Wednesday, September 30, 2009

When you thought this government couldn't stoop any lower ...

... you get this truly vicious assault -- no, make that a murderous attack -- on academics' autonomy.

It's high time we started a massive campaign against these academic tormentors.

How about a Facebook group? Maybe we can call it Faculty Contra UGC Kooks (with due apologies to a dyslexic fashion brand)...

Manu Rajan: Perils of Elitism

Yet another opinion piece on higher education and faculty salaries. This one, by Manu Rajan in The New Indian Express, questions IIX faculty's demands for higher pay for yet another reason:

The recent demand by the faculty of the government-funded Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institutes of Technology for superior pay and promotion policies, as compared to their counterparts in other universities, makes one wonder whether this degree of indulgence is proportional to the reputation an institute enjoys. Are pockets of ‘elite’ centres of learning necessarily a good idea, particularly when it is difficult to monitor their efficiency? [...]

Good teachers are scattered all across the country: scour the many government and private colleges and it is not difficult to find excellent teachers dedicated to their work. Many of our less endowed colleges could do better if they were able to avail the resources confined to the elite institutes. Is it not odd that while we talk of ‘open universities’, we are not ready to shed our love for the closed -access elite institutes housing a few privileged people who, already more advantaged, consider it their divine right to ask for even more?

Instead of hankering after ‘high rankings’ based on dubious quantitative measures for a handful of our elite institutes, the cause of India’s higher education would be better served through a fair and equitable access to research and learning resources. This, rather than the elitist approach, is more likely to lead us to producing Nobel Prize winners one day.

Pulapre Balakrishnan: Pay and Autonomy in the IITs

Here's his opinion piece in MInt. He's sympathetic to the demands for more autonomy, but raises questions about the pay hike demands on two different grounds:

We may query the demand for higher pay on two grounds. First, it is not clear that the principle that engineering faculty should earn more than the rest in the public educational sector is a sound one. Is it commonly agreed upon in India that engineering is superior to philosophy? As a principle this would be hard to find applied in the great universities of the world.

The privileging of engineering in India is the direct legacy of the plan for rapid industrialization of the country in the 1950s when the IITs were formed. Engineering education was the natural beneficiary. With hindsight, we can say that it would have been entirely possible at that stage to increase the number of engineers without hiving off the engineering college and paying its faculty more. Instead, India chose a strategy which resulted in a tiering of its public educational system, placing the IITs on top. Therefore, the demand by the IIT faculty for preserving this salary differential is not surprising, but that does not make it justifiable.

The claim that they have had to work harder to get there is untenable. The faculty of the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1960s combined the finest international qualifications with the highest class of research. Amartya Sen went on to win a Nobel Prize for work initiated there. Secondly, IIT faculty representatives have claimed a higher salary on the ground that this would mimic the industry standard for engineers. However, market signals are not always available to guide public sector pricing. Consider defence, which is publicly provided. We can now only guess at what its market value would be, and have to use other means to arrive at a reasonable salary for our jawans.

Subir Roy on an "alternative model" of governance at IITs

Subir Roy thinks he has figured out our academic system -- especially the IITs. He presents what he calls an "alternative model" for governance:

For every leading educational institution of excellence the government appoints a board of governors of eminent people who then supervise its running, including selecting its chief executive, according to a charter which comes with substantial public funds. There is a periodic charter review and it can be withdrawn for non-fulfilment but absolutely no micro-management. The charter contains guidelines on ceiling on tuition fee (these are leading institutions and so can charge a bomb and get away with it), norms for sharing the fruits of successfully commercialised research between government, institution and the relevant faculty, and provisions to ensure that successful consultants among the faculty have some time left to teach or guide researchers. The governors can pay the faculty the moon so long as the resources are there and certain outcomes, like number of patents secured and academic papers published, are met. The institution can make money out of executive development programmes and the governors can actively canvass philanthropists.

The government can replace governors as and when they reach 70 or 75, or better still, the board of governors can be self-perpetuating. They can find their replacements as vacancies occur. And public accountability can be maintained by keeping these institutions under the three Cs — CAG, CVC and CBI. Eminent people should engage Sibal in a public discourse and urge him to take a variation or improvement of the above to the cabinet for approval.

Wait a minute! Isn't this roughly what we have in the IITs (and IIXs in general)? Sure, they cannot "pay the moon" to their high fliers, but that restriction applies only to government money. They certainly can pay the moon to the high fliers from the money they generate through private sources -- alumni and other philanthropic donations, grants from industry, overheads on consultancy work, etc. This is also how IIT-K has established endowed chairs for some of their senior faculty.

Perhaps Subir Roy should really look at the governance structure at the IITs and tell us where he thinks it differs from his "alternative model," and why he thinks the IIT model falls short. I have written to him asking him precisely these questions. Let's see if we get a response.

Debate about whether professors at IITs and IIMs are underpaid

Business Standard presents two views. The first is from Gautam Ahuja (Ross School of Business, UMichigan). While he presents a comparison which makes IIM salaries look bad, he also makes the point that the "performance parameters" ... "are a lot less stringent" in India.

A fresh assistant professor joining a top-25 US business school would receive a pre-tax salary of about $135,000-$170,000 (Rs 67-85 lakh) plus pension and healthcare — there is no subsidised housing. There are variations within this: Finance faculty are paid more and private schools will pay on the higher end of this band. Against this, the faculty are generally expected to teach 100-150 hours per academic year. They are, however, expected to publish in the top-tier academic journals which have very high rejection rates — failure to meet these publishing standards usually implies that once your probationary period of 5-7 years is over, you are forced to leave the institution (a fairly common occurrence at the top schools). [Bold emphasis added]

The second participant in the debate is Dinesh Mohan (IIT-D):

As for comparisons with overseas engineering institutes, it’s not as though a teacher in a western university is paid industrial salaries. Most American or European elite universities, public or private, pay public-sector salaries prevailing in each country to their engineering faculty. We should also not be comparing our salaries with a few BTechs or MBAs who get high-paying jobs. We can compare our salaries only with fresh PhDs in engineering who get a permanent research job including housing. Then we’ll find that we are not so badly off.

Ashok Jhunjhunwala on autonomy in IITs

In an interview by Mint's Aparna Kalra, Jhunjhunwala, one of the more prominent professors at IIT-M, says this about the issue of institutional autonomy:

I have had plenty of conversations with IIT directors. In some issues, government has acted Big Brother with us—in terms of increasing number of students (because of reservations) we were not given much choice. There is some very loose kind of thing on faculty reservations. There are some national-level policy issues on which government will have a say.

I don’t think beyond this government tells IITs anything.

I really think there is significant amount of autonomy. Government gives us money, we have to have salary structure in tune with government pay. MHRD (ministry of human resource development) gives each IIT Rs120-180 crore per year. Compared to the money we get, interference is negligible. How they are run, what is the promotion policy, things are fairly flexible.

To a question about whether IITs can ever become financially independent (like IIMs have done):

I don’t think so. I have tried to work it out in terms of fees. Some of the alumni talk big, but no IIT has been able to create that kind of corpus. Unless you are ready to charge Rs5-6 lakh per student in which case there will be a lot of problem. I don’t mind moving in that direction, but it is going to be tough. People are not used to taking this loan and then paying heavily.

We can charge this fees only to undergraduates. Even with this fees, (we will) not even come close to one-third of our budget.

And then there's this section where he lists the (hidden) benefits of working in an IIT:

IIT Madras has a beautiful campus, where I have free housing. There is a hospital, which my family can use. There are two schools. My children can go to these schools. Maintainance of the house is free. Five days a month I can build consultancy capability. I am allowed to go on boards of companies and retain board fees. For 60 days a year, I can go abroad on a fellowship. After six years, I can go for a sabbatical for a year, three times in my career. Of course, we have to excel. Industry will give us consultancy only if we excel.

That autonomy is very precious to us. Nobody can force us to do anything.

