Sunday, September 27, 2009

Autonomy! And why it was a mistake to use it to propel your protests

I have been getting serious push-back from commenters (who I presume are IIT faculty members) in these posts. I thank them because their comments helped me in clarifying my own thoughts on what I am arguing for and why.

First, a quick recap:

  1. What the IIX faculty have are specific grievances.

  2. But not all of them are of equal importance. I have argued that the one about OCAP is the only grievance that's Really Big. If it is followed to the letter, it'll hurt IIXs very, very badly (especially in the next couple of years).

  3. Scrapping OCAP should be a non-negotiable demand.

Compared to the OCAP problem, the other grievances are a piffle. I mean, I may agree with you (not very vigorously, though!) if you demand that the not-so-stellar professors should have a shot at an extra Rs. 1,500 per month. If you now say this demand should be non-negotiable, I would suggest you get out more, get some perspective, and get a life ...

* * *

With that out of the way, let me now turn to why I think the use of the 'autonomy' plank is a big mistake. If you are not with me on the importance of scrapping OCAP, you are unlikely to find the following particularly persuasive.

  1. By using a nebulous concept called autonomy, the IIT FAs took the focus away from OCAP. They have side-tracked themselves, the media and the public.

    I fear that the OCAP issue now stands diluted and de-emphasized, since it became one of several pieces in that all-inclusive container called autonomy. To me, this is a great tragedy.

  2. IIT FAs' arguments -- "we have had a flexible policy of career progression, and you have no right to tamper with it" -- seek to protect a certain way of (organizational) life. By demanding autonomy in this narrow sense, they have ended up allowing the government (and the public) to ask uncomfortable questions.

    Questions such as: What you have done with that autonomy in the past? How many of your professors are underperforming, and why? Have you used your autonomy to get them out of their rut?

    IIT FAs may have legitimate answers to all such questions, but you must realize that the debate has now got even more side-tracked!

  3. As I said in an earlier post, autonomy is one of those motherhood-masala-dosa concepts. But the problem is that there are other such unimpeachable concepts, and they can be invoked in opposition to the demand for autonomy.

    Kapil Sibal did precisely this: "competition." In that NDTV show, for example, he portrayed the 40 percent cap on senior professors as an incentive for professorial duds to get off their asses and re-join the rat race -- all over again! For a grand prize of 1,500 rupees per month!

    In just a couple of sentences, he managed to paint IIT FAs as batting for losers and competition-averse cowards. Again, IIT FAs may have legitimate counterarguments, but you must realize that the issue has got side-tracked again.

    [BTW, he used a similar tactic in trashing the demand for the right to hire post-docs with short stints as assistant professors. He converted this issue into an argument about "contract" vs. "tenure". He painted IITs as gullible entities that don't demand their recruits to prove themselves before offering them "tenure". I know Sibal's bullshitting here, but my point is this: it is IIT FAs' misguided emphasis on autonomy that invites Sibal's seemingly clinching counterarguments.]

Here's my request to the IIT FAs. Dump this bogus talk about autonomy. Focus on the one truly evil thing -- OCAP -- and demand that it be scrapped. Make that a non-negotiable demand. Don't take your eyes off this ball.

Even if the other demands are not conceded, you will still be able to claim victory for ensuring a bright future for your institutions.


  1. Anonymous said...

    With the hunger protest, the damage is already done. Either the minister or the FAs could have avoided it. Now is the time to repair. I urge both of them to calm down, think smart, and look into genuine grievances.

  2. pradeepkumar said...

    Interview with Kapil Sibal:

    "They have made some demands about lowering the qualification bar for entry-level lecturers and assistant professors. I can’t allow that. How can a third class PhD holder be allowed to teach in the most prestigious institutes in the country? Do they want me to lower the standards of teaching? It is unheard of anywhere in the world"

  3. Anonymous said...

    A conspired NDTV episode, Why?

    a.Thenmozhi was not given chance after Sibal spoke
    b.Minister contradicted himself while uttering that an AP can become P in 6 years (notifications clear say that 3 years at AP to become AsP and 4 years again at AsP to become P-total 7 years, at least)
    c. His knowledge about tenure track in US univ is questionable -it's possible that questions and answers were also supplied by eminent scientists in IISc and a couple of IITs.
    d.Dinesh mohan's father was a congress MP


  4. Vishnu said...

    I'm currently watching Sibal on "Devil's Advocate" on CNN-IBN. He said something that the BoG has some discretion in the recruitment issue. So all may not be lost.

    In that NDTV show, for example, he portrayed the 40 percent cap on senior professors as an incentive for professorial duds to get off their asses and re-join the rat race -- all over again! For a grand prize of 1,500 rupees per month!

    My personal issue with this is the following. If Prof. X gets into the top band, (s)he is going to remain in that band until retirement. So, once 40% of the professors are in that band, the others will have to wait for several years before any one of them will get into that higher band.

