Friday, May 31, 2013

What's new(s) in Indian higher ed

  1. Basant Kumar Mohanty reports in The Telegraph on the fairly steep fall in the number of Indian students going abroad. Since the number includes both undergraduate and graduate students, it's not clear what this trend signifies -- for example, the fall in the number going to the US has shown relatively smaller decline than that for the UK and Australia. And most of the students who go to the US are grad students.

  2. Anubhuti Vishnoi reports in The Indian Express: Faculty attrition hits IIT Rajasthan, 23 leave in 3 years.

  3. Basant Kumar Mohanty in The Telegraph: IIM director turns down fresh term - Request to appoint Boston teacher. Prof. Pankaj Chandra of IIM-Bangalore has apparently "declined a government offer to reappoint him to the top post of the institute." The second half of the news story speculates about some of the possible reasons.

  4. The Times of India reports that IIT-Hyderabad will receive a huge loan -- over 175 million US dollars! -- as development aid from Japan.

  5. K.C. Deepika reports in The Hindu that the Bangalore University has suspended its 4-year BS program this year due to "declining student response and lack of infrastructure and faculty." [Noteworthy primarily because of our Institute's 4-year BS program (which is doing quite well, thank you), and also because of the birth pangs of a similar program at the Delhi University.]

Sunday, May 26, 2013


  1. Computer Science Culture Clash -- John Regehr at Embedded in Academia.

  2. Earning a PhD by studying a theory that we know is wrong -- Matt von Hippel in Ars Technica.

  3. Did the metro help reduce air pollution in Delhi? -- Deepti Goel and Sonam Gupta at Ideas for India.

  4. Giving Poor Kids Computers Does Nothing Whatsoever To Their Educational Outcomes -- Matt Yglesias at Moneybox.

ToI threatens a law student for her blog post

And the result is absolutely, awesomely, entertainingly stunning: it receives a scathing response [this post has all the relevant links], and gets mocked by media   watchers as well as by a rival newspaper.

* * *

A not-entirely-unrelated link: I was struck by lightning yesterday -- and boy am I sore .

DORA: The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment

It's good to see some sensible recommendations [pdf] against the misuse and abuse of scientometrics. Lots of professional societies and academies have come together to fight this good fight.

The DORA website has links to extensive commentary from elsewhere. Here's an excerpt form DORA:

A number of themes run through these recommendations:

  • the need to eliminate the use of journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, in funding, appointment, and promotion considerations;

  • the need to assess research on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published; and

  • the need to capitalize on the opportunities provided by online publication (such as relaxing unnecessary limits on the number of words, figures, and references in articles, and exploring new indicators of significance and impact).

Another excerpt, this time from Bruce Albert's editorial in Science: Impact Factor Distortions:

The misuse of the journal impact factor is highly destructive, inviting a gaming of the metric that can bias journals against publishing important papers in fields (such as social sciences and ecology) that are much less cited than others (such as biomedicine). And it wastes the time of scientists by overloading highly cited journals such as Science with inappropriate submissions from researchers who are desperate to gain points from their evaluators.

But perhaps the most destructive result of any automated scoring of a researcher's quality is the "me-too science" that it encourages. [...]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

IQ, Richwine, Harvard

The Richwine affair has generated some fantastic commentary not just on the man's Harvard PhD thesis, but on the broader topic of "IQ and Race". Some links:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic: The Dark Art of Racecraft.

  2. Will Wilkinson in The Economist: The Richwine Affair.

  3. Diego von Vacano at the Monkey Cage: IQ and the Nativist Movement.

  4. Zack Beauchamp in Think Progress: The Inside Story of The Harvard Dissertation That Became Too Racist For Heritage.

    [Update: Jason Richwine Responds On Race, IQ, And His Dissertation, and Beauchamp's reply.]

Monday, May 13, 2013

Sentence of the Day

He’s probably the first person ever to lose his job because of his Harvard PhD dissertation.

The 'he' here is Jason Richwine, one of the authors of a recent Heritage Foundation report on immigration reform that has been getting some serious backlash.

Here's the quote again, with some context:

He’s probably the first person ever to lose his job because of his Harvard PhD dissertation: Jason Richwine, let go by the Heritage Foundation on Friday. The problem: he co-authored their position paper opposing immigration reform; and then somebody discovered that his PhD thesis at Harvard’s Kennedy School was dedicated to the proposition that Hispanics have lower IQs than white people. Not even the Heritage Foundation wanted to go there–so after two days trying to answer embarrassing questions, he left quietly.

