June 20, 2013

A long day in Hyderabad (catching up)


OK, I've fallen behind again; it's Friday morning and I'm in Delhi, but here's a catch up post on Tuesday in Hyderabad.
In the morning, I visited the University of Hyderabad; another centrally supported university, this one with a great deal of breadth- everything from arts to engineering. I spoke with the Pro Vice Chancellor, E. Haribabu, who was gracious enough to spend some time in conversation despite having a large delegation of German scientists visiting. The University is really pushing forward with research; they've got some excellent central laboratory facilities, they recently put their grants management online, they provide incentives for research by returning a fraction of grant overhead costs to the principal investigator, and they have a seed fund for getting research projects off the ground. They also recently created a position of Dean for Research and Development...so they've really got best practices going.
In our general conversation about the state of higher education in India, the Delhi University controversy came up- as it has in a majority of conversations that I've had. For those of you who *haven't* been spending your last month immersed in Indian higher education, let me remind you...! DU has announced a large programmatic shift from a 3 year bachelor's degree to a four year system (however, people can graduate in 2 with an associate's degree, 3 with a bachelor's, 4 with honors) where students will take a breadth of foundational courses. The faculty union has been very upset; there are concerns over whether due process was followed, enough consultation happened, and whether the plan is fully thought through and even implementable in a meaningful way. Prof. Haribabu mentioned that this shift, taken by DU on their own (though a few other institutions have moved towards 4 yr degrees) throws a monkey wrench into student mobility; 2 year master's programs become undesirable to those who have already taken 4 yrs for the bachelor's, so where will DU students go? He feels that student mobility will be restricted, and he likes the idea that students now can and do study in different parts of India for their different degrees (sounds like a great idea to me as well). That wasn't a concern I had heard earlier.
I have to say it was a joy to speak also with Prof. AC Narayana, from the Centre for Earth and Space Sciences. Turns out one of his research interests is in using speleothems to develop paleoclimatic records...so we got to talk science. He said if he had known earlier he would have arranged to get me out in the field, or at least take me out for a beer (geologists: the same the world over!). There is a focus on mineral exploration, as well as GIS/spatial science, geophysics for subsurface resources, as well as climate modeling and water resource management. Of course I would meet him on one of the few days where I was absolutely fully booked through the evening, and then the next morning up until my flight back to Delhi.
Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to get a tour of the extensive campus...and even get out past the sports fields to an Elephant Rocks-like outcrop of spheroidal granite boulders, photographs of which (including students) grace the covers of a number of university publications (see picture here).   Turns out we were only 25 km from the Deccan basalts; legendary (no, seriously!) flood basalts from the Late Cretaceous. I definitely need to come back!
I next went to meet B. Rajsekhar, CEO of SERP (Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty) and a 2011 Eisenhower Fellow. While I did get to know a bit about what SERP does, we mostly compared fellowship experiences; while I thought my 5 cities in one month was hectic, he did 14 in two months. I can't even imagine. One thing that was certainly common to both our experiences is that we both got progressively more and more loaded down with the books, materials, etc. that people gave us! He had recently been in St. Louis, somewhat remarkably; turns out that there are a lot of specifically Andhra Pradesh natives who live in St. Louis; always fun to learn something about your home city when you're thousands of miles away.
Next I met with several faculty (Rajiv Krishnan, Syed Sayeed, and John Varghese) from the English and Foreign Languages University; also a central government supported institution that was initially set up to, as its name suggests, promote language skills and also train language teachers. It has been moving, however, towards a broader university providing training in the humanities, including communications/journalism. We ended up, because of the eloquence and perceptiveness of Sayeed, a professor of philosophy, in a rather heated debate about the purpose/role of higher education. I think, in the end, we agreed on actually most of what we were saying...that the role of a university is knowledge creation and transfer "plus"...we did all agree, I think, that there had to be an additional component but not quite on what that was. xxx, who is a professor of English Literature, spoke a lot about students and faculty teaching in schools for disadvantaged children, working up language pedagogies and supporting materials to increase access to English language instruction...etc. Sayeed's point, I think, was in part that not all fields of inquiry lend themselves to that kind of outreach and community engagement, so that cannot be the "purpose" of the institution as a whole; but also more broadly that at least some of what is of value within a university will not be "applied", or that application isn't the only measure of good. 
Much of the rest of what we spoke about was what student services looks like in US institutions. They don't have really anything in the way of staff who work with students in more than administrative roles. They are particularly concerned about student suicide- they very much want to know what they can do to be effective as an institution in suicide prevention. We talked about stress-relief events around exam times (they had heard about the American trend recently about providing a room full of puppies for people to play with. They seemed to think that would work cross-culturally!) They're also concerned with a lot of the same issues Azim Premji University was; particularly how do we support students with different backgrounds, academic and culturally? I described what we do, and what I know about other places; but admitted these are issues we do find challenging.
Finally, a very pleasant dinner with Raj (the Eisenhower Fellow) and his family. They have a pug who disapproved strongly of my invading his territory, but otherwise it was a wonderful meal (Raj's son is thinking possibly, 4 years down the road of applying abroad for master's programs and we talked a bit about how to evaluate programs). The Eisenhower network here has been spectacularly kind in providing connections for valuable meetings, but just as importantly, a hospitality that has really made a difference in my experience. 


You are right. This is why I don't like computers; I removed it and reuploaded it several times with various rotations, and after 5 or 6 tried, uploading the original image worked. I don't like not getting reproducible results! Thanks for letting me know; earlier I had some issues with images in preview that didn't show up in the publish version so I just went ahead and posted, left for more meetings and hoped it would work!

Thanks for your earlier comment as well. There are a lot of similarities as well as differences between US and Indian institutions; particularly if you try to compare apples to apples with sizes of institutions, income level/bakground of students, intended career paths of students, etc. One thing I do regret is that I didn't manage to visit state-run institutions here, only central government and private.  

You're welcome.

The results are reproducible if you know how to interpret the data: seldom, if ever, what you wanted.Looked at this, way the results are frequently what you expect. :) And if you want to really love computers, try working with them for a living. The image of making hot dogs comes to mind.

On a more serious note.

"Sayeed's point, I think, was in part that not all fields of inquiry lend themselves to that kind of outreach and community engagement, so that cannot be the "purpose" of the institution as a whole; but also more broadly that at least some of what is of value within a university will not be "applied", or that application isn't the only measure of good."

I don't think that he can be rebutted, but there are others points of view that are appropriate responses. The first is the address you gave at Convocation last year. (For those who haven't heard it, it's on YouTube.) Your comments about how much of what you have learned in college and graduate school has come in handy do speak to Sayeed's point directly. And the lessons learned from off-road driving also speak directly to his points, but from a bit higher perspective. (Locally, in place of a course in off-rad driving we have people drive on the paved cow paths otherwise known as the streets of Boston.)

Another point of view is what Robert Crease and Charles Mann write In The Second Creation concerning Robert Wilson, the man who designed Fermilab.

A passionate advocate of unfettered scientific research, Wilson frequently was pressed by Congress to explain why the taxpayer should spend millions of dollars to fund an enormous, expensive gizmo whose sole use was to let physicists chase subatomic particles. One exchange, between Wilson and a skeptical Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island, has become legendary in the research community. Pastore asked, "Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?"

"No sir," Wilson said. "I don't believe so."

"Nothing at all?"

"Nothing at all."

"It has *no* value in that respect?"

"It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets?...It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."


Thanks again;I love the Wilson story, and hadn't known it- I will definitely find occasion to use it!