    I am not averse to different pay bands among Professors; such a thing is prevalent in some public universities in the US as well. But having such a cap is not a good idea. If someone does well, give them a higher salary for say 3 years (like a chaired professorship), rather than a higher pay band for life. Won't that force professors to never put their asses on that couch?

  5. Anonymous said...

    Another fake interview on the Devils Advocate of Sibal. The trademark constipated look of Thapar that is always on display was conspicuously absent.

    It is clear that Sibal is not going to budge one inch. He has made up his mind that he knows best. Mai baap sarkar knows everything. It is quite naive to expect a politician to do the right thing, even if he can speak in good english.

    Kapil Sibal has said many times in the past, not publicly of course, that Indian scientists have not delivered. You saw how he raised the question of nobel prize many times in the interview. He did say in the interview that the IIT system has not delivered. He has said (not publicly) why govt should fund them in such a case. We will as well pay foreigners to do the job. And that basic attitude is what is behind his foreign university venture.

    This man has the potential and will to do great damage to our education system. When it is most necessary that all the academics come together for this fight, you see them bickering over semantics.

  6. Anonymous said...

    On a contrarian note the OCAP at the entry level and the 40% cap on the Profs at the upper level can be viewed as creating "regulations" or "quality barriers" to what essentially can't be a relaxed entry and lifelong survivial in the so called premier instis of the country especially when there is going to be a rapid expansion in the edu. sector.. I am not overlooking the good wrk of the faculty of premier instis but **if** there is a doubt that they are not delivering on some metrics then these rules are for boosting the performance at both ends.
    But such a regulation cannot be at the expense of flexible cadre system where an extremely well performing prof. can rise up quickly and the instis have the autonomy to decide that. If the system is able to consistently produce many such exceptional candidates who run into the 40% cap then one can relax or revisit that rule at a later date. But first let the system produce that many number of exceptional performers.

  7. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Abi, thanks for your clarification. When you said
    Neither of them contains the word "autonomy."
    I had assumed that you used the absence of the word autonomy as a rhetorical device, and not as a solid ground to claim that the earlier notifications did not care about autonomy.

    The point is while the IIT FA are using the word autonomy, they are showing interest in only "selective autonomy" -- autonomy limited to pay and promotions. The larger concept of autonomy brings with it many other ramifications that the IIT FA seems to gloss over. Sibal has put it very bluntly -- their struggle is not about autonomy (in its true sense) but about money.

    On the super-professor band, I agree that with Vishnu, that having bands is not the problem but the method of determining the eligibility for entering and staying in these bands has to fair. There are reasonable criteria that one can use to figure out which professors can enter a band. But I don't think it fair to allow a professor in a higher band until retirement regardless of the professor's performance after entering the band. I think there should be an upper bound on how many years a professor can stay in that band without a review of his performance vis-a-vis the performance of other colleagues.

  8. Anonymous said...

    >converted this issue into >an argument >about "contract" >vs. "tenure". He painted >IITs as gullible entities >that don't demand their >recruits to prove >themselves before >offering them "tenure".

    I disagree with the above statement. Nobody is denying that IITs don't do a good job of assesment when hiring a postdoc as an Asst. Prof. The question is whether the extended three-year probation period (you call it tenure or contract) can filter and churn out good candidates from the pool ?

  9. Anonymous said...

    @Ankur, Abi meant the absence of the word "autonomy" as a solid ground to claim IIT profs did not care about "autonomy" but under the "serious push-back", this is his way of saving face. Abi firmly believes that the IIT profs are just fighting for only that 1 to 2 percent increase on their salary.

  10. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    To add to what Vishnu said regarding the BoG making exceptions:

    "Those with a PhD or industry experience should be on contract for three years, but IIT directors can recommend taking the exceptional candidates on tenure earlier." ... "If you come across a Stephen Hawking, a CNR Rao, IIT directors can always make an exception," he said, adding that the exception should not become a norm.

  11. harish said...

    Hello Abi,

    Yes, caught Devil's Advocate and my my, wasn't Kapil old boy, just milk and honey. IIT faculty are precious and oh so close to his heart, but he does not want to talk to them!!! @Vishnu -- what do you mean "all is not lost". Make no mistake, this was the olive branch from the bulldog. Of course, no battle won. He is only testing the waters. Earlier, this permitted "discretion" was never there. It still isn't there on paper -- that is legalese, aka Sibal.

    Thank you very much Abi, for directing me to Prof Madras' blog. I agree with him completely that changes like "It is suggested ... " might just be enough. Though Uncle Sibal seems to have said as much to Mr Thapar, I very much doubt if the Ministry would make these "cosmetic" changes. Come October 1 and we will know. After all, why have terms like "10% should be taken as OCAP" if you are then going to allow the Institutes to go ahead and not do this... Something really fishy here, I think. Take a look at and you would know why I think the above unlikely. You will agree with Abi when he says "Every newspaper / TV channel is peddling this nonsense. Uncritically." Only, difference is that Abi thinks the media supports IIT faculty, sic.

