Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bombshell from IIT-K: Faculty Recruitment through JEE

Bombshell from IIT-K: Faculty Recruitment through JEE

Thiruvidaimarudhoor Ananthapadmanabhan
An Interesting Times of India exclusive

In an act of defiance, the IIT-K Senate resolved in an emergency meeting this afternoon to use JEE performance as the sole criterion for recruitment and promotion of its faculty members. Experts have dubbed the latest move a high stakes grenade thrown into the low stakes subculture of Indian academia.


The Senate of IIT-K has also recommended to the IIT-Council that JEE should be the sole criterion for selecting IIT Directors as well. After pointing out that the current interview process is totally dysfunctional, the Senate resolution notes that the new method will have a bonus benefit of getting rid of the most hated figure in the IIT system -- the HRD minister -- from the selection process.

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“This decision on faculty recruitment just spotlights what everyone has known all along,” said Prof. Arpan Roy, the Senate’s media advisor. “JEE is the main reason for our reputation worldwide, and we are determined to leverage it to add a shiny new sheen to our faculty ranks.”

“As our alumni, especially the ministerial ones, have said so often, IITs are special because of their undergrad students. Why are they special? JEE, of course!”

There may be more to the IIT-K move, observers have observed. While IIT students tell mild jokes about their teachers, said Prof. Shashibhushan Sahay, an expert on psychology of IITs students at Imsong University, Shillong, they become more outspoken as alumni in expressing their disdain. The Senate resolution, Sahay noted, may well be a cry for respect.

IIT-K media advisor had a more positive spin, though. “The JEE magic will now rub off on our faculty,” said Roy. “When the exam becomes the sole criterion for recruiting IIT faculty, we too will become famous in Silicon Valley."

"When 60 Minutes come calling, we will welcome them at our swanky new office in Washington DC!”, he thundered.

To another question, Roy responded with a candid admission that he is a great fan of not just JEE alumni, but also Kentucky Fried Chicken, George W. Bush, G.I. Joe, and Rocky IV.

The IIT-K Senate may also have had another motivation in making this move, according to Mr. Narasimhachar Thathachar, a senior analyst at the Institute of IIT ‘Tudies, a Hyderabad based think tank. The new resolution, he says, may well be to meant to impress upon the government that IIT faculty deserve a special treatment not only because they organize the JEE, but also because “they, you know, actually cleared the dreaded exam.”

When asked if a faculty applicant’s PhD and post-doc experience will be given any weight, Roy responded with a firm no. “We don’t give a shit to our UG applicants' past performance, and look how great they are! The same principle must apply to faculty applicants as well. What really counts is how a man performs when the stakes are stacked sky-high.”

To a reporter who pointed out that American universities like Harvard and Yale prefer to use multiple metrics (including whether students’ parents are alumni), Roy responded, “It’s sad to see these universities turn their back on monomaniac Americans.” He praised his Senate colleagues for choosing wisely, and echoed POTUS # 43 in sending a stern message to the other IITs. “You are either with us, or ...," he stumbled before recovering, "... you risk becoming an unknown unknown.”

Roy also informed the reporters that the Senate meeting concluded with a special screening of Independence Day.

At IIT-D, meanwhile, an emergency meeting of the Senate has been called at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. The notice for the meeting, a copy of which this reporter has seen, states that as an institution founded on British collaboration, it was IIT-D’s duty to follow IIT-K, even if it means invading HRD Minister’s Faridabad farmhouse and yelling to his face, “You want a common exam? Here it is -- common to both students and faculty!”.

These developments have been welcomed by the cram schools in Kota and Hyderabad. Said Mr. Vinod Sharma, a highly celebrated teacher at SuperStar Academy (SSA) at Kota, “We look forward to welcoming aspiring IIT faculty, as well as helping current IIT faculty earn their promotion. We plan to open a branch in each IIT.”

"We will teach them what to aspire to," said Mr. Sharma, who is rumored to earn upwards of half a million rupees a month. He added, however, that SSA will go strictly by merit and admit only those faculty who get high marks in SSAT -- the SuperStar Admission Test.

Sitting next to Mr. Sharma with a wide grin on his face was Mr. Rohit Singh, the owner of Star Academy, also at Kota.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Prof. P.V. Indiresan's Bold Idea

Quotas are bad, bad, bad, except for the rich and powerful.

