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)...


  1. Animesh said...

    Abi, not clear where you see the new assault, or the role of "this govt". The (terrible) system of affiliated institutions has existed for a long time.

    Or are you displeased with what Dr. Jalote wrote/proposed?

  2. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Abi - is your link correct? I see no connection between what you write and the article you link to, or how your response is justifiable.

  3. Abi said...

    Oooops! Sorry, folks. The links got mixed up.

    Thanks for the alert.

  4. Animesh said...

    phew. this makes so much more sense :). That actually was the april fool prank that the INRIA admin played on us this year (an email from the director saying we all will be timed on presence ;) )

    However Abi, while the debate goes on as to whether the profs/institutions deserve the salaries/autonomy that they are asking and the govt. is not willing to give, I see little discussion on the sacred cow. How good are these professors and institutions really?

    I may have missed this, and so will appreciate a link to a discussion where the IIXs agree to disclose how exactly they evaluate their professors, and why exactly each one deserves the salary/autonomy. And sorry, the "number" of journal papers does not count. What matters is where they are published (cue to rant on bibliometry..). I am sure that there are some true gems in our IIXs, but how many are they w.r.t to the old wood? Why do people like Pankaj Jalote and Dheeraj Sanghi feel compelled to leave?

    Has that been talked about?

    P.S. I must say that I have been a bit out of this whole discussion, but have been following your blog for summaries :)

  5. Rainbow Scientist said...

    I agree, Abi. It is a serious assault, but hardly any bureaucrat will understand and this is going on for quite some time. Did I tell you, that in the state where I was working, faculty gets such orders on routine basis from bureaucrat? and you know most of the people are actually ok to follow such whimsical order, because after years of working in such system, hardly anyone thinks themselves as a scholar, but most of them behaves like a senior babu.

    I left India 8 years ago, and when I was there we were supposed to teach more than 40 hours in classroom, that means more than 30 lecture-hour (45 min) as justification of the salary and nobody counts the number of hours you need to put in the preparation if you are enthusiastic enough to teach new courses as a way of learning new things. As a result, most of the faculty in my college used to teach same courses year after year. I think the mentality behind such notices is that professors at the university/colleges get way too much salary in the opinion of bureaucrat or even the public, and in many cases such as language, social sciences where there are no experiments, their job is essentially 3-4 hours per day. So these issues come time after time, in most cases after every pay scale revision when there is substantial increase in pay.

    So either you need American system where your pay is depended on the need of the university/system, or you have Indian socialistic system where everyone is judged using the same scale, and there is hardly any motivation for the people who actually enjoy the academia for what is worth.

  6. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    abi - I agree it is ridiculous if we want to develop scientists rather than bureaucrats, but I see it as the flip side of the same coin we have been talking about: evaluation and accountability. Why are high salaries justified without accountability? How do you evaluate faculty performance? In practice, evaluation in many places is purely on number of years spent: publications may be negligible, or at best "in-house" working papers. This is especially true in the social sciences.

    The bureaucrat's way of ensuring accountability is: Make sure these people are physically present in the office, whether they work or not. (Indeed, stop them from attending seminars, meetings, etc, elsewhere.) From a countrywide perspective, probably 99% of them don't do any work anyway. The 1% of who do world-class research can be collateral damage.

    If we are to stop this sort of thing, we should come up with sensible and implementable criteria for evaluation and promotion. The IITs, IIMs and IISc should, in my opinion, take the lead on this, because they are the focus of the current debate anyway. I haven't fully understood your outrage on the OCAP thing: when I was hired I was "on contract" (perhaps the words were different but that's what it meant) for 5 years and I believe that is routine. What is also routine is to make the hires permanent regardless of performance. That must stop: there must be serious evaluation after 5 years (TIFR and NCBS do this, I believe, but most others don't.) After 5 years, maybe it is impossible to fire a faculty member, but promotions must be based on performance.

    If the top-end institutes, particularly the IIXs, don't take the lead here, (a) we can't preach to the others, (b) we can't argue against bureaucrats who ask "why are you being paid so much?"

  7. Animesh said...

    @Rahul: Totally agree with your Point. Your comment is a much more well-formed version of what I tried to also write in my comment :).

