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.


  1. Anonymous said...

    What do you mean by this statement
    "not because their absolute salary is low, but because the comparison is now with the salary of real assistant professors. "

    Do you consider 35000 Rs salary to be royal one?
    Absolute salary of 35 K is pathetic in my view.

  2. Pratik Ray said...

    25K is pathetic compared to 35K.

    Even that is not the key issue. The key issue is whether, on a whole, these guys on contract will be treated as a post-doc rather than faculty.

    Expanding this a little bit -

    1) Are these positions to be considered as teaching positions, as the ad-hoc lecturer positions are considered in a number of places? The standard teaching workload in IITs is around 2-3 courses per year (1-2/semester). Is the teaching load of the guy on contract be more?

    2) Kapil Sibal has been spouting about how US universities recruit folks as tenure-track first. But the tenure track faculty are also provided with a start-up grant(? - am not sure, but that;s the impression I have). Will that be the same case here? And will the start-up grant for a ad-hoc Asst Prof be same as the regular Asst Prof

    3) What are the other benefits? Eg: will the on-contract guys get the post-doc benefits or Asst Prof benefits. Looking at IIT-M website, health insurance etc for post-docs is the same as that for PhD students. Will the Asst Prof on contract be in the same boat, i.e. receive the same health insurance policies as a PhD student?

    4) In the lecturer/Asst Prof/Prof system earlier followed in NITs, it was taken for granted that after x number of years, a lecturer will be made an Asst Prof as long as he meets the other criterion. Same with Asst Prof to Assoc Prof in IIXs. Is the Asst Prof on contract gonna be made a regular Asst Prof after 3 yrs, or simply dumped/made to continue on contract?

    On an interesting side note, the AIIITF memo mentioned a salary of around 25k as what the MHRD has sanctioned. If you look at the IIT-M website, looks like the standard post-doc salary they pay is in the 30-35k regime. So, are we going to have this fun situation when someone termed as an Asst Prof (albeit on contract) is paid less than a post-doc in the same institute (with specific mention that teaching duties < 6 hrs/week)? That would make post-doc salary/working conditions more lucrative than Asst Prof on contract :D

    Prof Abi: can you point me to any linke etc that adresses these questions?

  3. Anonymous said...

    I agree with the above commenter. Besides salary it will be imp. to know what exactly does this new post Astt. Prof (contract) entail ? How is it different from Asst. Prof. (permanent) and postdocs in terms of responsibilities ?

  4. Vishnu said...

    You guys are right --- there is no info on most of the questions regarding Asst Prof (contract) raised by Pratik Ray. And this is where the Faculty Federations should have focused on.

    Sibal had already said that in other organizations (UGC, NIIT, AIIMS) only a fewer (10, 20, 25 IIRC) percentage of Professors can be at the top position, and hence IITs have nothing to complain about.

    Of course, individual IITs can do various things to top up the salaries of Asst. Prof. (contract), like IIT Bombay's sign-up bonus. I am much more concerned about start-up grants, funding for international travel, medical benefits, housing, and the way the temporary people will be treated. I know some departments at some IITs that dump heavy course load on new (full time) Assistant Professors. I don't know what will happen to guys on contract in those departments.

  5. Ronnie Coleman said...

    You wouldn't call this joke a hunger strike. People who fast in the month of Ramadan do that from dawn to dusk, without even drinking water.

    All these guys did was a 9--5'er.

  6. Subrahmanya said...

    "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!"

    And media bought it as if it is 916 KDM!

  7. Anonymous said...

    I just want to raise some general issues. It seems (especially the media is creating this) that IIT faculties are being perceived as some sort of demigods - doing world class research (potential nobel prize winners !!) and govt. is not paying them enough.

    It is really the case? Of course, IITs are excellent undergraduate institutes. Although one can argue that they get so good UG students, it is bound to be good UG institute (this may have some truth in it - take for example, IIT Kanpur and IIT Guwahati - generally speaking, the caliber of teachers in these two places differ a lot - but UG students of IITG are also doing very well - going to the best universities and getting best jobs).

    I am very surprized to see the media (and they quote iit faculty federation) that IIT people should get much more salary than their UGC counterpart (they already get more), since it is more prestigious, they are superior etc.
    Essentially it means the UGC people are completely useless.

