Sunday, April 05, 2009

Two body problem and Indian institutions

In her review of Lilavati's Daughters: The Women Scientists of India, Vijaysree Venkatraman highlights something that doesn't get much attention in discussions of faculty recruitment practices in our institutions.

More than one person from the post-independence era mentions years of separation from their spouses because of an inability to find appropriate work in the same city. This seems particularly true of couples in science. Unfortunately, the unwritten rule, which states that spouses should not be appointed in the same division, is faithfully followed in research institutes in our country, says Dr. D. Balasubramanian, President, Indian Academy of Sciences. The essay on the gifted chemist Darshan Ranganathan who was not offered a faculty position at IIT, Kanpur because her husband was a professor there, makes us livid at a callous system.

In his essay on the late Prof. Darshan Ranganathan (which appeared in Lilavati's Daughters), Prof. S. Ranganathan, her husband, first recounts her immense scientific achievements. Then he adds:

All these achievements assume special significance, particularly for young women aspiring scientists in India, when viewed from the fact that at every turn in her life she felt the impact of male chauvinism that so controls the scientific world. She fended them all with the invincible armour of obsession for scientific research. When she came to Kanpur, where I was a member of the faculty, the unwritten rules that exist even today, did not permit her to be offered a position. Therefore, throughout her long stay in Kanpur, she had to hop from fellowship to fellowship and for some periods none at all! We count on small mercies and both of us were truly grateful to IITK and the chemistry department for permitting her to do research.

I knew from the beginning that she was better than me and was proud to share my funds and students with her so that she could work on her own problems and publish on her own. That was all she wanted, brushed away all other irritations and slowly blossomed into an organic chemist who won international peer recognition, even before she accepted an independent position at RRL, Trivandrum in 1993 and subsequently moved to IICT, Hyderabad in 1998.

Prof. Darshan Ranganathan passed away on her sixtieth birthday in 2001. In his tributes that appeared in Current Science, Prof. D. Balasubramanian (President, the Indian Academy of Sciences) also dwells on this abomination in our system:

I will always harbour the sore point in me that Darshan was not given the credit and the position that she truly deserved early enough. Despite her track record of achievements and ongoing activities, she was never considered for a faculty position, while lesser colleagues rose to become Professors and Vice-Chancellors. There is no written rule that one should not appoint spouses in the same department or division; yet this is implicitly followed in several academic and research institutions in our country. The apprehensions cited are possible conflict of interest, interpersonal transactional difficulties and suchlike. When such practice gives no room for considering the merits of individual cases, it becomes counterproductive. (Of course, those who impose this practice can do nothing when two unmarried colleagues in the same department decide to tie the knot.) I am left with the wistful feeling that Darshan would have flowered more, much earlier, had she been offered a faculty position at IITK.

As is often the case, change is forced by a tough environment. In the recent PanIIT conference, a session was devoted to research in the IITs; in their opening remarks, Prof. Gautam Barua (Director, IIT-Guwahati) and Prof. Sanjay Dhande (Dirctor, IIT-K) acknowledge the kind of advantage enjoyed by the so called "Metro" IITs (you'll have to click on the button named 'abstract' next to Prof. Barua's name):

"Metro" IITs are able to attract more aspirants due to advantages of location, particularly due to greater opportunities for employment of spouses.

But it is still the case that this change is too slow, and the burden of the 'unwritten' rules falls almost exclusively on women scientists.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I understand, perhaps wrongly, that money and grants are easy to get now ... new institutes are coming up ...but what has changed ? If IISc or the older IIT's are the gold standard will things ever change ?

  2. Khalil Sawant said...

    I have in my department at IIT-Roodkee, a married couple of which the lady is a visiting faculty

  3. Anonymous said...

    That is good Khalil -- even in the book there was one exception and I should have mentioned that. so people know it is not a hard and fast rule -- just one that is widely practiced.

    Darshan R.'s case just moves me at many levels. This remarkable lady died of cancer recently.


  4. Chitta said...

    The point is missed again. Why is the lady only a *visiting* faculty. Is it because of the unwritten rule that Abi mentions, or is it that she is not yet qualified to be a regular faculty?

  5. Giri@iisc said...

    But this is not true in IISc, is it? There are married couples in IISc in the same division.


  6. Anonymous said...

    Thank for posting on the topic. I was not aware of this rule. I know now why we both can't get a job at the same place in India. We have PhD's from a top 5 school in US and have offers from same school in US. Things ought to be changed in India. The whole hiring process is so disappointing that sometimes, I don't even feel like talking about it. Good luck to all those who want to go back.

  7. Anonymous said...

    The rule is not written or set in stone -- don't let it hold you back!

  8. Anonymous said...

    Yeah and in most cases in India (and abroad) 2 body means that the husband and wife write the same papers and collaborate only with each other!!!

    2-body in an institution should be allowed as long as they do not work in the same field!

  9. Anonymous said...

    There are some good 2-body stories in one:

  10. Niket said...

    To several anons:

    Spouses working at the same institute is quite common. My ex-roommates parents retired as faculty from IIT-K almost 7 years back. They were faculty in different departments.

    Hiring spouses in the same department is rare. I don't know of any example one way or the other.

    Giri: If its OK for IISc, its OK for IIT too :-)

  11. Giri@iisc said...

    In IIT-KGP, I know of married couples in the same departments.

    Niket: How dare you compare IISc with IIT :-) The academic gods will unleash the fury on you !

  12. Anonymous said...

    I can recall at least 2 current spousal pairs (for lack of a better word) working in one of the IITs: Of these, one pair is working in the same dept., in the second case, they are in different depts.
    I would be extremely surprised if there still exists a policy, official or otherwise.


  13. Anonymous said...

    Actually, in the said IIT, I can recall 3 pairs, of which 2 are with the same dept.
    Also, "2 current spousal pairs (for lack of a better word) working " to read as "3 spousal pairs ... currently working"


  14. Anonymous said...

    Well, couple would have been a more appropriate choice. Why didn't I think of that ;)?


  15. madraskaari said...

    Do you have a PhD Sridhar?

  16. Anonymous said...

    And why is that relevant, may I ask?
    And aren't we hijacking the thread?


  17. Anonymous said...

    Non-separated spouses working for IIT and staying in campus housing forsake both HRAs, but their years in service are not added when allocating campus housing. Math department JEE jockeys argue that this is the right thing to do. Letters sent to Deans and Deputy Directors do not fetch any reply whatsoever.