    Abi: Any news on IIX faculty trying to be more accountable?

  8. Anonymous said...

    You want to convince bureaucrats that your professors are doing a great job !!!

    Even if you tell them about journal publications, impact factors, patents, and what not, do you seriously believe they will get it ?

    Isnt the problem that some clerk is going to decide if the professor is doing his job or not ? The only way you will convince such a clerk is if you get the Nobel prize, as our honorable minister has already said.

    Now let all those professors sit on their hard sarkari chairs and think of how they are going to get that Nobel.

  9. Animesh said...

    Even if you tell them about journal publications, impact factors, patents, and what not, do you seriously believe they will get it ?

    That may not happen (or it may), but such actions would definitely make the faculty's case more water-tight and complete.

    After all, why treat our "petitions" to worse standards than we treat our paper submissions?

    Why not release a whitepaper titled "Analysis and Proof of Why We Rock", by IIX profs?

  10. Anonymous said...

    Here's how you log your hours ;-)

    1. Lectures, 2 courses, 6 lectures - 6 hrs

    2. Preparation for lecture - 3hrs/lecture for top quality teaching = 18 hrs (emphasis on quality education ;) )

    3. Set assignment problems - 2hrs/problem sheet = 4 hrs/week

    4. Grading the assignments - 20 min/assignment, 30 students/course, 20 hrs

    5. Individual meetings with students to clear their doubts/mentoring etc - 5 hrs

    6. Faculty meetings - 1 hr

    7. As prescribed, 6 hrs for research

    Total time logged per week = 60 hrs. Wait, we are already into overtime. Show this log to babus and ask them to hike the pay 50% more, since they are paying for 40 hr work-week right.

    Yes, being sarcastic. The point is (which babus wont ever understand) is a good professor cant be judged on the # of hrs logged.

  11. Yayaver said...

    Sorry for going little out of topic. In most of our colleges only, we apply the bureaucrat's way of ensuring accountability of student by attendance: Make sure students are physically present in the classroom, whether they study or not. I may be (am) wrong in my argument, but tell me need of min. percantage of attendance by students is same as hours of work by teacher..

  12. Anonymous said...

    AFAIK it's not as if Dheeraj Sanghi left IITK because his research there was not appreciated.

    @Abi: See why it's necessary to spank MHRD continuously using one whip or another? Let them get away with denying a 2% raise and the next thing you know they are raping your baby daughter. The only recipe: lay across the lap. Keep whipping until the attitude improves.

    On a more stoic note, the pockets of excellence in IISc and IIT are a temporary quirk of energy per capita and globalization; as we slide back into ever-reducing resource per capita, these pockets will naturally close in and vanish.

  13. Anonymous said...

    Wells said: entropy will take care of everything. Soon.

  14. Animesh said...

    I believe Yayaver has hit the nail right on the head with his "compulsory attendance" remark.

    I guess it is something on the lines of

    "First they wanted to measure students' seriousness/productivity on the basis on number of hours spent 'in attendance', but I didn't say anything...."

    Rahul, Abi: Any thoughts on this aspect?

  15. Anonymous said...

    Wait! Our babus will soon comeup with a punch card system.

  16. Anonymous said...

    Before you discount this as being ridiculous do you realise that there are so many rules in life because there are a few who misuse them ?

    If you did not come across a professor who abused the system then you were lucky. If every teacher in this country worked for 60 hours we would have a very different education system.

    Whether everyone should be punished because of a few or whether similar rules should exist for babus or whether this is the best way to enforce are different issues. In general I think the IIX's should be exempt from this if that is legally possible but then if they work 60 hours anyway, why is this a problem ?

  17. Abi said...

    @Rahul: My complaint about the OCAP thingy was not about the fact that it's a fixed term contract. It was about the fact that it's a position that combines the worst aspects of post-doc and faculty positions -- no research focus and little or no grants.

    In another thread, however, a commenter assures us that OCAP is essentially like a real assistant professor. In that case, my complaints (admittedly less serious) are about the low salary (about a third less than that of a real assistant professor) and about the fact that it's a three year contract (max). Three years is too short a time to evaluate the research program of someone who's just starting out -- the time scale for setting up a lab and get it to run is too long in our system.