Monday, September 28, 2009

You guys are precious. You deserve everything you have asked for ...

Watch Karan Thapar's Devil's Advocate interview of HRD Minister Kapil Sibal (or, read the transcript), where the minister is reported to have made several 'concessions'.

Without realizing what the 'concessions' mean, Thapar sounds very satisfied about his batting on behalf of IIT faculty. He has every right to be, I suppose; after all, he gets to condescend to the minister for the latter's "mature" responses in the interview! [You won't find that in the transcript, but watch Part 3 of the interview.]

You can read the interview to see for yourself how much the 'concessions' are really worth. I'll stick to what I think is the most important issue: OCAP. In the excerpt below, note how this issue has been framed as one of "10% minimum" (and hence, as something that intrudes into institutional autonomy), but not as a terrible deal -- for both individuals and institutions.

Karan Thapar: Let's then, to clarify the situation, go through the principal demands of the IIT faculty one by one so that you can explain what is your actual response to it.

To begin with, the IITs are a little perplexed, or perhaps I should put it a little strongly, concerned with your recent stipulation that at least 10 per cent of the entries into faculty should be by way of contracts. Let me begin by asking you, what's the purpose of this?

Kapil Sibal: The purpose is that normally, or rather that is a norm that when it is a person with a PhD without industrial, teaching or research experience (joins the IIT as faculty), he/she should be on a contract. But on a regular position, not ad-hoc.

On contract, if at the end of three years, the IIT people and the board feel that he should be absorbed, then he should be absorbed. However, this is the norm. If however in the course of these three years, the IIT Board or the Director recommends to the board that look, this man is outstanding; let's even waive the three year period, we would not interfere in that.

Karan Thapar: You said something really important. You are saying that although the 10 per cent requirement to the new entrants to the faculty that are to be taken on contract is the norm; and that the norm is designed to make sure that you get the best of people and not left out strata of people you do not want. Nonetheless, you have said to me that exceptional people at the discretion of IIT directors can be taken, on tenure from the outside.

Kapil Sibal: Absolutely, yes. Not only exceptional people, but people who have been taken on three-year-contract and who expect to be absorbed after three years; even their term can be reduced when the IIT Board says that look, here's a man who is exceptional, so let us waive the three-years (norm).

While I leave you to think about whether this is the victory you really wanted, let me put in my bits of snark. It's good to get the anger out of one's system ...

When you invent "autonomy" as a organizing theme for your protest action (just three days before the said action), you deserve anti-concessions, that actually raise the bar for you -- "Sure, we would love it if you waive the post-doc requirement for a C.N.R. Rao or a Stephen Hawking! [Implication: anyone less deserves just an OCAP]

When you use autonomy as a respectable cover for your piffling grievances, you deserve only meaningless platitudes on autonomy -- and nothing about your grievances.

When you sell autonomy-coated scrap metal as designer jewellery, you deserve sugar-coated non-concessions -- "IITs are precious!" and "IIT councils always had autonomy! Why would we mess with that?"

* * *

I became concerned (and very upset) when pay hike demands were hijacked by a silly debate on autonomy because I feared that the OCAP issue would be de-emphasized and misrepresented.

I can only hope I'm wrong in my assessment that these fears may just have come true.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Links ...

  1. Pam Belluck: A burst of technology, helping the blind to see. Some pretty amazing stuff here. Here's one:

    Sharron Kay Thornton, 60, from Smithdale, Miss., blinded by a skin condition, regained sight in one eye after doctors at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine extracted a tooth (her eyetooth, actually), shaved it down and used it as a base for a plastic lens replacing her cornea.

    It was the first time the procedure, modified osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis, was performed in this country. The surgeon, Dr. Victor L. Perez, said it could help people with severely scarred corneas from chemical or combat injuries.

  2. The Situationist Blog: Change Blindness (a video explaining a very intriguing form of attentional blindness).

  3. Richard Thaler (of Nudge fame): Opting in vs. opting out (how to nudge people to agree to donate their organs).

  4. Giridhar offers a balanced take on the IIX salaries. Along the way, you will also learn more about what exactly will be the salary of a freshly minted assistant professor. His concern, which I share, is about how to make IIXs friendly places for junior faculty.

  5. Tarek El-Tablawy: Saudi Arabia launches KAUST, a grand science and technology university.

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.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On IIX faculty salaries ...

Watch this NDTV episode which I presume was aired on the day of the historic hunger strike by IIT faculty members (24 September 2009). What follows is a bunch of assorted observations, triggered by this show.

* * *

Prof. Thenmozhi, who has championed this protest movement at the IITs, is one of the guests. She does a competent job of getting across the views of the protesters; ultimately, I found her unconvincing, but that's probably because I don't share those views, and certainly because I think the hunger strike was based on a set of imagined grievances whose financial implications were just an additional 2% hike in salaries. I also think that the 'autonomy' plank is a fake.

[BTW, I admire Prof. Thenmozhi for the way she has rallied the IIT faculty to agitate against the pay hike notifications. Here's a profile of this news maker].

* * *

Prof. Dinesh Mohan of IIT-D takes a strong anti-strike stand, and scores some excellent points. About how faculty salaries in other countries are roughly in line with public sector salaries. About how it is wrong to use private sector criteria to judge public sector salaries -- the latter come with job security (and I would have added, many other perks).

To a question about the fat salaries in the US, his answer is wonderfully blunt: Let those who are interested in such salaries stay / go there!

* * *

Mohandas Pai chants the mantra of free market-based pay scale. He seems oblivious of the kinds of things that can be inflicted when economic conditions turn sour.

Frankly, his free-market ideas should scare the wits out of most IIT faculty. Here's why:

A market-based pay works wonders when the economy is doing well. But an economy in recession could have devastating consequences.

In a recessionary economy, the pay hikes stop for those lucky enough to keep their jobs. Talk to anyone in the IT industry -- including Infosys -- about how bad things are. The starting salaries of fresh hires has barely budged in the last couple of years!

In a recessionary economy, it could get worse -- there may be a pay cut! I'm sure you can find examples from Indian industry, but here's an example from one of the most respected public university systems in the US -- The University of California. A severe crunch has forced it to institute faculty furloughs of 4 to 10 percent.

Heck, in a recessionary economy, people could lose jobs! Ask all those who got the pink slip from Infosys in the last one year.

[Isn't it ironic that we are talking about pay hikes in the public sector at a time when the private sector is bleeding?]

Tell the IIT faculty about the possibility of a pay freeze, a pay cut, or, gulp, job loss -- the miserable things that accompany the wonders of free markets. Then wait and watch how many of them choose to protest against the "indignity inflicted by the government" on October 1, the new ultimatum from the faculty federations.

Tell the IIT faculty about the brutal differentials in faculty salaries in the US system, in which the average salary of a full professor in philosophy, sociology or physics could be far smaller than that of an assistant professor in computer science. And then see how many of them show up for the protests.

[In the NDTV show, Prof. Thenmozhi wisely avoids getting into these uncomfortable aspects of the 'autonomy'].

* * *

Kapil Sibal comes in at the end, comes on strong, and comes out swinging. His basic point: The hunger strike is not at all about autonomy, and it's entirely about money. In his view, it is a blatant and unfair attempt to take a larger share of the (public sector) resources.

He reiterates his stand (which I think is largely true) that the IIT faculty have actually got a better than anyone else has. He went further by offering interesting arguments -- in a combative tone! If you think the new salaries are too low to attract new faculty, he pointed out that the IITs have attracted tons of people over the last decade when the salaries were about 40 percent lower! And the the attrition rate at the IITs has been "next to nil!" [He could have taken a dig at Mohandas Pai by saying that it's far, far lower than the attrition rate at Infosys ;-)]. IITians can also make extra money through consulting.

None of these arguments is new. It's a pity that these things had to be spelled out by none other than the minister himself.