... in the past week, I had come to the conclusion that the youth from rich and powerful families too have their own rights. Whether we like it or not, they will have enormous influence over how the economy will grow.

The former US President, Mr George Bush, was admitted to Yale not because he was brilliant, but because he was the son of another former US President.

Such youth need good education, particularly, good Indian education. Hence, I suggest that the IITs apply the Pareto criterion — reserve 20 per cent of seats for the very rich or powerful after charging them 80 per cent of the costs. The other 80 per cent should be selected on the basis of merit — as decided by the faculty — and get charged only 20 per cent of the costs. [Bold emphasis added]

That this stuff comes after some muddle about ownership of IITs is also revealing. I looked for sarcasm alerts around this latest brain wave, but couldn't find any.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

State of our State Universities

Exhibit A: The sad saga of the Department of Crystallography and Biophysics at the University of Madras.

Exhibit B: An appeal from several scholars urging the Kerala government: Don't mess with autonomy of M.G. University.

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Bonus: This one is not about state universities, but about an obnoxious feature of our funding agencies: the clout of their finance officials [pdf].

On Entrance Exams

First, a couple of fairly uncontroversial observations.

  1. There will always be stiff competition for entry into elite colleges -- even if India creates 50 IIts, there will still be a scramble for a seat at, say, IIT-B (going by current trends). With stiff competition, there will always be a need for some filtering mechanism.

  2. A mechanism that considers many aspects of a student's academic (and even non-academic) record, skills, and preparation is better than one that relies on his/her performance in one high-stakes exam.

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JEE is a bad exam in many ways -- this post from six years ago for some of the details. The most important badness is in its insistence on ranking students -- an exercise with little or no statistical basis that produces noisy results with poor reproducibility.

Unfortunately, the new mechanism proposed by the government does not allow us to move away from the statistically bankrupt idea of ranking students. Even if the two proposed national exams (JEE-Main and JEE-Advanced) are standardized, can their percentile scores be expressed with a precision of one in a million?

And, the proposed mechanism is rigid in fixing the relative weights for the three components, and using this rigid formula for ranking students. From this point on, there's no difference at all between the new mechanism and AIEEE (or JEE).

We can do better.

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Here's one possibility:

Let's say there are N exams in all -- and students get a percentile score in each of them. Now, let the individual institutions choose their weights for each of the N exams.

An institution need not stop there -- it can even insist on ensuring a diverse student body by creating state-wise quotas, and quotas for students from poor families, and for women (in IITs) or men (at St. Stephen's).

Each institution can design its policy so that truly exceptional students (top rankers in National Olympiads, top athletes and sportspersons, accomplished artists, ...) are admitted (as long as they fulfill a certain minimum threshold, and as long as these special talents are backed by objective measures).

This sort of stuff would be horrendously complicated if it were to be implemented manually; with computers, it's just a matter of coding an institution's admissions criteria and let them do the hard work.

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Articulating a vision for your institution's student body and devising an admissions policy that helps you get there are at the core of academic freedom and autonomy.

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All our top institutions have a duty to participate in these policy debates to steer them to a broadly acceptable outcome which gives institutions a viable way to exercise their autonomy.

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Ah, yes, one-handed typing is a bloody pain!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monday, June 04, 2012

On the one hand ...

This is how my left hand looks these days -- a result of a wet floor, an uncontrolled slip-slide, a broken finger, and a surgery to patch up the bone at its tip. It's going to be two or three more weeks of pecking at the keyboard and other such good stuff.

On the other hand, it's better than being featured in ads shown to your Facebook friends :

On Valentine’s Day, Nick Bergus came across a link to an odd product on a 55-gallon barrel of ... personal lubricant.

He found it irresistibly funny and, as one does in this age of instant sharing, he posted the link on Facebook, adding a comment: “For Valentine’s Day. And every day. For the rest of your life.”

Within days, friends of Mr. Bergus started seeing his post among the ads on Facebook pages, with his name and smiling mug shot. Facebook — or rather, one of its algorithms — had seen his post as an endorsement and transformed it into an advertisement, paid for by Amazon.

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Addendum: it's also better than what happened to Facts.