But how did he get a Harvard PhD for work that even the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t accept?

Jon Wiener's post also expands a bit on the bad uses of IQ tests. Inside Higher Ed reports that the revelations about Richwine's thesis has led to quite a ruckus at Harvard itself, where student organizations have "[have questioned] the legitimacy of the dissertation that was awarded to Richwine".


  1. Noah Smith at Noahpinion: If you get a PhD, get an economics PhD.

    ... [D]espite these caveats, the econ PhD still seems like quite a sweet deal to me. And compared to a hellish, soul-crushing, and economically dubious lab science PhD, econ seems like a slam dunk. There are very few such bargains left in the American labor market. Grab this one while it's still on the shelves. [Bold emphasis added]

  2. Sabine Hossenfelder (aka Bee)at Back Reaction : What do "most physicists" work on?

    Since coverage by the media is driven by popularity and not by relevance, one can expect such a skewed representation. It probably isn't much different in other areas of our lives. (Who actually wears those wacky clothes that fashion designers celebrate?) What bothers me much more than the skewed selection of topics is how their relevance is misrepresented even in these articles. I must have read hundreds of times that "many physicists" believe this or that, while in reality most physicists couldn't care less and probably have no opinion whatsoever.

  3. Nathan Yau: Length of the Average Dissertation.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

IQ, Race, Immigration

Heritage Foundation has stepped in it again, with a "report" on immigration reform [see Krugman's post]. It has led to one good thing, though: we get to revisit the topic of what IQ is and what it is not. Two links:

David Foster Wallace: "This is Water"

His 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, now as a short film [full text]:

This is Water - By David Foster Wallace from The Glossary on Vimeo.

Bad at Math

Ben Orlin, who is now a math teacher, has a fabulous personal essay on What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math. An excerpt:

As the day [of my presentation in the seminar class on topology] approached, I began to panic. I called my dad, a warm and gentle soul. It didn’t help. I called my sister, a math educator who always lifts my spirits. It didn’t help. Backed into a corner, I scheduled a meeting with the professor to throw myself at his mercy.

I was sweating in the elevator up to his office. The worst thing was that I admired him. Most world-class mathematicians view teaching undergraduates as a burdensome act of charity, like ladling soup for unbathed children. He was different: perceptive, hardworking, sincere. And here I was, knocking on his office door, striding in to tell him that I had come up short. An unbathed child asking for soup.

Teachers have such power. He could have crushed me if he wanted.

He didn’t, of course. [...] [Bold emphasis added]

Bonus: Fistfuls of Sand: (or, Why It Pays to Be a Stubborn Teacher) from Orlin's blog.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Dedication: Prof. Jack Holman

Prof. Jack Holman is a pioneer in the subject of heat transfer with his textbooks on thermodynamics, heat transfer and experimental methods. He passed away on May 1st, 2013. Read an obituary at the SMU website.

Let me share some pertinent thoughts in public domain stemming from personal association. The text is modified from another one I was asked to write on him on another occasion.

I was a Teaching Assistant for Prof. Jack Holman all the four years while pursuing my Ph. D. at SMU (1998 - 2002). Once during a discussion with him, I goofed on an explanation about how friction power affects the efficiency of an internal combustion engine (of our cars). At the end of my explanation I raised a doubt, which wouldn't have been there had my understanding been correct. He didn't answer or correct me immediately. "Let me know if you find the answer" is all he said. I found the answer and went to him to apologize for my wrong understanding. "There, you seem to know something now, don't you," came the reply with a beaming smile and a penetrating look above his spectacle rim.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Evaluation Season

Here's The Onion's take on student evaluations: Professor Deeply Hurt by Student's Evaluation. The Dean's comment comes right at the end, but it's brilliant:

“Students and the enormous revenue they bring in to our institution are a more valued commodity to us than faculty,” Dean James Hewitt said. “Although Rothberg is a distinguished, tenured professor with countless academic credentials and knowledge of 21 modern and ancient languages, there is absolutely no excuse for his boring Chad with his lectures. Chad must be entertained at all costs.”

Moral Turpitude

Could this phrase include acts that are meant to hurt a colleague's professional standing? Could someone be fired for this offence? The University of New Hampshire said yes, and yes.