* * *

Sibal also waxes eloquent about the new position created by MHRD: on-contract assistant professorship (OCAP). It's not at all clear who advised him on this one, but he is totally, completely wrong on the merits of this move. I have a post on why I think OCAP is an utterly horrible deal; if you have anything to add, please comment there.

I hope Mr. Sibal will go back, take a hard look at it, and scrap the OCAP scheme.

* * *

Similarly, I hope the IIT faculty associations would dump their dishonest use of 'autonomy' to get their senior professors piffling extras -- that extra 2 percent over the 75 percent pay hike is just not worth it.

And I hope the IIT faculty associations will stop using on-contract assistant professors as human shields in promoting what is essentially a senior faculty agenda.

Prof. Satish Dhawan

Yesterday was the 89th birth anniversary of the late Prof. Satish Dhawan. P.V. Manoranjan Rao reminisces about this charismatic man who led both IISc and ISRO simultaneously for over a decade!

Some excerpts from Rao's article:

Under the leadership of Dhawan and Brahm Prakash, ISRO pioneered a new way of managing complex projects. In this system, the project director presided over a small team of experts whose job it was to coordinate and channelise efforts of independent R&D groups towards realising a common goal, be it a launch vehicle or a satellite. Dhawan also ensured total transparency in project management by involving leading professionals from outside ISRO in the technical reviews of its projects.

From the beginning, Dhawan insisted on a significant role for indigenous industry in the projects of ISRO. Today, hundreds of industrial units, both in the public and private sectors, manufacture a wide range of space-quality hardware for ISRO.

The early days saw many failures. Through all those difficult times, Dhawan never lost faith in ISRO’s capabilities. He took personal responsibility for failure but when success came, he always attributed it to ISRO and his colleagues. Thus, when the first flight of SLV-3 in 1979 failed, Dhawan faced the press. When the second flight succeeded, Dhawan kept himself in the background while Kalam spoke to the press. With this kind of leadership, engineers and scientists in ISRO were never afraid to face honest failures.

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes -- 2009

I like to call the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prizes the Oscars of Indian science. This year's winners have just been announced. I'm not able to access the CSIR website, but here's a news story on the announcement. [Update: Here's the press release.]

I am so happy to see three four of my colleagues in the list of Bhatnagar winners:

  1. Prof. Jayant Haritsa (Engineering)

  2. Prof. Giridhar Madras (Engineering). His blog is here.

  3. Prof. Narayanaswamy Jayaraman (Chemistry)

  4. Prof. S.K. Satheesh (Earth Sciences)

It's also great to see that Prof. Charusita Chakravarty, a friend at IIT-D, is one of the Chemistry Prize winners.

Previous posts on the S.S. Bhatnagar Prizes: 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2004-05.

Mr. Sibal, Please Scrap OCAP!

Let me first thank Pratik Ray for articulating some of his concerns about the On-Contract Assistant Professorship (OCAP) scheme, and how it will treat its victims (see also his comment, and a few others following his comment).

Okay, here we go!

* * *

Dear Mr. Sibal,

I have been enjoying your verbal fireworks over the last couple of days. While I agree with much of what you say about the pay hike scheme your ministry has notified (and amended), there is one clause in the scheme that deserves to be dumped.

I am talking about the on-contract assistant professorship (OCAP) which, in the first month of what I hope will be a very short life, was also called lecturer-cum-post doctoral fellowship.

It is not at all clear to us why this new position was created -- totally out of the blue, without any prior debate and discussion.

No matter. Please dump it. Get rid of it. And, please do it quickly before you and your ministry become too invested in this bad concept. Before it starts wreaking havoc on institutions and individuals.

* * *

OCAP has been created to prevent IIXs from hiring people with short (or no) post-doc stints as assistant professors. But this is a wrong way to look at this issue.

First, there is this incontrovertible fact of academic life: PhD durations have a huge variation -- across disciplines, across subdisciplines and at the individual level. Some people take 3 years, and some take seven years.

Similarly, within the same subfield, there are people who publish a dozen papers during their PhD, while most others have just a handful.

With such a wide variability, what is so sacrosanct about the number of post-doc years?

Potential as an independent researcher and as a teacher, academic orientation and maturity are the qualities one looks for in a fresh hire.

While it is true that these qualities can be assessed better when the candidates have a longer track record (and work in different environments), an administrative focus on the number of post-doc years cannot be justified.

The world of academia is filled with success stories that started their academic careers soon after their PhDs, just as it has sad stories of those coming in with multiple post-docs and ending up with mediocre careers.

In other words, there's not much evidence to say that more years of post-docs is necessarily better. What one should focus on is a comparison of candidates' records and choose the best.

* * *

This is precisely what the IIXs have been doing for decades.

IIXs hire PhDs with short post-doc stints as 'real' assistant professors largely because they are forced to. There are fields -- mostly in engineering -- where the supply of qualified people is far too low.

Even in these disciplines, it is not that IIXs don't have applicants with longer post-doc stints; they do! And yet, IIXs choose PhDs with a short post-docs (or, even fresh PhDs) only because their records are better than those of the other applicants with longer post-docs.

Procedurally, too, what the IIXs do is pretty fair. Hiring decisions always take into account inputs from multiple people with independent perspectives -- faculty members in individual departments, deans, directors, and a selection committee with external (and independent) experts. Thus, when some short-stint post docs are preferred over their competitors with longer post-docs, this decision carries the weight of collective wisdom and judgment of people with a lot of stake in the success of their institutions.

The freedom to select candidates -- based primarily on their record, but with due consideration given to their experience -- is something IIXs have used judiciously. For example, it's exercised rarely in those disciplines where the applicant pool, on average, is more experienced.

It is not just the IIXs that should (continue to) have this freedom -- our universities should have it too.

If anything, your ministry must be amending the rules for our universities to give them this freedom!

* * *

So far, we have been looking at OCAP from the institutions' point of view. Let me turn now to examining its badness from the point of view of its real victims: those who will actually be hired as OCAPs.

  1. OCAPs will have to teach. This comes with all the associated time-sinks: grading, committee work, academic mentoring, undergrad advising. This is too much work especially because OCAPs do not have a guarantee that they will be re-hired as regular APs.

  2. What kind of research output is even possible for a freshly minted PhD who's trying to establish a reputation for independent, high quality work, when he / she has so much of other work? Three years down the road, how will his / her record of research accomplishments compare with those who are hired after a three-year long 'real' post-doctoral stint?

  3. As post-docs, OCAPs will end up working under an existing faculty member. There's nothing wrong with this arrangement; except that when OCAPs become real APs, their ability to chart their own course is grievously harmed by it.

    There's another word for this: In-breeding. And this is a bad, bad deal -- not only for the institution, but also for OCAPs whose early years as real assistant professors will be spent trying to get out of the orbit of their post-doc advisors!

    As a rule (with very few honorable exceptions), in-breeding is evil. Do not give it institutional sanction through the OCAP scheme.

  4. In an era when our IIXs offer sub-optimal start-up grants, OCAPs' grants will be even less -- because they are only "on contract" and because they are just post-docs, anyway!

Even though OCAP sounds like a post-doctoral fellowship (PDF) that has suffered grade inflation, what it has actually suffered from are inflation in work and responsibility, dilution in research focus, and decimation of independence.

It is hard to combine the worst features of PDFs and faculty positions, and the OCAP scheme has somehow achieved it!

As a post-doc, OCAPs will have teaching and committee work, no research focus and no guarantee of a regular job at the end of their tenure. As assistant professors, they will have no independence, little or no start-up grants, and no guarantee of a regular position.

* * *

The OCAP scheme is bad for the institutions. And it's bad for the victims hired under that scheme.

Do the right thing, Mr. Sibal. Please scrap this scheme.



Thursday, September 24, 2009

Autonomy! How senior faculty at IITs hijacked a junior faculty concern to help themselves

If you have just got a 75 percent raise, how would you look if you threaten to go on a hunger strike asking for a further raise of 2 percent?

