Saturday, June 24, 2006

Quota policy and institutional autonomy

Quite a few people I know are aghast at the brute-force implementation of quotas by the UPA government. Not (just) because they are against quotas, but because the policy is being thrust down the unwilling throats of institutions that will now have to deal with the policy's fallout (much of which is being perceived as adverse to the health of these institutions). In a little noticed (in the blogosphere, at least) article, Pratap Bhanu Mehta asks many probing questions:

... [There] is a whole range of questions at stake in reservation. Are they more effective than alternative ways of providing access? Do they displace the responsibility of the state onto institutions that are not equipped to carry them out? Have they become a substitute for the state discharging its real duties? Do the beneficiaries deserve reservation? How do we reconcile reservation with the autonomy of institutions? Do OBCs have the same historical claims as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes? Reservations are not about the single issue of merit alone. [bold emphasis added]

It's just as well that Mehta uses 'institutional autonomy', and not 'academic freedom'. I make this point because some have confused these two issues. Clearly, the quota policy has some serious consequences for the former but, equally clearly, it has no consequence at all for the latter. In other words, this policy is not going to trample on people's freedom to pursue whatever research they wish to pursue, and the State is not going to dictate what they should think, teach, research. And, finally, academic freedom is not about choosing whom to teach; for example, you can't refuse to teach some people because they are from a background you don't like (for whatever reason).

Having gotten the red herring about academic freedom out of the way, let's get back to the real issue: institutional autonomy. I want to pose this question: What is sacrosanct about institutional autonomy? Sure, it's a good thing to have, defend, protect and celebrate. But, can it demand absolute immunity from intervention from a stake-holder? No way! After all, the wisdom of the 'institutional crowds' could be 'wrong', no? Want an example of the 'wrong' kind of wisdom? Let's listen to Kenneth Arrow, a Stanford economist and Nobel winner [link to the interview via Tyler Cowen].

... [There] was a concern at one time that there would be repression of the left. And now there are concerns that the left is taking over. It’s hard for me to judge, of course, but I must say that my department contains a number of Republicans. And they were appointed by a democratic group, whose members said these guys are good, and we’ve got to hire them. And so far, I have not seen it work the other way, but I’m a little concerned about where it could swing. In this case, the criticism seems to be just wrong, because I think the departments hire on the basis of merit. And I think it’s nonsense to say that we’re discriminating against Republicans. We hire them all the time. On the other hand, there was a department here that until the 1960s would not appoint a Jew. And, finally, the university did interfere, you see, in that case. The dean took over the department. He took away the power to appoint from the department and changed its composition in three or four years. In fact, I was amazed how rapidly he was able to turn things around to strengthen an already very good department. To defend the autonomy of that department would not have been something I would have been very happy to do. [bold emphasis added]

Note that in the first part of the quote above, academic freedom -- in the sense of one's ideological inclination -- is the issue, while the second part is largely about institutional -- or, departmental -- autonomy.

Now, there is also another circumstance -- the default, really -- when a stake-holder might be justified in interfering in an institution's affairs. This is best illustrated in the following quote from an article by Paul Root Wolpe (a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania) in the journal Cell (since the article requires subscription, I suggest you read this commentary by Janet Stemwedel; I took the quote from her post). In his article, Wolpe warns that "the scientist who opts out of thinking about ethics is taking a risk":

Science has become one of the most powerful and pervasive forces for change in modern society. As the professionals at its helm, scientists have a unique responsibility to shepherd that change with careful ethical scrutiny of their own behavior and thoughtful advocacy of scientific research. If scientists find reasons not to do so, the public will find ways to do it for them, and the results may not always be in the best interests of science or society. [bold emphasis added]

Though this quote is about ethics in science, it's clear something similar has happened with quotas. Our institutions always had the autonomy to design inclusive admission policies that bring in more students from disadvantaged groups; but, they never exercised their autonomy (except for some honorable exceptions such as JNU), vacating the social justice space to be filled by the others -- most notably, politicians. These institutions have only themselves to blame for their current plight.

