Sunday, June 06, 2010

Gated communities of the academic kind

Over at An Academic View of India, Vikram highlights key differences between the US and India in the way their higher ed institutions interact with the community at large. This is something that I haven't thought much about, but the differences he highlights are very real. Take, for example, the following:

One thing that startled me when I started college in the US was that the university campus was completely open, i.e., there was no line or fence demarcating the university from the rest of the city/community. People could come on campus freely without having to go through checkpoints and guards. This is true across the US, I recently the visited the University of Washington which is even more mixed into the surrounding city than the University of Texas. It is hard for an outsider to exactly differentiate between the city and the university. People tell me univs like Harvard and MIT are even more integrated into the cities they are in. This is a far cry from IIT Mumbai, on whose outskirts I grew up. Even entry into the campus for the common folk was not allowed and the campus was surrounded by walls on all sides. It was as if a deliberate bifurcation was created, so the ‘elite’ students inside could be kept insulated from commoners like me and my friends. It would not surprise many that Indian universities barely think, study or teach about their surroundings.

Once this difference is acknowledged, quite a few other things must follow from it, and Vikram fleshes a few of them out -- including the elitism it breeds.

The comments section pointed to a recent opinion piece with a provocative title: Building Bostons, Not Kanpurs -- Why Indian cities must leverage their universities. In this piece, Sanjeev Sanyal says India has failed to leverage its universities for urban development, renewal and growth. He makes a pretty persuasive case against stand-alone campus far from the city (and worse, out in some wilderness):

This is a very wasteful process at many levels. First, it is unnecessarily converting productive farm and forest land. Why does Vedanta need 6,000 acres in Orissa and IIT Jodhpur 700 acres in Rajasthan for teaching a few thousand students? Second, it requires the creation of expensive infrastructure in isolated locations, including staff housing, convocation halls, seminar rooms and so on. How many times a year is the convocation hall used by the institution itself? In a city location, these facilities would have added to the overall urban infrastructure. Third, such remote campuses are inconsiderate of the social, educational and career needs of the families of the faculty and staff. This is a major constraint to finding good faculty. We cannot build universities as if they are industrial-era factory townships where the wives stay at home and the children study in the company school. Finally, and most damagingly, these campuses are unable to generate the externalities that one would associate with a good academic/research institute. Students come and leave. There is no clustering or inter-linkage with the real world.

The proposed IIT in Jodhpur is an example of how we are perpetuating the flawed model. The government has already acquired 700 acres of land about 22 km from Jodhpur. There a lot of talk about how it will be a “green” campus with solar panels and electric buses ferrying people from the city/airport. A number of complex options are being discussed to supply it with water. This is all meaningless when the most energy-efficient solution is to have had a compact campus that is nearer to the city. This would have automatically reduced the need to travel long distances and recreate social infrastructure. In addition, Jodhpur city has a problem with rising water tables and there is absolutely no need for expensive water-supply technologies when it can simply be pumped out. Worst of all, given the distance, the existing city will gain nothing from the creation of all the new and expensive infrastructure.


  1. Ungrateful Alive said...

    Surprising: In spite of being at IIT Bombay, Vikram seems clueless about what really drives government construction: contractors. It does not matter in the least what is needed for proper functioning of the institute. In fact, architect and contractor interests almost always prevail over the opinion of the unfortunate occupants of the facilities thus built. Rich alumni donors are easily bought off with "lifetime achievement" style awards.

    All that being said, I am not against continuing to keep IITs gated. The fringe blocks of universities in civilized cities are a far cry from the pathetic bedlam that is urban life in India. I for one would certainly not return to India if IITs were not gated, and I can point to at least a hundred like minded "wimpy repats".

  2. Anonymous said...

    One thing that startled me when I first visited US was that no one had any fences. You could simply walk onto someone's lawn. My neighbour in India must think I am a thief.

  3. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I couldn't agree more with Sanjeev Sanyal's article. Unfortunately, my own colleagues seem to think it is better to acquire a large ground 30 km outside the city than to get a few office blocks inside the city.

    About the campuses being gated: well, Delhi University has no gates or walls. In New York, Columbia University and The Rockefeller University are gated (though the housing and some Columbia departments are outside the gates). But apparently many Indians simply don't want to mix with the riffraff: cf Webminer's comment above.

  4. Pranav Dandekar said...

    I agree that Indian schools do not interact and contribute toward their immediate surroundings the way a number of US schools do. But it is unclear that fences or location alone is responsible for it.
    If isolated location (e.g. IIT Kharagpur) was the cause, how do we explain the fact that a large number of Indian campuses that are in the city also don't contribute much to it development (IITB, IITD, IISc, JNU, Univ. of Mumbai, etc.). On the other hand, the US has been very successful with the model of university towns - Purdue, Univ. of Florida, UIUC, Cornell, Penn State, UNC Chapel Hill, etc. As pointed out in previous comments, fences are not limited to educational institutions in India; Indian companies, residential areas, political establishments, all have fences around them. So unclear what role that plays in creating isolation.

    So overall it seems to me to be a case of cherry picking the evidence.

  5. Anonymous said...

    Indian universities are teaching institutions. Research is supposed to be done by DRDO, ISRO etc.

    There are a lot of universities which are comprised of colleges which are spread across the city.