If you don't want to look ridiculous, and if you still want to fight for that extra 2 percent raise, you better find some other way of telling the world that a lot more is at stake.

In other words, you look for a principle that you can defend in a public setting.

The principle should be uncontroversial, grand and elevating -- like, motherhood, masala dosa and monomaniacal war with MHRD.

[You can never lose on the last one; going to war with government is always a PR winner!]

IIT faculty associations were in a hurry to find such a principle. What they did find is pretty brilliant:


* * *

I just finished watching a half-hour show on CNN-IBN on the IIT faculty salary issue. It had three people batting for IIT faculty: Chetan Bhagat (yes, he of the "Three Mistakes" fame), Prof. Balakrishnan of IIT-D, and Prof. Indiresan, ex-Director of IIT-M. They were all chanting the same mantra: "The hunger strike is not about pay; it's about autonomy!"

This has been going on for over two days. Every newspaper / TV channel is peddling this nonsense.


As the media went to town over how MHRD was pounding IITs' autonomy into the ground, I wondered: how is it that a simple dispute about faculty pay scales suddenly turn into a soul-stirring cry for autonomy? How is it that the IIT faculty federations's original memorandum sound generally reasonable to me? Was this autonomy thingy always there (but missed by me)? Or, is it simply being used in a cynical exercise of shifting the goal posts?

I went back and checked the two documents submitted by the IIT faculty federations to the government. They are dated 23 August 2009 and 21 September 2009. The first one recounts their demands; the second one articulates why they are rejecting the 16 September notification before rehashing their demands one more time.

Neither of them contains the word "autonomy."

You don't have to take my word for it: check them out yourself.

* * *

If I sound pissed, I am. The IIT faculty had one genuine grievance (after the revised notification of September 16), and they mucked it up royally.

That grievance arose from the clause about on-contract assistant professors, whose salary is at least a third less than that of real assistant professors. This killer clause is going to affect IITs' ability to recruit assistant professors (especially in the next two years), not because their absolute salary is low, but because the comparison is now with the salary of real assistant professors.

The IIT faculty took this one truly genuine, golden grievance, and mixed it with lots of cheap metal scrap, gave it a nice, shiny coat of autonomy. It sold it to the media as designer jewellery!

At the end of the day, I am bitter because the one genuine grievance has ended up being de-emphasized in the second round, just as it did in the first.

Trust the senior faculty to push their case as hard as possible. Trust them to exploit a genuinely junior faculty grievance to help their own piffling cause.

How low were the stakes for the senior faculty?

An extra AGP of Rs. 500 for associate and full professors, and a shot at an extra AGP of Rs. 1,500 for some 60 percent of professors who aren't getting a chance to be called "senior professors." They translate to, roughly, 1 to 2 percent of one's salary.

Make no mistake: It is this piffle that's masquerading as a cry for autonomy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More bad news for Sancheti

The New Indian Express has a second follow up on l'affaire Sancheti (see also this and this). Many of the claims he has made in his response to TNIE's questions have now been refuted by the publisher of the journal in which his paper appeared.

Here's an excerpt:

National Institute of Technology Karnataka (NIT-K) director Dr Sandeep Sancheti’s statements refuting the plagiarism allegations against him appears to have backfired with the journal, in which his paper was published, challenging his views. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) journal’s editor Stuart Govan, in an e-mail to Express, has called the retracted paper ‘plagiarised’, barred a co-author of the paper from reviewing or publishing in the journal for 12 months and promised that the paper would be labelled retracted on the journal’s website.

Due to some strange quirks of the TNIE site, the full report has not appeared in the linked page; however, the reporter, Shamsheer Yousaf, has added the missing bits in the comments. So, do read the comments as well -- at least the first three!

Half-truths and Harvard comparisons: The Curious Arguments in IIM-A pay hike demands

The memorandum submitted by the IIM-A faculty council irritated the hell out of me. It doesn't take much effort to conclude -- and to show -- that the document is filled with extravagant claims, "supported" by bald assertions, shady arguments, half-truths, and even lies.

So, the natural question is this: How can faculty members -- with a stake in protecting their academic reputation -- deem this document fit to be submitted to the government -- and, by implication, the people of India?

In short, what happened to their own judgement?

I reproduce below something that I wrote over a week ago as a possible opinion piece. While waiting for it to find a home in some MSM outlet, I noticed some chatter from IIM-A folks, and decided not to wait any longer. I'm posting it here.

* * *

Half-truths and Harvard Comparisons: The Memorandum from IIM-A Faculty Council

Imagine this scenario: A manager has just got a 75 percent raise, but thinks he deserves a better deal. He goes to his boss and says, "You know, similar positions in other companies pay 300 to 400 percent of what I make -- after this 75% raise."

After that impressive build-up, if I tell you that he demanded a hike of 22%, how would you react?

Did I hear you say, "What an idiot!"? Exactly.

Here's how that scenario played out in real life: In a memorandum submitted to MHRD, the faculty council at IIM-Ahmedabad first compared assistant professors' salary after the pay hike (Rs. 38,000 per month) with that at Harvard Business School (Rs. 1.91 lakhs per month, after a PPP adjustment) and Indian School of Business (Rs. 1.66 lakhs). It capped this analysis by demanding a 22% hike, from Rs. 38,000 to Rs. 46,400 per month.

Frankly, I have nothing against these pay hike demands. Heck, I'll be among the beneficiaries if they are accepted! But the demands must have a certain legitimacy, and the supporting arguments must follow rules of what Amartya Sen calls public reasoning.

Take, for example, the modest demands made by IIT faculty associations. They invoke comparisons with other public sector institutions, and limit themselves to getting IIT faculty the benefits that are already available to their cousins in universities and government R&D labs. While he government has contested these demands, it has done so without questioning the legitimacy of the arguments advanced to support them.

In contrast, the IIM-A faculty representatives have made extravagant demands that are way beyond the Sixth Pay Commission norms. Worse, in their zeal to argue their case forcefully, they have filled their memorandum with illegitimate arguments, half-truths and even lies.

Here's a sample: "the present notification by making the IIM [assistant professors'] scale equal to the UGC scale is tantamount to downgrading of the IIM pay scale as compared to the previous scale."

Never mind the 'scale' of confusion in that muddled sentence. It packs within it a half-truth and a lie!

First, the half-truth. With a huge difference in the salaries of assistant professors in both IIMs and UGC institutions -- Rs. 38,000 at IIMs against Rs. 21,600 in universities -- isn't it misleading to suggest that their salaries belong to the same 'scale'?

Now, the lie. In the part that says, "... it's tantamount to downgrading of IIM pay scale," the comparison is between IIM assistant professors and university readers. In the old regime, they had the same starting basic salary of Rs. 12,000. In the new regime, their starting salaries are Rs. 38,000 and Rs. 30,320, with the IIMs being privileged over the universities.

If anything, it is the readers in UGC institutions who should be protesting against the 'downgrading'!

I don't know how some of our finest minds ended up making these disingenuous assertions and ridicule-worthy arguments.

But what I do know is that as salaried employees, bureaucrats and faculty are fundamentally different. Unlike bureaucrats, faculty members can augment their salaries through quite a few remunerative activities -- all legal! Consulting is a popular activity, and so is teaching short courses, aka executive development programmes.

What I do know is that cash-rich institutions can use their government-given autonomy to offer their faculty more money; IIT-B and IIT-D, for example, give their junior faculty extra cash during their early years.

What I do know is that IIM-A is pretty cash-rich; it says on its website that it hasn't availed any government grant for several years now. So, in principle, nothing comes in the way of IIM-A making its faculty as rich as their Harvard counterparts.

In response to that last point, IIM-A faculty council may argue that their demands are not just for IIM-A, but for the IIM system as a whole. Okay, but it still makes us wonder which IIM they were comparing Harvard with. The one in Shillong?