Even at such a late stage, have our institutions come forward with an original plan to make themselves more inclusive? Have they offered to take another look at their exam-centric admission policies? Or, havet they lent their support to existing plans such as those by Purushottam Agrawal or by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande? Either individually, or collectively, why aren't our institutions participating in the on-going debate, offering their (possibly better) proposals? Isn't their collective silence deafening?

On the other hand, consider what the quota policy does to a place like JNU. It is being asked to replace its fine-tuned AA policies with a far less nuanced and a demonstrably inferior one chosen by the government. This, to me, is the real tragedy.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I think that the freedom to decide whom to teach is a component of academic freedom albeit that of the university. The implication that you make and is also made in the comment made by Kenneth Arrow is that the department actively discriminated against Jews. This means that race was a direct consideration in the admissions process which is definitely not the case in the case of IITs. The faculty have not made an active ffort to deny admission to students from any caste, class. It does happen that the admission process used gives an advantage to certain people, such as urban , middle class students. However there is a difference in the two cases, this difference should be recognized and cannot be held as the reason for treating them the way as is being currently done.

    A little bit of looking around on the internet brought out this piece from the Supreme Court of United States concerning the famous Bakke case in California.

    Mr. Justice Frankfurter summarized the "four essential freedoms" that constitute academic freedom:

    "It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which there prevail "the four essential freedoms" of a university -- to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study." the full judgement is here

    Of course the process aka JEE is deeply flawed and needs significant changes and maybe even removal but its flaws cannot be used as the basis for undermining the freedom of the institutes.

    The IITs are at fault because they have not taken any initiative to create academic diversity by admitting students from different kinds of backgrounds. Thus today they are being instructed in the ways of social justice by others.

    The example of the removal of academic freedom in the case of Arrow's department again brings to the fore the question of legitimacy of authority. I asume the source of the government's authority stems from the fact that fund them. The question is what kind of rights does this funding imply? Could they tomorrow set the curriculum , decide that astrology is an appropriate subject for the IITs, mandate a greater presence of women ,they already are partially deciding the students who will be admitted into the institutes, maybe they will have say in the case of faculty too. All of this can be done and each of these measures would be agreeable to certain groups of individuals, but implementing them by decree would be tantamount to treating the institutions as departments in a ministry of the government which they are not. The goals may/may not be laudable but the stick is not an appropriate tool where a discreet chat in the corridors will do.

    It is ofcourse disgusting that the faculty at the IITs have not responded at all. The letter sent by the faculty from IIT Kanpur only protests against the present measures but presents zilch ideas on improving the situation. It is extremely sad that the faculty have chosen to be collectively silent. It would be hoped that the faculty would serve as role models yet their lack of courage, especially the full professors in formulating and expressing their opinion for/against the current measures will cast a silent dark shadow on the campuses.

  2. Abi said...

    Abhinav: The example from Kenneth Arrow's interview is meant only as an (extreme) example of a situation in which autonomy cannot be defended. I did not (and would not) use it to draw an analogy with the Indian situation. I certainly would not want to attribute any casteist motives to our institutions; their behaviour can easily be explained using inertia, institutional laziness and a certain apathy towards concerns such as social justice, inclusivity, etc. A lot of it is just plain "if it ain't broke, don't fix it".

    You are right about the office that takes away the autonomy. It does matter, particularly to those on the outside (the insiders would know where the 'orders' come from). In the current situation, for example, it certainly would have been preferable (for the outsiders' sake) to have all the top academics come together and announce a grand program of affirmative action, or even quotas. While it's true that the HRD Minister's announcement seems to violate institutional autonomy, make no mistake: the overall result is essentially the same in both cases!

    While I appreciate your comments about the IITs, my post is not just about them; it's about all institutions that haven't bothered with AA. None of them (again, except JNU) has bothered to discuss their admission policies or about becoming more inclusive. So, this is not just about the IITs.