    Can we just look this seriously? Of course, a very large no. of our universities are in a sorry state. But there are also good universities in the country. To give some example, Delhi School of Economics, Science depts. of university of hyderabad and JNU are quite good. As a matter of fact science dept. of several universities are better than (or at least at par) with those depts. of IITs.

    A general question - what percentage of IIT faculties are truly world renowned (my guess is 5% - that makes 75 if the total strength is 1500)? How does it compare with Stanford, Berkeley, MIT?

    I taught in one IIT for few years - now moved to a 'UGC-scale' university. I feel IIT teachers are getting enough compared to the university folks, not for the right reason.

  8. Agile said...

    To Anonymous,
    I have no doubts that IIT students are the best.. but who takes the pain to select the best?? IIT faculties spend days just to set one question of JEE.... Let me tell you one thing..
    "Even a group of lions headed by a Donkey can be defeated by a group of donkeys headed by a Lion".. so environment and GURU matters... do you think these students can do the same by going to some third grade university (with all due respect)?..
    how it compares with Stanford and all.. check the below link.. BTW this is the transcript from US about IIT.. so you get an idea what an image IIT has...?

    I studied in two IITs and in a top notch US Univ. also.. will you believe if I tell you that the professors in US were following the books of IITD prof in their class?.. the respect US guys have for IIT profs is very high and they deserve it... the kind of work IIT profs does with the limited means they have is marvelous.. US has an edge bcoz they do experimental research which needs lot of money.. which they can afford....
    my only point is.. until one is in IIT system.. u can never realize what a great job these professor do.. and its not a 9 to 5 job for them... of course there are exceptions everywhere....

  9. Anonymous said...

    I get the feeling that people are starting to suggest that IIT professors are just putting up an act with a 9-5 fast (and yes, some morons have compared it to Mahatma Gandhi's fast or a Ramadan fast), as if to show that this fast was not "good enough".

    Honestly, what are these people supposed to do. Their feedback was taken by Mehta and totally trashed. Read his report on what feedback junior faculty gave him and which municipal drain he threw that into. Then his report went to the ministry, which did the scissor-works like an expert tailor. Nothing that these guys wanted was given, plus more.

    The minister refused to meet them, now he is saying "I would be glad to" like a wounded tiger on national television. And he calls the "strike" beneath the dignity of IIT professors. That guy is a freaking professional lier (aka lawyer) and has been doing that for a living for several decades.

    First, it was a hunger fast, not a strike. Everyone did their jobs. No one raised slogans like trade unionists. No one missed work.

    So, for all those holy cows in Delhi, including the Sibal kind, how exactly do we get our point across to you morons? Get up on a palm tree and sing in sanskrit? Then of course, you will send us to mental asylums saying: "saala paagal ho gaya, bahut padhai karta tha".

    I salute the media for putting our cause out.

  10. Anonymous said...

    Sorry Abi, I have to disagree with you. Both the documents contain exactly what Prof. Bala is trying to say. It is about how pay commission dictates the hiring and promotion with 40% and 10% quotas. It has been about autonomy although the word does not appear or mentioned explicitly. Prof. Bala is right.

  11. Anonymous said...

    Dear Agile,

    Thanks for your response. No doubt, IIT profs. work hard because of heavy teaching load and have created a good environment for UG students to excel. But only good mentoring of UG students don't make a great research place.

    Your CBS link is known to all (I was at UC Berkeley that time, so know it from the day it came out). But this is primarily for the UG part of IIT.

    Does anyone have some data (not from general media) relating IIT professor's achievements with that of profs. at the top places in US/Europe. In other words, how many Manindra Agarwals IITs have?

    Just to clarify, I admire IIT professor's hard work and dedication - but people should appreciate hard work (and excellence) by people in other educational institutes in India as well.

    P.S. I was at IIT system -first as a student and then as a teacher - so know the system well.


  12. Ronnie Coleman said...

    Honestly, what are these people supposed to do.

    Take it, or leave it.

  13. Agile said...

    Dear Anonymous,
    I agree to you in many points. I have also been in two IITs and in a top notch university in USA both as a student and employee (faculty and scientist)..and do understand the system...
    I never understand why we compare IIT with USA or so in research? Is that a fair comparison, apple to apple?
    Does IIT have the same infrastructure, benefits, budgets, facilities as US/UK does? Does IIT faculty get the similar salary?.. In IIT just to get a hardware component (from USA) I had to wait for months..while on the other hand in USA, I just called the vendor, placed the order and next day it was in my lab...
    As you said u were in UCB... you must be aware that most of the students/faculties who excels there are from India and China..