In normal language, the IIM-A faculty council's memorandum is best described as a train-wreck. Internet offers a pithy alternative: Fail!

Finally, a bit of dark humour in the IIM-A memorandum. Immediately after the comparison with Harvard, it insists that, without that 22% pay hike, the government "runs the very real risk of ... loosing [sic] the faculty it already has in [its] premier technical institutions." Doesn't this risk assessment insult IIM-A's senior faculty? Isn't it equivalent to asking them, "If you are so smart, why are you (still) at IIM-A?"

I have never seen a more spectacular self-goal.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

MacArthur Fellows ...

... were announced today.

I am happy to see Prof. L. Mahadevan (IIT-M alum and professor at Harvard) in the impressive line-up of people who won the Genius Awards from the MacArthur Foundation this year. I learned about his interesting work from this profile in the Harvard Magazine. Ashutosh Jogalekar alerted me about another profile that appeared in Boston Globe later last year.

I am also happy to see on that list MIT economist Esther Duflo whose research on India is well known: see, for example, Remedying Education: Evidence from Two Randomized Experiments in India, and Why Political Reservations?.

L'Affaire Sancheti: SSV gets into the act

In the first update since his exposé yesterday, Shamsheer Yousaf reports that the Society for Scientific Values will investigate into the allegations of plagiarism against Prof. Sandeep Sancheti.

... the Society for Scientific Values (SSV) — the country’s only research misconduct watch-group — has decided to investigate the case Speaking from New Delhi, SSV president, and former IIT Kharagpur Director K L Chopra said, “We will convey our overall views to the NIT-K Board of Governors Chairman Goverdhan Mehta for further action.’’ Chopra said that following a meeting of the executive committee of SSV, the details of the case will be published on the SSV website.[...]

While SSV does not have any statutory powers, it has been active in investigating several high-profile plagiarism cases in the past.

SSV, as some of you might know, has been involved in investigating allegations of scientific misconduct and fraud. There have been many reports and articles over the last several years demanding a statutory status for SSV (or a similar organization) so that these investigations will follow a fair and standard procedure, with a reasonably clear, unimpeachable closure, so that everyone can move on.

One of the recent reports on something that SSV worked on was the NIPER affair, where a whistle-blower is trying to get his job back after the institution turned on him for his good deed.

At the end of G. Mudur's story in The Telegraph, we find this quote:

The SSV has long been urging the government to create a mechanism to investigate science misconduct. “I think this is a legitimate demand,” said Goverdhan Mehta, former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Science policy makers and SSV members say there is no evidence to suggest that research misconduct is more common in India than elsewhere. But many countries have formal mechanisms to deal with this, said Chopra, the SSV president.

“The SSV has good intentions but it is a toothless body,” Mehta said.

Here's the punchline. The man bemoaning the "toothless" state of SSV, Prof. G. Mehta, is the occupant of the most "toothful" position at NIT-K: Chairman of its governing board.

My eyes are fixed on the next actions of this board.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fisking Sancheti

In many cases of plagiarism, we don't get to hear much from the perpetrator except for a mini-quote here and there. But in Sancheti's case, TNIE has done us all a favour by publishing Sancheti's detailed response to the newspaper's questions. [See the previous post for all the relevant links; this post is just about Sancheti's response]

Sancheti's defence starts with offence:

The charge is baseless since the background of the paper has not been understood in the right perspective.

What is the right perspective, according to Sancheti?

Firstly, the authors never make a claim for new knowledge through the equations developed. It only made an appropriate usage duly acknowledging the persons who actually did it. To support above I quote from the journal’s (IET Journal) editorial:”Equally aggrieving, of course, is to be accused of plagiarism, and I feel it is important to reiterate that acknowledgment of the original paper was given, if not explicitly.” In this case, the fact remains that authors have referenced Naryanan’s paper thrice in addition to several other references from other important researchers.


The facts are against Sancheti here. Sancheti and his co-authors may have cited the work of Nayaranan et al (1996), but they didn't cite that work where it really mattered: the plagiarized parts -- primarily, Section 2 -- of their 2007 paper. The implications of this action -- or, non-action -- of theirs is clear: those parts represent their original contribution. This is not just the right perspective, it's the only valid perspective!

Sancheti's use of citations to the 1996 paper is not "the right perspective." It is spin. Sure, the 1996 paper is cited, but not in the parts that are haunting him now.

* * *

A bit later, he quotes from the editorial announcing that the 2007 paper was being retracted:

Therefore, while acknowledging the original authors, there might arise some communication barrier such as perception, technical completeness, significance of information etc.

To support the above I once again quote verbatim from editorial. “While it is indeed true that Joshi et al cite in their work, the impression created in the readers’ minds is that the equations derived in their work are based on their own work. Outright plagiarism, of course, is constituted by the copying of material with no acknowledgment of the source, which is not the case here. Due acknowledgment has been given by the author, which makes one reluctant to pass judgement on the author’s intention in reproducing the material.” It is absolutely clear from the above that it is just an impression, and that the editors have not passed any judgment.

"It is just an impression." That's what his primary defence amounts to. Not whether this impression is justified. If you read the original and the plagiarized pieces, I have no doubt at all that you too would be convinced that it was plagiarism.

* * *

Then comes this very curious defence:

The paper still remains to be online as you can check from copy of the download attached with this [mail].

So what? So are so many other disgraced papers that continue to be available years after their officially pronounced demise.

Want examples? Take a look at this post.

I don't know what prevents journals from yanking these papers off their websites, and from putting up a note blaring "This paper was plagiarized, so it has been retracted. Go to this page to access that disgraceful paper." Looks like Sancheti will not settle for anything other than such a bold (and ugly) measure!

Isn't Sancheti playing a shady game here? Isn't he misleading people by effectively saying, "What plagiarism? What retraction? The paper is still available!"

* * *

Then, there's this:

On whether he has disclosed the matter either to NIT-K’s Board of Governors or the MHRD.

A: Allegations/impressions remain as they are till they are proved beyond doubt for any offence, therefore there is no need for informing authorities about it. In any case, since the matter has come to my notice now, I will take it up with the publishers as they did not inform us of their action.

Take a look at that answer and see if there's more dishonesty behind it. Academic publishers may be profit-hungry leeches; but by the same token, they also do everything to cover their asses when they do something that could potentially damage people's reputation -- nobody wants an unnecessary (and expensive) lawsuit alleging libel and defamation.

Is it possible that the journal alerted only one of the authors, first about the problem in their paper, and later about their decision to retract the paper? Is it possible that this author is not Sancheti? Is it possible, then, that this author -- either S. Joshi or A. Goyal -- didn't alert his co-authors about these letters / e-mails?

Is it also possible that Sancheti was unaware of the commotion among concerned NIT-K alumni (see this post, for example)?

All those things are possible, but then, what do they tell us about Sancheti's cluelessness? How can someone be so ignorant about an event that could have such a serious, career-threatening consequence?

In any case, further investigations will clear up this matter, and my guess is that Sancheti's version is likely to survive them. Sancheti is likely busy preparing a statement that he was misquoted here.

* * *

Here's the best part of his response:

On whether he should still continue as Director?

A: Since the allegations are baseless, the issue does not arise.

Sancheti just doesn't get it!

He has to go. Not as a professor of electronics and communication engineering, but as the Director of NIT-K.

In discussing the Anna University case, I said:

In the hierarchy of crimes in science (or, scholarship in general), plagiarism ranks lower than fabrication and falsification of research data, and rightly so. In other countries, one loses one's job for fabrication, and at least one went to jail! But I'm not aware of anyone who has lost his/her job for plagiarism.

In other words, plagiarism is "merely serious" -- as opposed to fabrication and falsification which are "Really Serious." Typically, the perpetrators of plagiarism are censured, which is clearly a public embarrassment.