    Finally, your argument about the 'slippery-slope' of governmental interference is also valid, but it's also a part of an institution's functioning. It's a fact of life. First, there are areas that are clearly off-limits from the point of view of academic freedom: curriculum, astrology, etc, (but, even here, astrology was imposed quite successfully by the previous HRD Minister on some hapless universities!). Other areas (e.g., choices about the compositions of the student body and faculty, or tuition fees) fall under autonomy, where there is nothing absolute or black-and-white; the appropriate level of grey will have to be negotiated with the society at large.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abhinav and Abhinandhan:

    This is to respond to your concern about the silence of the IIT faculties.

    As an insider I know there have been lots of discussions, some bitter and divisive, amongst faculties but all have been restricted to "informal" forums. Maybe its time some of them comes out.

    I cannot defend others but for myself, I am not talking my views out because I don't know how far I can stick my neck out. I think I lack the courage a Gandhiji had in his times.

    And finally, although not on a grand scale and not solving all the burning problems, I have responded with a possible solution here.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Abi:Reassuring to confirm that you were not implyng casteist intentions by the faculty.

    I guess you are right that as a measure of political reality , the effect would have been the same. A decision made by academics to implement a scheme as suggested by Yadav,Deshpnade,Aggarwal would not have gone down well with the government.

    The negotiation with society that you talk about is what interests me because this negotiation represents working reality. We have not evolved methods to "negotiate" , we seem to use command and control.

    I had a technical question. Could the government of India stop paying the fcaulty if the faculty protested in the form of a letter, press release against the decision of the govt?

  5. Anonymous said...

    I suppose Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande suddenly became bigger intellectuals than Andre Beteille, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Sam Pitroda.

    Also, quoting random blogs hardly makes your argument valid. Here is one blog that refutes all your arguments, more logically than the one you quote:

  6. Abi said...

    Abhinav: I too feel that our government uses a heavy hand in its dealings with supposedly autonomous institutions. IIM fees, astrology courses, expansion of student capacity in Central universities (to take care of 27 % OBC reservation) are just a few examples.

    The political formation at the centre seems to be immaterial here. MM Joshi, Arjun Singh, they are all the same! The difference is only in the degree ...

    As for your technical question: no, the government can 'punish' faculty for such transgressions as writing a protest letter. A group of IIT-K faculty have done precisely that.

    Arunn: Thanks for dropping by! I'm glad that some internal discussions have taken place in the IITs; but it's a pity that they were not (or, could not be) covered by newspapers. The IIT faculty's collective opinion on the quota issue is certainly of interest, and they should be allowed to engage in a public discussion. Whatever I have said here applies equally well to other institutions also (including IISc, TIFR, JNU, etc). So far, what little 'academic' inputs to the debate we have had have all been from individuals (Satish Deshpande, Purushottam Agrawal, Zoya Hasan, Dipankar Gupta, ...).

  7. Anonymous said...


    One doubt about your reply: Can IIT faculty be punished or not by the govt. if they protest? YOu start with a "no" and say "the government can 'punish' faculty"...kindly clarify.

    Regarding public discussion by IIT faculties: Actually I have archived ALL of the discussions that went for the past two months in our IITM discussion faculty email group, including all the hate mails.

    My original intent is to somehow get these viewpoints out to the "public" in a cogent fashion. The problem is, I don't know how to do this, without name-dropping etc. because if I were to host all of these discussions in my blog (a personal-public forum), I cannot authenticate the opinions without asking for permission from those who made them in the first place. And I am not sure how it will go. I haven't tried.

    If I just collect all the opinions into one big post without any names, it could loose credibility as in principle I could have "cooked up" all of them myself!

    I might actually go ahead and do it someday now. But after reading many of those views, I just feel sad and weary nowadays. So I may not do it ever.

    Finally, last week IITM faculty association organized a discussion on reservation. I am yet to receive any info. on this, whether the minutes of the meeting is open for public etc. If it is so, I shall send you a copy.

    Also, there have been two "marches" at the IITM, from the hostel gate to the main gate, one against and one pro reservation. The former got media coverage, while the latter didn't - at least not to the former's scale.

    And I saw some guys appear in both the marches!