  18. Anonymous said...

    see, what MHRD has done to IITs:

    Pre-revised basic of 12000 (both IIT and UGC guys selected through open interviews):
    IITians will start with pb3, will be moved to pb4 after 3 years and will be designated as assistant professors... UGC guys will start with pb4 and designated as associate professor.

    Pre-revised basic of 16,400 (IITians r placed in a basic of 52,300 with designation of associate professor, UGC guys r placed in 53,000 with designation of professor):
    IIT will require 7 years to reach this scale, if not gets through the interview for associate professor post after 3 years in service.. UGC guys will reach in 4 years, if not get through the interview for Professor post after 3 years in service.

    AIIITF is responsible for this mess by accepting no change in designations as proposed by Prof. Mehta.

  19. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    abi - I guess I haven't been reading as much as I should about ocap, but I assumed that both the research focus and the grants question would be up to the hiring institute to decide. If say IIT-M decided that OCAPs would receive generous startup grants and would only teach one lightweight course a year, and would not be expected to do administrative/committee work, I think that should be acceptable to Mr Sibal. But I don't know exactly what he proposed.

    The low salary comes with the fact that it's a fresh PhD, I guess. About the 3 year contract, if there is an easy transition to a "real" assistant professor position (the evaluation should take into account the fact that 3 years is a short time), then I see it mostly as a win for the candidate. It is a bit like the "young investigator" position at NCBS. (It is a 5-year position but there is a "stringent evaluation" after 3 years, with the possibility of being asked to leave.) By all accounts the program is a success. I know some of the people who joined that programme, all are very good and I'd say at least one is absolutely outstanding by international standards.

    Note that NCBS did this on their own: it was not rammed down their throats by a minister. And, as I said earlier, they also seriously evaluate regular assistant professors for "tenure". I strongly feel that the IITs and similar institutions should stop whining about Mr Sibal, and take the initiative in fixing the system.

    Salary is a separate topic. I believe the way forward should be keep the "guaranteeed" salary to a basic level (not much more than asst prof, at all grades) and allow top-up via research grants. In other words, make people work for their pay. You yourself have said the same thing, I think.

  20. pradeepkumar pi said...

    It may not be a good idea to compare YI scheme of NCBS with that of APOC of IITS. First of all in NCBS the YI do very little or no teaching. Second, they are given huge start ups (at least a crore Rs, thts what I heard). In IITs even the real AP get 5-10 lakhs as start up and loaded with courses where the class strength even goes to 450. NCBS scheme may be good for DAE funded institutes (TIFR, IMS, NCBS, IP, HCI...) but definitely not for IITS with the current settings. One more thing in NCBS even the APs are put on tenure. Few years ago one of the APs was asked to leave from NCBS.

  21. Anonymous said...

    There is a tradition in India to impose a "one size fits all" policy on academic institutions which are extremely diverse (even within the same IIX or UGC system). This is simply not effective at best and quite silly at worst. There is wide variation in infrastructural, financial and administrative support among academic institutions and this variation is often strongly correlated with the size and location of the institutions and the system in which it belongs (IIX, UGC, DAE or CSIR research institutes). The level of support that a young researcher gets at NCBS is simply incomparable to the level of support that he/she would get at IITs or central universities. Hence, using the same benchmark to judge faculty at different institutes doesnt make any sense.

    Moreover different disciplines even within the same institute have different requirements and criterion for judging the research in their respective fields. For instance, conference publications are often peer reviewed and are as important and sometimes more prestigious than journal publications in several engineering disciplines, whereas they do not have a lot of value in science disciplines where journal articles are more relevant for gaging the quality of a researcher. Even impact factors (as many have argued) are seldom of universal value. IFs of math and engineering journals are often quite low simply because of the size (in terms of no. of practitioners) of the discipline. It is therefore meaningless to compare the impact of publications in engineering and biology journals since the latter have some of the highest IF journals in any field.

    For the same reasons, while the 3 year postdoc experience is a no-brainer in science disciplines (since almost every new science faculty has 3+ years of post-doc experience), it is certainly not the norm in engineering disciplines where it is quite usual (even abroad) for fresh phds to be directly recruited as Asst. profs.