But plagiarism is a bad, bad deal if the perpetrators occupy (or, want to occupy) positions where they have power over people. In such positions, there's this not insignificant problem of having to censure other perpetrators of similar (or, more serious) crimes. They would need a lot of moral authority, wouldn't they, to perform this highly unpleasant task?

It is the loss of moral authority that Sancheti has to worry about in the short run. History may be on the side of protecting his professorial salary but, as this TNIE story shows, history is certainly not on the side of protecting his position of power over people [though, I would still have to wonder about his power over his students if he is allowed to advise them on their research].

It is Sancheti's position as the Director of NIT-K that makes this plagiarism charge problematic for him and his institution.

Sancheti must step down and step away. If he doesn't do it voluntarily, it's the job of the NIT-K Board to make him do it.

Plagiarism charges against NIT-K Director Sandeep Sancheti

Shamsheer Yousaf of The New Indian Express has the (gory) details:

  1. Probe Against NIT Director for Plagiarism: Outlines the story of a 2007 paper that was retracted by the publishers in 2008.

  2. Thou Shalt Not Copy: Presents a summary of the instances of plagiarism committed by the authors of the 2007 paper. It's a good summary ["the Narayanan paper" in the excerpts below is the "original", published in 1996]:

    The first three sentences of the introduction to the [2007] paper have been lifted verbatim from the [1996] Narayanan paper. Another two sentences that appears later in this section are also similar. This section also has two references to the original paper, though it has been placed next to text which incidentally does not refer to the original text

    ...The second section of the paper which runs to nearly a page, is where most of the alleged plagiarism has taken place. Barring two sentences, the entire section has been repeated verbatim from the Narayanan paper.

    This is where a large part of the theory of the paper is developed. Crucially, there is no attribution anywhere to the Narayanan paper in this section.

    ... Most of the text in this section is a replica of the Narayanan paper. Though there is a reference to the Narayanan paper, it is placed at the end of the section, and does not clearly indicate that the text preceding it is from the same paper.

Two other stories accompany the main ones:

  1. The first has excerpts from Prof. Sancheti's response.

  2. The other has some snippets from the history of plagiarism by Indian scholars. At least three cases -- B.S. Rajput, Mashelkar, S. Selladurai -- should be familiar to longtime readers of this blog. I was not aware of the other two cases: Ranjit Singh and Kalyankumar.

Those of you who have access to the relevant journals can take a look at the 2007 paper, the 1996 original, and the editorial announcing the retraction of the former. The conclusion is quite inescapable, except for a minor wrinkle: even though extensive parts of the 2007 paper have been plagiarized with no citation whatsoever, other parts of that paper do indeed carry a citation to the original. But, the plagiarized part is so blatant -- you just have to look at Figure 1 in each paper -- that the editorial team's choice was already made for them!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The one costly mistake IITs made ...

... was in not protesting against the clause on the lecturer-cum-post-doc position.

I mean, they did protest, but not on the really important issue of the salary for this position. The effect of this half-hearted and ineffective protest is that, in the revised notification, the MHRD was content with a cosmetic change: it re-named that position to "assistant professors hired on contract."

But, "on contract" assistant professors are not the same as "real" assistant professors; candidates with less than three years of post-doctoral experience are eligible -- going strictly by the text of the notifications -- to be hired only as "on contract" assistant professors, but not as real ones.

And here's the killer: the "on contract" kind will earn less than Rs. 25,000 [Rs. 15,600 + seven non-compounded increments (3276) + AGP of 6000], compared to Rs. 38,000 for their "real" siblings.

This clause is a killer for IITs because their biggest need is for engineering PhDs who are in short supply. For the sciences, on the other hand, this is not likely to pose a major problem because most of their faculty applicants already have 3+ post-doc years.

The IIT faculty associations were right to focus on the interests of the existing faculty. [Also, almost by definition, they are not geared to take care of their members-in-waiting!] So, I wouldn't blame them for not making a huge noise about this clause.

However, I would certainly blame the IIT directors for taking their eyes off this clause. This is going to hurt them.

Unless, of course, they have a secret -- or, unpublicized! -- agreement with MHRD that they will have the flexibility to offer "real" assistant professorships to engineering PhDs with less than 3 years of post-doc.

I wouldn't rule out this possibility.

In the absence of such an agreement, they will have to come up with ways of finding extra cash -- by dipping into their corpus, for example -- to sweeten the deal for their "on contract" assistant professors.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How much do IIMs make through CAT?

From this story by The Economic Times' Hemali Chhapia:

... An RTI response revealed that the IIMs raked in Rs 28.36 crore in 2007-’ 08, up from Rs 24.16 crore the previous year, from CAT.

With about 450 faculty members in all the IIMs, the figure for 2007-08 -- Rs. 28.34 crore -- works out to about Rs. 630,000 per faculty.

[450 is an intentional overestimate. Here's a rough break-up (to within plus/minus 3): Ahmedabad -- 95 , Bangalore -- 103, Calcutta -- 90, Kozhikode -- 35, Indore -- 35, and Shillong --17. I don't have the number for Lucknow since the website is down as I write this post; I'm assuming it's about 50.].

Given the scale of operations (and from rumours we hear about GATE finances), I would expect the 'profit' from CAT to be at least a fourth of the revenues, and I wouldn't be surprised if it is as high as half the revenues. In other words, the profit per faculty is likely in the range of Rs. 150,000 - Rs. 300,000.

Not bad at all.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The new pay notification for the IIXs ...

... is here.

For the IIX faculty, MHRD has made one major concession: Assistant professors will move to Pay Band 4 automatically after 3 years; when they do so, their AGP will also go up to Rs. 9,000. This benefit was given to readers in UGC institutions, but not to the IIX assistant professors -- a clear anomaly. I'm glad MHRD acted to eliminate this problem.

[Here's another 'concession': in the earlier notification, fresh PhD hired by the IIXs were to be called Lecturers-cum-Post-Doctoral Fellows. Now, they will be called Assistant Professors (on contract). Same difference? You bet!]

Other than these, MHRD hasn't yielded an inch on anything else: Associate Professors will not get an AGP of Rs. 10,000. Professors are not getting an AGP of Rs. 11,000. The 40 percent cap on the number of professors who go on to a higher AGP of 12,000 after six years of service has not budged. The bunching up of increments (at all levels) has not been addressed.

And, there is no scholastic pay.

I'm very happy with what the Assistant professors have got -- MHRD has done the right thing here.

And I am not unhappy with the MHRD's firm stand on any of the other things.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

ToI Interview of Prof. S. Sadagopan of IIIT-B

Shruthi Balakrishna and Darinia Khongwir interviewed   Prof. S. Sadagopan, Dirctor, Indian Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, on the occasion of that institution's 10th birthday. I'm linking to the interview here mainly for the kind of bold vision articulated by Prof. Sadagopan.

There are other interesting bits as well; here's how he compares his institution with IITs:

We have become a university, have a nice campus and many put us in the league of big and established institutes. It's very pleasing for us, but we also tremble inside.


Because recently, there was a column which was trying to compare the number of research papers produced. It said that a typical IIT has 3,000 papers and we produce 279. Anybody who looks at it cursorily will say that's bad. But what they don't realize is that we are a small institute. A typical IIT has a faculty of 400-500 members, while IIIT-B has 20. If you look at it that way, we are much better off.

Why the disparity then?

Very often, we are put on a par with IISc, whose budget is Rs 500 crore, while ours is not even Rs 10 crore. The total grant to IIIT-B from the government has been Rs 10 crore over 10 years.

The study he talks about is by Gangan Prathap and B.M. Gupta, which we covered here.

Here's another bit from the interview:

Will you introduce UG programmes?

Introducing UG has its own disadvantages and one cannot jump into it quickly. We don't want to fall into the `fashion-of-the-month' game.

Fashion of the month? He makes it sound as if tons of Indian universities are "falling into [this] game" every month. Wonder where he gets this idea from. Not this, I hope!

Links ...