    Why a student/faculty in India cant do world class research but the same guy can even win a nobel prize while he is in some US university...?

    US has an edge in research because of having experimental facilities (having more money), hardware vendors being closer...u face some problem and call the vendor, next day you will have someone to repair it.. in will spend months just to get someone coming from US to fix the instrument and spend fortune...

    Experimental research is easier to publish.. to get media attention and more practical so only US is highlighted...otherwise there are professors in US university also who are dumbs.. IIT faculty is much much better in many cases...

    If one wants to compare, bring those professors from US/Europe to IIT system and see their performance.... similarly send these IIT professors to US/UK and you see who does the wonders...

    I myself has witnessed... the kind of research IIT does, WITH LIMITED MEANS, is worth appreciation..

    rest again there are exceptions everywhere..

  14. milieu said...

    Hi Agile,
    and do understand the system...
    I never understand why we compare IIT with USA or so in research? Is that a fair comparison, apple to apple?

    I am afraid its necessary to compare IITs to the best in the world, otherwise there is no point in tom-toming about them as being elite. Ofcourse, the facilities and infrastructure that you will get in a developed country cannot be hoped for in India where the meagre resources have many legitimate claimants.
    The point is to perform and then expect to be rewarded in this system else accept the limitations that is present.

    The recent efforts by ISRO and Chandrayaan is an example where meagre resources have still yielded remarkable resources. I am pretty sure that the scientists in ISRO don't get comparable monetary or infrastructure support as NASA scientists do.

    I am not belitlling the effort that IIT profs go through (atleast quite a few). But just pointing out that their demands appear to exceed the realities on the ground.

  15. Anonymous said...

    Can you tell me what demands appear to exceed
    the ground realities?

  16. Agile said...

    Hi Milieu,
    I agree to you. What you expect or the ideal situation is.. IIT should still be able to do the best research comparable to US and all, even with limited means. Let me tell you most of them try their best for it and known globally in the area.

    As far as comparing with ISRO is concerned, I dont think that is a fair comparison. IIT professors have to do the teaching also along with the research and lots of administrative jobs.. I have many classmates/friends in ISRO, CAT, TIFR etc... and I have high regards for our scientists. However the fact is only thing they need to do is research, no teaching or numerous administrative jobs.. they have a performance related incentive scheme which is not there in IIT..also their budgets are much higher than IIT.....

    In short, every organization whether it be IIT, ISRO or some university in USA.. is different and have to deal with different sort of problems or have certain privileges over other... so we can compare only with apple to apple and not apple to orange..

    But yes I agree.. in ideal situation IIT must be able to perform better even with the limited means and they have the potential to do so... however another reality of life is.. IIT is not fighting only for salary but for their dignity and respect etc... you see the below link and understand how these Babus/Politicians are corrupting our country.. they have money for everything but for the teachers who build the nation...

    Try to find how many politicians, bureaucrats have their kids as TEACHERS? I know its zero.. why?

    Kapil Sibal should read them and feel ashamed...
    Wake up India....

  17. Unknown said...

    I am doing MTech in an IIT. I did BTech from an NIT. In NIT after 5.30pm all the gates are locked. No one works after that.
    But here in IIT I see Professors working in 8pm and even in Sundays and Saturdays.
    IIT Teachers deserve better salary.


  18. Anonymous said...

    I think this saga is over now. The next round of protests will start after the 7th pay commission.

    By advice to young scientists/engineers who are fresh PhDs is: if you really want to be a professor and can run your house with Rs. 25000 a month in had, go for it. It is a very fulfilling career. If you cannot, move on. India has many opportunities in the private sector.

    To people with 3 years after PhD, you are going to get about R. 40,000 in hand after taxes. Again, not bad if you get on campus accommodation. Plus, it is a permanent job for you. Go for it.

    For senior faculty, I agree with Abi. Shame on you. For a few hundred Rupees, you have completely muddled the issue. Drop all other demands and see if you can get the hiring problem solved. Or, the IIT system is history.

