]

Some committee or the other will adapt the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations for faculty salaries in our academic institutions. When its recommendations are made public, the press (and perhaps others too) will shed a lot of tears about how the poor academic salaries make it difficult to recruit bright young faculty; in doing so, they will ignore the real scandal: abysmal start-up grants and higher teaching loads that will greet a newly minted assistant professor.

[Disclaimer: I'm sure you'll find exceptional senior people -- who run their labs with external funding, and who do more than their fair share of teaching. I'm also sure some of you know of exceptionally great deal offered to a new faculty member. I just want to alert you that these are not the norm; the sad reality is that, on average, the junior faculty in our institutions get disproportionately low share of the resources and disproportionately large share of the teaching.]


  1. Anonymous said...


    Your post reminded me of a 'senior' faculty of ours, who doesn't mind often reminding that he has been around for a long time, doesn't do much teaching, occupies quite a lot of 'prime real estate' and of course, completely unproductive!

    Oh, well......

    You Know WHo

  2. Anonymous said...

    Great post, prof. Abi! plain facts, well said.

    I must add though - it looks like your resource wish list is going to be a pipe dream, at least in the near future. Just the other day I was reading a news item - about how difficult was it to make MHRD sanction some money to the new IITs - and that too a paltry sum of 2.5 crores or so. Well, the less said the better.

    On another note - in this backdrop, do u really think anyone sensible enough, seriously planning to do some good research, would even think of the new "IITs"? I, for one, having shelved all my plans of coming back to India, am seriously pursuing other options. Although sad, i think i am left with no option.


  3. Animesh said...

    You, sir, are amazing!

    I frequently feel that our govt/institutions are not doing enough to bring the droves of desi PhDs who are needed to join the Indian institutions to cater to our goals of providing high quality technical education to our youth. The future, as of now, does not seem bright :-|.

  4. Anant said...

    Maybe you have been missing my pungent remarks for some time? So why waste any further time: here goes...

    Now just a minute: if our institutions do not know how to get work done out of its faculty, young or old, can one blame the individual faculty members? There is nothing to stop the institution from drawing up a schedule and simply mandating that this or that professor will have to teach this or that course. Why blame these senior profs. for taking the institutions for a ride? Now there are also bright young sparks who take institutions for a ride. So why give the ageist twist to the discussion? Enquiring minds want to know...

  5. Abi said...

    YKW: We all know several such people, don't we?

    Kumar: My wish list -- bigger start-up grants and reduced teaching during the first few years -- is quite achievable, if only the institutions decide to implement them. If they are fully committed to the cause of nurturing young faculty and setting them up for success, this wish list essentially requires giving new faculty a higher priority, and raising funds specifically for them (additional salaries through fellowships and bigger start-up grants).

    New IITs offer ample opportunities for those who like clean slates and fresh starts: basically, institution builders. Thus, the first few senior hires will set the tone for how they will function. Their support for junior faculty will have to be even higher if they are to lure them and retain them.

    Animesh: Thanks for that comment. You have summarized -- very nicely, if I may add -- what I have been trying to say in this blog for quite some time ;-)

    Anant: This post is not some ageist rant. It's about senior faculty who set and implement institutional priorities. It's also about power, which they possess in abundance. Thus, it's about calling a foul on them for creating -- or perpetuating -- a system that's grossly unfavourable towards new faculty.

    It's easy to talk in terms of institutions and administrations. Who are the people who run them -- new faculty?

    I'm sorry if this post gave the impression that asking (senior) individuals to stop free-riding on the system. I will need to write more clearly.

  6. Rahul Basu said...

    With regard to your comment about resource rich DAE institutes like TIFR and IMSc, purely theory institutes like IMSc actually don't suffer from this skewed resource distribution. That is because the needs of a pure theory faculty in terms of grants is so small compared to the needs of a well funded lab, that everybody 'partakes' uniformly of the largesse.

    The problem is getting people to teach. We are thinking of starting separate streams for B.Sc and M.Sc students and this will approximately double our (small) teaching load to the panic-inducing
    one course every alternate semester if my math is correct. One would think that this is not such a burden for an institute with 35 physics faculty. You would be surprised. And here, I must say, there is very little difference between the seniors and juniors. There are some who teach regularly without thumbscrews being put on them and there are some who just don't want to teach or only want to teach advanced almost research level course. The distribution of such people amongst the junior and senior levels I feel is uniform.

    Perhaps its because for years we have gotten used to teaching a minuscule amount and its hard to give up the practice of a lifetime! That at least is probably the argument for the seniors. For the juniors the argument is that they joined a research institute rather than a teaching institute precisely to avoid teaching so this was a case of changing rules mid-stream.

    Full disclosure: Where do I stand - amongst the juniors or the seniors? Well, those who know me can decide for themselves, those who don't will just have to guess!

  7. Anant said...


    You say,

    Full disclosure: Where do I stand - amongst the juniors or the seniors? Well, those who know me can decide for themselves, those who don't will just have to guess!

    May be right between the cracks?