  1. Charu Sudan Kasturi in The Telegraph: Kendriya Vidyalayas reject girl quota proposal.

    The Kendriya Vidyalayas have rejected a central panel’s proposal to reserve 50 per cent seats for girls and suggested alternative affirmative action, exposing rare differences within the government over quotas.

    The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS), which governs 981 schools catering to over a million children, has suggested fee waivers and scholarships instead of quotas to help girl students.

    The rejection of the quota proposal was accepted by human resource development minister Kapil Sibal, who conducted the meeting as chairperson of the KVS, top sources on the board said.

  2. Sharon Begley in Newsweek: Pink Brain, Blue Brain:

    For her new book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, Eliot immersed herself in hundreds of scientific papers (her bibliography runs 46 pages). Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people. For instance, the idea that the band of fibers connecting the right and left brain is larger in women, supposedly supporting their more "holistic" thinking, is based on a single 1982 study of only 14 brains. Fifty other studies, taken together, found no such sex difference—not in adults, not in newborns. Other baseless claims: that women are hard-wired to read faces and tone of voice, to defuse conflict, and to form deep friendships; and that "girls' brains are wired for communication and boys' for aggression." Eliot's inescapable conclusion: there is "little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

  3. Alison Booth in Vox EU: Gender, Risk, and Competition:

    Women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and upper management. Is that due to gender differences in risk aversion and facing competition? This column describes an experiment in which girls were found to be as competitive and risk-taking as boys when surrounded by only girls. This suggests cultural pressure to act as a girl could explain gender differences that are not innate.

    Here's another quote:

    "If risk avoidance is viewed as being a part of female gender identity while risk seeking is a part of male gender identity, then being in a coeducational school environment might lead girls to make safer choices than boys."

  4. Eli Thorkelson has an interesting piece on Gender Imbalance in Anthropology.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Links ...

  1. Rainbow Scientist: Snobbery of Elite Educational Institutes in India.

  2. Joy Monteiro at Reflections on Everything: IISc - First Impressions.

  3. A wiki on the 50 year history of IIT-Madras.

  4. Bala Murali Krishna in The New Indian Express: Do IITs need friends?

  5. T.T. Ram Mohan in The Economic Times: IITs and IIMs: Yash Pal is Wrong: "The Yash Pal committee on higher education now wants the IITs and IIMs to develop into full-fledged universities. The committee is dead wrong. The IITs and IIMs have other priorities. Besides, replicating the IIT/IIM experience at universities may be infeasible."

    Ram Mohan has a bit more to say on this on his blog.

Links ...

  1. Adam Kirsch in City Journal: Justice and Its Critics. A review of Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice and Michael Sandel's Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do?

  2. Justice K. Kannan (Judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court): To Blog, or not to Blog:

    Am I glad, it is all over?


    Am I sad that it is over now?


  3. Tazeen puts the new search engine I'm Halal through some tests. The results are bizarre quite intriguing!

  4. Finally, some electron porn from Abstruse Goose.

Love in mathematics

Be my multiple, I'll be your factor.

This geeky sweet-nothing is the title of Chapter 6 in ...

... Class 5 mathematics text from NCERT!

NCERT rocks!

* * *

The title seems to be an NCERT original; almost all the links from Google are about this text / lesson.

* * *

There's one more reason NCERT rocks. Its texts for all the classes are available online for free. I have browsed through some of them, and they are very, very good.

* * *

Hat tip to Varun, our son's friend, our friends' son, and a student of Class V in the Kendriya Vidyalaya in the IISc campus.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Annals of online education

A bunch of links, all of them interesting. Key take-aways:

  • internet will do to universities what they have already done to newspapers -- either decimate them or make their (commercial) life miserable.

  • these are early days, so expect a lot of experiments [I especially like the comparison -- I don't recall where I saw it -- with TV's early days when radio programs were beamed with a picture].

Okay, on to the links.

  1. Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly: College for $99 a Month

    Traditional universities are complex and expensive, providing a range of services from scientific research and graduate training to mass entertainment via loosely affiliated professional sports franchises. To fund these things, universities tap numerous streams of revenue: tuition, government funding, research grants, alumni and charitable donations. But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

    But this arrangement, however beneficial to society as a whole, is not a particularly good deal for the freshman gutting through an excruciating fifty minutes in the back of a lecture hall. Given the choice between paying many thousands of dollars to a traditional university for the lecture and paying a few hundred to a company like StraighterLine for a service that is more convenient and responsive to their needs, a lot of students are likely to opt for the latter—and the university will have thousands of dollars less to pay for libraries, basketball teams, classical Chinese poetry experts, and everything else.

    What happens when the number of students making that choice reaches a critical mass? Consider the fate of the newspaper industry over the last five years. Like universities, newspapers relied on financial cross-subsidization to stay afloat, using fat profits from local advertising and classifieds to prop up money-losing news bureaus. This worked perfectly well until two things happened: the Internet made opinion and news content from around the world available for nothing, and the free online classified clearinghouse Craigslist obliterated newspapers’ bedrock revenue source, the want ads. Suddenly, people didn’t need to buy a newspaper to read news, and the papers’ ability to subsidize expensive reporting with ad revenue was crippled. The result: plummeting newspaper profits leading to a tidal wave of layoffs and bankruptcies, and the shuttering of bureaus in Washington and abroad.

    Like Craigslist, StraighterLine threatens the most profitable piece of a conglomerate business: freshman lectures, higher education’s equivalent of the classified section. If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built. [...]

  2. Zephyr Teachout in Slate: Welcome to Yahoo! U:

    Both newspapers and universities have traditionally relied on selling hard-to-come-by information. Newspapers touted advertising space next to breaking news, but now that advertisers find their customers on Craigslist and, the main source of reporters’ pay is vanishing. Colleges also sell information, with a slightly different promise—a degree, a better job, access to brilliant minds and training in the art of thinking. As with newspapers, some of these features are now available elsewhere. You don’t need to be in the classroom to see a slide or find links to books about the controversy around “Le Dejeuner sur L’herbe,” and you don’t need to be in the room to ask questions about the classifications of staff in the basics of hotel management. A student can already access videotaped lectures, full courses, free articles, and openly available syllabi online—plus books that can be searched and borrowed from libraries around the world. The amount of structured information is already astounding, and in five or 10 years, the curious 18- (or 54)-year-old will be able to find dozens of quality online History of the Chinese Revolution classes, complete with video lectures, syllabi, take-it-yourself tests, a bulletin board populated by other “students,” and links to free academic literature.

    But the demand for college isn’t just about the yearning to learn—it’s also motivated by the hope of getting a degree. Online qualifications cost a college less to provide. Schools don’t need to rent the space, and the glut of Ph.D. students means they can pay instructors a fraction of the salary for a tenured professor, ask the instructors to work from home, and assume that they will rely on shared syllabi instead of always developing their own.

  3. Steve Lohr in NYTimes: At your fingers, an Oxford don:

    SINCE the 16th century, the ideal of education has been the tutorial system pioneered at Oxford and Cambridge, nurturing young minds one to one, inquiring, prodding and encouraging. The tutorial method, research shows, is a proven winner. But it is also highly elitist, hardly a system for educating the masses. So the drive for public education, in America and elsewhere, required a very different model — of one to many, with the teacher standing in front of a classroom, working from a textbook and lecturing. Education moved from a bespoke craft to a more industrial approach.

    Today, though, 21st-century technology carries the potential to nudge mainstream education back toward the 16th-century vision of one-to-one tutoring.

    The Internet, high-speed networks, powerful and lighter computers, and clever software for video, collaboration and simulations on the Web all help. Equally important is a maturing understanding of how to use wisely the new digital tools in education. The goal, proponents say, is to open the door to more engaged, interactive and personalized learning.

  4. This one is not really about online education, but about the economics of large scale higher education. Ron Lieber in NYTimes: Why College Costs So Much:

    ... “Fine arts has studio-based production, so capital and facility costs are high,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the nonprofit group Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, speaking of colleges in general. “Piano tutoring is pretty much one to one in a room with a piano. Pianos are expensive. Agriculture is expensive because of the lab costs, which means a barn.”