    This is why autonomy becomes important since it provides for some flexibility in judging faculty in different disciplines. Having flexible judgment criterion is certainly more effective than the imposition of some universal ad-hoc standards by people who are clueless about quality control in academia.

    As for OCAPs, there is a potential for abuse of OCAPs by giving them heavy teaching loads and involving them in mind numbing administrative duties. Then there is also the matter of startup grants as Abi has pointed out.

    Finally, rigid and counterproductive rules may be justified by saying that they will prevent abuse of the system, but in reality, they are seldom effective in doing so. There are always loopholes in the rules which can be exploited. So the only effect these draconian rules end up having is to make life a lot more difficult for committed academics as they have to find the loopholes and end up spending way too much time rather than using it productively for research and mentoring.


  22. Anonymous said...

    @ S
    Well said!

  23. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    pradeep, anonymous: my point is that to forestall the babus, you have to think and act ahead of them. The IITs and IIMs are seen today as training institutes and not research institutes. This is, in my opinion, to a significant degree their own fault. Now, if your primary job is teaching, you had better be present. And of course the institution must conduct proper teacher evaluations and course feedback, and use these as considerations in promotion. If on the other hand, your job is research, the quality of your research should be considered in promoting you. In the IITs ideally it should be both, and in practice it often seems to be neither.

    IISc has a much better record in research, perhaps because it has none of those pesky undergraduates (but I don't think that's the reason), but even at IISc I knew full professors who, going by performance, should not have held a position in our least elite universities.

    Before telling me that NCBS is incomparably privileged, you should explain why the other institutions can't have basic evaluation procedures in place for tenure and promotions.

    I am fully aware that things like impact factors are varied across disciplines: and that is fine. I don't expect biologists to evaluate mathematicians. But the flip side is, in math, theoretical physics, and many engineering fields, you don't need startup funds of a crore or even 5 lakhs. You may only need a desktop computer.

    As you say, it is normal in many fields to hire faculty directly after PhDs, even abroad: but the job is not guaranteed for life! Evaluation is stringent, at several stages, and at the top institutions in the US, the majority of recruits do not get tenure. It is little more than a glorified postdoc, so not very different from OCAP. You could argue that OCAP offers an additional opportunity for people in fields that only had postdoc positions as an option. But you can't argue that it is different from what happens in fields where people don't do postdocs.

    Autonomy is important but it has to be earned. If you don't make sensible internal rules that keep you honest, expect to get stupid rules imposed on you from above.

    (Yes, I know all this is somewhat offtopic for this particular post, which is about UGC and universities. My point is the IITs etc should show the way.)

  24. Anonymous said...

    Rahul said : "Before telling me that NCBS is incomparably privileged, you should explain why the other institutions can't have basic evaluation procedures in place for tenure and promotions."

    If you read my post carefully, you will find that I never said academic institutions cannot have a set of guidelines for deciding on tenure and promotions. So there is no need for me to explain something I never said.

    What I said is that all academic institutions cannot use the same benchmarks for evaluating their faculty because of the diversity in environment (I use the word environment in the broadest possible sense) at these places. Even in the US, the criterion for tenure and promotions at MIT is different from that in say Idaho state university.

    I agree that every academic institution should come up with their own fair and objective criterion of evaluating faculty at regular stages of their career, but those criterion need to be tuned to take into account the existing environment.

    However, there has to be enough autonomy to be able to set up reasonable internal guidelines and be able to enforce them. It is not enough to say that there has to be guidelines over and above the existing IIX or UGC or CSIR rules that are imposed on the institutions. In that case, the internal guidelines just cannot be enforced.

    There is much that is wrong with our IIX's and universities and serious effort should be put in to identify and fix the problems. Some of the problems can be fixed at the local level if there is a receptive administration and faculty who are committed to improving the functioning of the institution. Many other problems require enlightened educational and research policies and not more adhoc rules.

    Actually, I am not too bothered by the 40 hrs/week and at least 5 hrs/day rule pointed out in Abi's link. Most committed faculty anywhere should be able to fulfill those criterion (on the average) with ease. However there are many other rules which aims to micromanage the way in which academic institutions should be run and my main objection is against those which I feel are quite counterproductive.