    Coming to your blog, I once again disagree that "autonomy" is not a good enough plank. Masala dosa? eeks, I hate that mongrel :-) But jokes apart, I am not sure how you judge that these IIT profs have "taken their eyes off this ball".

    You know, maybe, just maybe, there are some real smart cookies in those IITs. And just maybe, they understand that this war needs to be fought in the media (might explain the serious push-back that you experienced). And again, just maybe, unlike you, these guys feel that none of their grievances are ever portrayed in a fair fashion by the media -- hey I would agree with them completely on this one. Take for example the various "polls" conducted by media -- "Do IIT profs deserve world class salaries?" Bummer, they never asked for one...

    And maybe, these guys realize that they are not going to get any support from the other IIXs. By the way, I understand OCAP also affects IISc (please do correct me, if I am wrong). What have you guys been doing about it? Apart from writing blogs, that is :-)

    And maybe, they also realize that they are not going to get any support from their Directors. Remember Uncle Sibal's boast that these guys do not have a single Director supporting them. I just happen to know that eight out of the thirteen worthies have just been appointed a few months back. Poor fellows have not yet warmed their backsides on the seats...

    And about "competition" (by the way Abi, it is about time you stop refering to that NDTV show, it is not worth the reel on which it is recorded)-- remember this government did a great job of making the airlines market very "competitive" -- shall we say advantageous for the foreign entrants. And as I understand, we have AI in shambles. Maybe, some of these smart cookies at IIT realize that this is perhaps a move to make the education market more "competitive". Oh, Uncle Sibal has the plans all ready, you know. Maybe, these guys foresee how IITs will bleed badly and just maybe they are making a last stand. Maybe, just maybe, it is not about money at all...

    And before I leave, what is all this about the Nobel Prize? I am not aware of Nobel Prize in technology/engineering. Is it really necessary for P to have the NP, to be competitive. I think not. This P/NP problem :-) is again Uncle Sibal's media putsch -- for the uninitiated couch potatoes who he believes sits watching these programs. "You can fool all the people all the time" -- you know. By the way, somebody please tell Kapil old boy, that neither Stephen Hawking nor CNR (missed by a whisker) Rao have got anywhere near this NP.

    So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  12. Abi said...

    @Ankur: "Abi, thanks for your clarification. When you said
    Neither of them contains the word "autonomy." I had assumed that you used the absence of the word autonomy as a rhetorical device, and not as a solid ground to claim that the earlier notifications did not care about autonomy."

    I stand by my original assertion that autonomy was invented late in the day as an organizing principle for the residual demands -- which (with the exception of OCAP) were pretty flimsy. It was not the plank until September 21, when the second memorandum went from IIT FAs, but was invented just in time for the hunger strike three days later.

    Check out the news reports from late August. Check out this stuff, issued by the IIT-KGP faculty association sometime around 20 August. Check out the IIT FAs memorandum of 22 August. You'll find arguments about how the IITs were getting a worse deal than the UGC institutions got. But you won't find much there about "autonomy".

    So, the anonymous commenter (two comments below yours) is partly right. However, it's not that they did not care about autonomy, but they invented it because they were looking for a respectable cover for their residual (and, may I add, flimsy) demands after the 16 September notification.

    But, that Anon is wrong to imply that I'm pulling back from that assertion. This post is to elaborate on why I think the 'autonomy' plank was also a tactical mistake.

    @Hairsh: It's not that the autonomy plank was not "good enough," it was not needed to fight this battle. From what I know about the IIX system (and from what I hear from the senior people here), IIXs' flexibility is not being harmed in any way by the MHRD notifications. The IIX councils have the power to sanction exceptions (which is what they have been doing when they appointed post-docs with short stints, even though the ads would mention 3-years of post-doc as a requirement; see this, for example). I refuse to believe that the IIT professors did not know this. As you said, IITs do have some smart cookies ...

    As for support from the other IIXs: maybe they are quite happy with what they have got? Especially the science types? [for the record, the IISc FA has sent a letter offering their support to the IIT faculty in their historic fight for autonomy.] Another possibility is that their voices are unlikely to be heard in all the din coming from the IITs. Yet another possibility is that they know enough about the system, and don't see any threat to the autonomy.

  13. harish said...

    @Abi: Sorry, mate... I did not see this post earlier. Yes, it does look like the IIT-Kgp guys had no "autonomy" business in there. OK, that is one IIT. I do not want to defend these guys, but perhaps they were alerted to the autonomy, when they met the other IIT chappies. *Shrug* But anyway, I could not have concluded this from the two memorandum that IIT FAs submitted.

    The 3 year postdoc clause is something that only IISc has. I do not remember seeing that in any of the IIT ads. I believe that there is a 3 year teaching/research experience clause and they normally cover that by claiming this against the number of years spent for PhD. Now the OCAP forcibly stops the IITs from using that clause for recruiting fresh PhDs.

    Glad to note that IISc FA did offer a support document to the IIT FAs. Fair enough.