    An English student, however, is generally a profit center. “They’re paying for the chemistry major and the music major and faculty research,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it in institutions, because the English department gets mad. The little ugly facts about cross-subsidies are inflammatory, so they get papered over.”

    About all Mr. Weiss will say about this is that he agrees that Lafayette needs to do a better job of discriminating between the things it can and cannot do well. He is too good on the politics to single out any department. But there is little doubt that he and administrators like him will need to give up on some foreign languages, minor sciences or parts of the arts pretty soon.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When the going gets tough, ...

... the tough run to the government.

Ooooh! That delicious piece of snark from Uwe Reinhardt is almost as good as this other slogan from Jeff Frankel: There are no libertarians in a financial crisis.

Uwe Reinhardt's piece is a great lesson in rhetoric.

Go read all of it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Making fun of ...

... ophthalmologists, biologists and economists. All these cartoons came my way in the last couple of days ...

At Magadh University, the Vice Chancellor is on the run

The Telegraph broke this story last week, with a follow-up yesterday.

Vice–Chancellor of Magadh University B.N. Pandey has gone into hiding after a criminal case was slapped on him, charging him of fraudulent conduct, forgery and of intimidating a government auditor examining university accounts.

The case can put the man behind bars for 10 years and was made after an inquiry, conducted by Magadh commissioner, found him guilty of threatening a government auditor after the state froze university accounts.

According to the report, an appointment racket was conducted from Pandey’s residence and appointments were made against non-existent posts.

This is not the first time that Pandey has found himself on the wrong side of law. [...]

You really have to read the rest of it for a sense of how 'colourful' this guy has been. And also for a sense of the state of our state universities.

Meanwhile at NIPER, a whistleblower is in trouble

The Telegraph's G. Mudur recounts a distressing story about a whistleblower getting the stick; an inquiry committee has now asked the institution to take him back:

The institution had refused to renew the contract of organic chemist Animesh Roy in October 2005, alleging poor performance and disobedience. An internal committee that reviewed his work before his dismissal had noted that, during his assessment, he could not even write correctly the chemical structures of certain compounds on which he had worked.

But an inquiry panel set up by Niper’s board of governors has now said the institute punished Roy for blowing the whistle on unethical research practices by the head of its pharmaceutical technology department, Uttam Chand Banerjee.

Two independent scientists asked by the panel to evaluate Roy’s performance have given him high grades. The panel has called on the institute to reappoint Roy and initiate action against Banerjee.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The road to IIT-BHU

Another milestone has been crossed:

Human resource development minister Kapil Sibal has cleared the last roadblock to the conversion of Banaras Hindu University’s engineering wing into an IIT, accepting an administrative umbilical chord threatening to strangle the promised upgrade.

Sibal has accepted a BHU demand that its vice-chancellor be made a co-chairman on the board of governors of the proposed IIT to be created by cleaving the 93-year old university.

Top government officials confirmed to The Telegraph that Sibal yesterday signed his approval on the BHU demand, ending over three years of hectic bargaining between the university and the Centre.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Links ...

  1. Paul Krugman in NYTimes Magazine: How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? See also Sean Carroll's Mistaking Beauty for Truth, and Krugman's response.

  2. Edward Glaeser in TNR: What a City Needs.

  3. Female Science Professor: Micro-Inequalities. See also Niket Kaisare's post with a few more examples from India.

  4. Michael Massing in NYRB: A New Horizon for the News.

The New Indian Express on IISc's proposed UG program

Shamsheer Yousaf has a couple of stories on the proposed UG program at IISc.

The Indian Institute of Science’s (IISc) much-anticipated Undergraduate (UG) programme is most likely to be held at the institute’s Bangalore campus, and not at its proposed campus at Chitradurga.

This is part of a series of changes that the Institute incorporated into the original plan to bring on board faculty members who had expressed reservations on the programme.

On April 2, Express had reported that there was a proposal to start a 4-year Bachelor of Science (BS) programme at the IISc’s upcoming campus at Chitradurga.

How not to ask for a pay hike: 3. We'll lose our smart faculty

I have a humble request to the faculty members at IIM-A.

Please don't say things like this:

"The MHRD wants world-class quality in the IIMs. But quality comes at a cost. Unless the government reconsiders the entry-level pay in premier academic institutions, it runs a very real risk of not only not attracting new talent, but also losing the faculty that it already has," the memorandum said. [Bold emphasis added]

Please remember that there are so many senior professors among your ranks. If you still insist on the correctness of this risk analysis, you are saying -- implicitly, of course -- that they are all lucking fosers.Or, incompetent retards. Or, ...

That's all.

* * *

Actually, that's not all. You know, perhaps you should consider the following:

  1. The salaries under the Sixth Pay Commission are higher by as much as 75 percent for all categories.

  2. The SPC award comes at a time when firms have been on either reduced or frozen hiring. I hear people talking about a "global recession" and a general glut in the market for managers.

  3. Putting these two observations together, I think a reasonable person would conclude that during the past decade or so, the salaries were far lower than at present, and the external conditions were far better than at present.

And yet, a large number of IIM-A's senior professors chose to stay on. To me, this cries out for an explanation. Unlike what you seem to think, I actually think of IIM-A professors as (somewhat) rational beings who respond to incentives. You know, incentives such as:

  • Non-salary benefits. Safe, comfortable on-campus housing, a congenial atmosphere for kids to grow up in, etc.

  • Many opportunities for earning extra money through consulting and EDPs.

  • Maybe, just maybe, a benign environment that makes minimal demands on faculty, generally making life quite comfortable.

One could think of several others. Thus, I suspect you are grossly overestimating the risk of losing people.

Please don't back up your salary demands using justifications that can't survive even minimal scrutiny.

At the least, please don't let your justifications give the impression that those who leave IIM-A are somehow superior to, or smarter than, those who choose to stay on. You are sending a very wrong signal.

That's all.

The Telegraph comments on IISc's proposed undergraduate program

Its editorial is very positive.

At the root of the word, ‘science’, is the idea of knowledge. It is important to remember this when education in India seems to be forgetting the crucial distinction between pure learning and the teaching of skills or the practical application of classical systems of knowledge. So when a premier centre of advanced science research like Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science thinks up an undergraduate course in the classical sciences, then it is time to start feeling somewhat reassured. To create a broad and high-calibre foundation in the basics of pure science, mathematics and engineering, rounded off with training in the rudiments of research is a solid idea.

It goes on to make a larger point -- which I agree with, entirely -- that our universities should get on board the undergraduate train:

But it is not enough to create such pockets of pure learning only in a few well-funded institutes. The country’s best universities also need to become centres of classical learning and research, with their faculty compensated and encouraged similarly for this to happen. This is not an elitism-versus-accessibility issue at all, but one of resurrecting universities as centres of learning. In fact, some would argue that burdening advanced research institutes with undergraduate teaching may not be an entirely good idea, and that universities are the best places where this kind of teaching ought to be strengthened. But young learners and advanced scientists could also challenge one another in ways that could benefit both.

The editorial ends with a strong pitch for humanities:

Moreover, this move towards high-quality options for pure learning should not remain confined to the sciences. It is only when the role of the humanities in themselves is also recognized in a similar way, and not merely as a humanizing supplement to a scientific education, that Indian higher education will attain the proper balance that it risks losing now.

* * *

An otherwise un-controversial editorial is marred by this unfortunate remark buried in it:

When the majority of the best minds in science tend to move towards turning themselves into techno-coolies, one hopes that the creation of such opportunities will produce other forms of excellence in Indian higher education.

This says something about the general disrespect that the editorial team has for coolies -- techno or otherwise. Celebrating "the idea of knowledge" should be possible without harboring such thoughts about people's choices, no?