June 3, 2013

Final meeting (for now) in Delhi


Playing catch up yet again! My last meeting in Delhi was a lot of fun; I met with the Vice Chancellor, C. Raj Kumar (whose brother is doing his residency a WashU Med School; again, small world) and a number of (generally young) faculty members at O.P. Jindal Global University. It's a young, private institution, founded as a philanthropic endeavor by the Jindal Group. There was a great deal of energy in this meeting that I really appreciated. While a number of challenges in higher education were discussed, all involved at JGU clearly feel (and I believe they are) fighting the good fight for higher education. There was a lot of concern about faculty absenteeism, even at (some of) the best, central universities (i.e., faculty simply not showing up; students learn on their own). Since these institutions are astonishingly competitive (VC Kumar spoke of one place where the threshold to *apply* (i.e., you're not guaranteed you'll get in, but you are allowed to apply) was 100% on the entrance exam...), the students are very, very bright- and self motivated- so they are perfectly capable of learning on their own and going on to do great things.  However, the institution they're attending does little to shape their education. Curricular reform isn't going to go anywhere if no one is teaching the classes anyway! So there are certainly issues with accountability; but one wonders if a little more ownership of curricula by faculty might at least help them become more invested in the courses they are (nominally) teaching.
Again, the issue of regulation came up; particularly of proposed restrictions on foreign collaboration which would limit possibilities of formally collaborating with institutions outside India until institutions were 5 years old; since collaborative work can be so helpful in getting degree programs off the ground, and research programs initiated and productive...it would seem the costs exceed the "benefit" of protecting young Indian institutions from potentially unfavorable arrangements. 
JGU is getting ready to start up a degree program in Liberal Arts and Humanities which is very exciting- there may be some possibilities for collaboration, though of course there would have to be a lot more discussions involving a lot more than me. One particular difficulty for me since I've been here is navigating he whole issue of "collaboration"; I've had in mind informal, small scale, experimental- "hey, let's try this out!" but that seems difficult to achieve without first going through the large scale institution-level negotiation of a "Memorandum of Understanding". Perhaps it's just because I'm largely meeting with administrators...and I do understand the need for institutions to protect their own interests, but it does seem like a bit of an impediment. There seems to be a good deal of focus (not specifically at JGU, but more broadly) on joint degree programs (where students study both in India and then abroad and get degrees from both institutions), where I think there's a lot more flexibility and opportunity in programs (also discussed at several institutions I've visited here) where courses are taught in modules by faculty from different institutions. Students benefit from a range of expertise, and the institutional commitment is relatively small; seems ideal.. but I'm probably underestimating the value of the added/joint degree.   
On the way back from JGU's really cool campus (great design with tons of natural light) I did some more (absurdly hot) touristing...this time at the Red Fort, residence of Mughal emperors for about 200 years (mid 17th-mid 19th century). After, "OK, impressive", I'm afraid all I had to say was, "huh. Fortress walls...same variably iron-stained sandstone as Qutb Minar was built out of...". You can take a geologist to a fancy building, but all they're going to notice is what it's made out of...