Marco Dorfsman, a Spanish professor at UNH, tampered with student evaluations of an unnamed colleague. He was reported to have come clean in an e-mail to his colleagues about 10 days ago, and the university fired him last week. From the university's statement:

Dorfsman admitted to intentionally lowering the student evaluations of another faculty member. [...]

The [Professional Standards Committee] members unanimously agreed that Professor Dorfsman’s conduct constituted moral turpitude and ‘evinces a gross disregard for the rights of others, is a clear and intentional breach of duties owed to others and to the university by virtue of employment at UNH and membership in the procession, in which such an act is considered contrary to the accepted and expected rules of moral behavior, justice or honesty, and evokes condemnation. [...]

According the CHE note, 'moral turpitude' became a fireable offence at UNH just last year.

Saturday, May 04, 2013


  1. Kazim Ali in the Oberlin Alumni Magazine (Spring 2012): Poetry is Dangerous:

    Because of my recycling, the bomb squad came, the state police came. Because of my recycling, buildings were evacuated, classes were canceled, campus was closed. No. Not because of my recycling. Because of my dark body. No. Not because of my dark body. Because of his fear.

    See also: On Being Brown in America by Amitava Kumar, written after the recent bomb blasts in Boston.

  2. Faculty members of San Jose State University's philosophy department have penned an an open letter to Prof. Michael Sandel explaining why they "[refused] to be involved with [his] course

    on "Justice"
  3. . His response to this letter is here.

  4. Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution: Online Education Trumps the Cost Disease.

  5. Two NPR stories on women in computer science: Blazing The Trail For Female Programmers and How One College Is Closing The Computer Science Gender Gap.

The New 4-Year Bachelors Program at the Delhi University

Our Institute, the Indian Institute of Science, started a 4-year BS degree program in 2011, the same year in which IIT-K dumped the 5-year integrated MSc program in favour of the 4-year BS (though the MSc program survives in the form of a BS-MSc combo for those who opt to spend an extra year). Bangalore University's also started its 4-year bachelors program around that time.

The Delhi University is starting, this July, its own version of a 4-year bachelors program, not just in the sciences, but in all fields. Unlike the earlier episodes in which discussions on the new program were confined to the institutions themselves, the DU initiative is being debated openly in many public forums; see, for example:

[Aside: Though the authors don't mention the 4-year degree course, I read this December op-ed entitled Wanted: intellectual leaders, not CEOsop-ed by Apoorvanand and Satish Deshpande as at least partly informed by the way this issue was being handled by the DU vice chancellor.]

On the practical side, I am not persuaded by the "things are getting implemented in haste" argument. I have seen quite a few episodes in recent years when new things -- right from creation of new institutions such as IISERs, IITs, IIMs, and new Central Universities, to OBC reservation in centrally funded institutions, to "doing something about entrance exams" ;-) -- got implemented after some debate, but with seriously inadequate preparation. Let's face it: if the leadership wants a certain change, and if it feels the time is ripe, it will get it done immediately.

It is important that answers be found for practical questions such as "Does the UGC recognize the BS degree?", "Will the BS graduates need a one-year or two-year masters to be treated as equivalent to the MSc graduates?", "What about those who leave with a diploma-type certificate after two years?". But we should be careful not to overstate their importance. The key, I think, is that these questions raised by the critics can be answered over the next 2 to 4 years, during which UGC can be made to take a call on these and other similar questions [If the IITs, IISc and DU cannot manage this, I don't know what will].

Similarly, incremental solutions, including mid-course corrections to address the curriculum-related issues highlighted by the St. Stephen's faculty, over the next several years will see DU through to its new equilibrium.

For outsiders like us, the more relevant part of the debate is about whether this transition from a 3-year BSc to a 4-year BS program is good and desirable. I answered yes to this question a long time ago; one of the reasons being it brings science and arts students on par with engineering students who get their degree in 4-years (in our current wretched system, only MSc degree holders are treated as equivalent to BE/BTech graduates). I also like the way DU's program offers exit options at the end of the 2nd year (with a diploma-like certificate) or the 3rd year (with a BSc degree).

All this is not to deny the distinct impression that the DU administration has made serious missteps. The final product appears not to have much to do with the big ideas which were used to sell the program to the constituent colleges and their teachers; for example, the inflexible curriculum is a cruel blow, especially since the entire 4-year program was sold using flexibility as a central feature.

While these missteps need not be deal-breakers, any corrective measures (in the medium and long term) to improve the program will require the DU administration to listen to the critics with an open mind; what the current debate shows is that it lacks this crucial skill.