  6. Ungrateful Alive said...

    @Rahul: "many Indians simply don't want to mix with the riffraff: cf Webminer's comment above" --- The individual nature of people is not as important a factor as the sheer density and chaos. It's fairly common for the IIX prof type to shun chaos and filth, even if they are not elitist. Moreover, Indian cities are not walkable, and misguided development is making it impossible to be a pedestrian (have you seen the road outside IIT Bombay the last two years?). With an ever-inflating series of pay commissions, no wonder IIX profs are buying cars in droves. These cars move at about 2 miles per hour and spew poison waiting in traffic, but do protect occupants from being maimed as a pedestrian. What a bonanza.

  7. Asterix said...

    Open the gates for all and you will see the Mumbai traffic re-routing itself through the campus. If a bomb explodes, all hell will break loose as to why our "elite" institutions are not well protected.

    Comparisons with American universities are just plainly illogical.

  8. Anonymous said...

    One small problem with Sanjeev Sanyal's article taken so seriously here, facts in the article are just conveniently chosen to suit his main argument. For example, he makes a big fuss about singapore and give example of SMU. However, forgot to mention that SMU is a relatively smaller player with limited mandate of teaching management related course only. Singapore's higher education is mainly defined in term of NUS and NTU. Both of them are as insulated from city as IITB.

    In Indian context, author simply forgot to analyse there can be any loop hole in his arguments. What about real state price or land availability? Can IISc expand at all if it decides that it needs land inside city only? What about other issues such as security?

  9. gaddeswarup said...

    State has a smaller role in education in USA than in India and David labaree argues here that it is market driven and is often destructive to both academic learning and social equity:
    He also has a paper on the American university system:
    where he also discusses William Clark's "Academic Charisma and the origins of the Research University."
    My impression is that traditionally universities are gated and the American system developed differently from the european system particularly w,r,t. the role of the state. I a not sure whether we can use a few American universities to model Indian educational institutions where the state plays a larger role. But that does not mean that one should not think of new possibilities. If one is looking for the universities to directly influence the society, we have the model of agraharas. If a king wanted to develop a new area, one of the strategies to build a temple, dig a tank and start an agrahara where the learned men provided the farmers with the knowledge of seasons, agricultural technology, medicine etc. I think that large number of areas were populated and brought under cultivation by this sort of methods ( my interpretation after reading Cynthia Talbot's book on medeival andhra). Something similar may be applicable for some subjects in some areas of the country but am not sure whether it can be done in urban areas with high land values. Just some random thoughts to continue the discussion which seems important

  10. Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

    A related issue is discusssed in this interesting (obviously) EWD:

    ...about why universities do indeed need to isolate themselves from the real world, not just by walls being discussed in this post but more symbolic ones.

    (I don't necessarily subscribe to all of it, probably because currently I reside on the wrong side of the wall! :) )

  11. Anonymous said...

    The comparison between Indian and American Universities in this context is facile. It simply fails to take in to consideration the mess in which our cities are.

    However, it is clear that Indian educational institutions have failed to engage with the broader community. This can possibly be rectified when academicians learn to look upon the 'riffraff' as their paymasters. However, the 'bureaucratization' of academics has ensured that this does not happen.

    It is important that the 'symbolic' walls are taken off. The real ones can probably wait till the places on the other side of the wall becomes more 'livable' !

  12. gaddeswarup said...

    This book review may be of interest:
    Excerpt "Dewey's Dream describes several other programs and projects initiated by the University of Pennsylvania in its attempt to partner students, faculty, and diverse members of the Philadelphia community together in the work of solving real world problems. For any university educator or administrator interested in facilitating collaborative community problem-solving projects, part 2 should be required reading for its presentation of concrete strategies."

  13. Sivaramakrishnan said...

    A couple of observations:

    1. When IIXs were created, they were intentionally given autonomy, and in some sense separated from others because it was felt that the ineffeciency in the rest of the system(the whole country) might pull the institutes down. A lot of people will agree that this worry still exists.
    As a simple example : We can almost rest assured that opening up the campus will result in the campus being abused -- be it the case for traffic in Chennai/Mumbai/etc or that you might have hawkers coming an peddling, yadda yadda. In short, you won't be able to differentiate the interior of a university university from the road outside it.(which the author wishes). How much this directly affect the education in the institutes might be debatble, but we can already see the negatives flowing in, rather than the positives flowing out.

    2. Far more fundamentally, it's about Indians being closed as a people, and people being more open in the examples stated. I mean this : After jostling with 10 people crushed on the footboard of a bus, when we get home, we value our space and hate it if anyone encroaches. In India, one cant take anything for granted, and any facility that one enjoys needs to be protected, for the simple reason that there are many others without it, who wouldn't mind recklessly exploiting what is not theirs. We have the constant need to protect what is ours -- by closing doors, building fences and other such displays. This will stop only when someone can trust the society around him/her and open up what is theirs, to share with everyone.

  14. Ungrateful Alive said...

    @Sivaramakrishnan --- Thank you for restoring some sanity to this discussion!

  15. Hasan said...

    I agree with Sivaramakrishnan. This is another example of cosmetic changes that will make India like the US. I have been in almost all the south indian IIXs, and I will state that I absolutely adore their isolation, because it means that things are clean, crowds are low, people are a little more civil. In fact, those are EXACTLY true of American campuses. Elitism? Absolutely, for your whole point is to make Indian campuses like those in an elite country.

  16. Hasan said...

    Apologies, not 'your' point but Vikram's