  19. Anonymous said...

    @ Ronnie Coleman: 9-5 fast is about double what you (or the dude's name you are using) can do, with the 9 meals/day bodybuilding diet ;-)

  20. Manoj said...

    As an outsider, I always felt the real issue (to some extent) is one of autonomy. Even with a lecturer position around for fresh Ph.Ds, the IIT faculty should have the autonomy to recruit a fresh Ph.D. as an assistant professor (or, for that matter, as an associate/full professor).

    Such autonomy will have bearing on other matters too, like reservation. (Though personally I'm pro-reservation, I think it should be implemented by the faculty themselves, when they are ready for it, and not enforced by fiat from the govt. The govt. could influence them with some reasonable incentives, maybe, but there shouldn't be any need for arm-twisting.)

  21. Dr. D.R.Kaushal said...

    Regular assistant professor of IIX is all set to get PB4 with AGP 9000 at joining as directly recruited Readers of UGC have got it according to new notification:

  22. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Agile milleu and anonymous,

    It is incorrect to compare IITs as a set with US univs as a set in terms of sheer volume of work. This is because the US univs system has many more univs and these univs have much larger departments.

    One could make some legitimate comparisons on individual level. Say compare highest citations/patents/papers of amongst all IIT profs with the highest citations/patents/papers amongst US univ profs. But these comparisons too are hazy. Rather than making very broad comparisons across very different systems and trying to derive what an IIT prof "deserves", what one should think of instead is a way of rewarding those who perform. A common base salary and a performance linked bonus is a good model for this.

    Also remember that at the heart of this issue is the following fact: salaries given by the govt will almost surely never reflect the price of retention of a faculty member and will usually be lower than this price. The salaries are determined using much broader paradigms (such as age, seniority) because they are intended for meeting fairness and parity across many disparate sectors. They will also not always reflect the "pay that the job deserves" for every given job, because they are not intended to. What can make a govt job worthwhile are all the other features that are peculiar to that job -- features that are often incorrectly categorized as "perks".

    Year after year IIXs have made a mistake of not marketing the faculty positions accurately to present the true features of their positions. Which is why we see this dichotomy wherein many profs inside the IIXs seem contended with what they get and many who think of joining get put off by only seeing the salary figures. (I think Abi had also made this point in one of his earlier posts).


  23. Anonymous said...

    Dear Ankur,

    You points are very correct. IIXs jobs should not be judged only by the salary. But I think IIXs people are luckier than the university people. Since, most of the universities in India are not good, people tend to think that teachers of universities don't deserve anything. In my university, we teach, do research with facilities much poorer than IITs. In science subjects (we do not have engineering), our research is at par with IITs. But because of we are part of poor Indian university system, this is not recognized enough.

    About the comparison between IITs. and US univs., you may be right.

    I just want to add a bit more. All IITs are not same (why is that?). What makes some IITs to do better than others? Do IITs respect merit as US systems do (just look at IIT Guwahati - where they first promote local people then others get promoted - can that place ever be world class?)? What will be the future of the new IITs?

    Finally, I think all Indians should be proud of IITs. However, we also need to have an unbiased way to assess which IITs are really world class in research sense. To start with, which IITs are at par with IISC (which is truly world class, in my opinion)?

  24. harish said...

    Hello Abi,

    I did not take your word for it, I checked out the two articles and yes, they do not contain the word autonomy. I urge all the readers of this blog also to do the same.

    What the "batters" for IIT said seems no different from what is said in the two documents submitted by the IIT faculty federations. And if one thinks about these demands for a moment, it is quite clear why they say it affects their autonomy. So unlike what your article seems to imply, I do not believe that the IIT faculty have changed the goalposts.

    For one, both these documents do raise the question of Asst Profs in much greater detail than the "other demands". The pay and admissibility conditions for Asst Profs seem to be their concern, rather than the few extra rupees that you seem to accuse them of.

    I once again urge all the readers of this blog to read the documents submitted by the IIT Faculty federations. It should be clear that the Ministry has been playing verbal hide-and-seek, perhaps to further their own secret agenda. I was however disappointed that Abi also resorted to this verbal hide-and-seek. The word "autonomy" is not there, so it cannot be admitted -- makes you sound like pathetic Sibal (a politician and a lawyer, to moot).

    The IIT Faculty federations have said exactly the same things as what you say in your article about OCAP. Was it the crying urge to make your blog sound more profound, which forced you to resort to these cheap media-like stunts that you started the present blog with. Sad...