June 11, 2013

Facing administrative challenges


Dr. Bakul Dholakia, Director (again, I would probably say Provost; this position is above that of Dean here) of the Adani Institute for Infrastructure Management and former Director (and before that Dean) of IIM Ahmedabad, came across as a spectacularly effective administrator. I mean that with the utmost respect- with no hint of a sarcastic or backhanded compliment- and with some at least partial awareness of just how many challenges he faced.
Trying to recount all I learned in that hour would result in an absurdly long post; and I should start by mentioning what impressed me from the outset.  He did exactly what one hopes an administrator would do; he managed to find ways to work within or around systematic, bureaucratic, and governmental constraints to enable and encourage faculty and students to achieve more. [No less important, or more accurately, fundamental to his capability was his ability to find/obtain the resources to support change].  He gave faculty members like Anil Gupta the freedom and support to do innovative things; to put a lot of time into developing things like the Honeybee Network, SRISTI, etc. but also to be someone- someone valued- at an Institute of Management that focused on rural people and problems, not just corporations, high level finance, etc. By (eventually) persuading faculty to continue to provide job placement assistance to students a year or two after they completed their studies if they chose to venture out into entrepreneurship; he mitigated the risk to students interested in becoming entrepreneurs...to a point where they (and their parents!) felt comfortable enough rejecting immediate post-graduation job offers to try making their business ideas work. To boost research productivity, he actually paid faculty if they published in top tier journals at a level comparable to what they would have made if they had spent that time consulting. He simplified the process of individual faculty research collaboration with scholars from foreign institutions (which also boosted research productivity). 
He also had the most clearly articulated position on government regulation of academic institutions that I've yet heard. He believes that in a setting where 2/3 of those capable of and interested in getting a degree cannot afford it, there is going to be a necessity for regulation. However, if that regulation were outcomes based (quality of education delivered, employability/placement of graduates, etc.), rather than process or input based (fees/tuition controlled, admissions controlled, faculty hiring controlled, leadership decisions controlled, etc.); institutions would be free to play to their own strengths, to find the best ways to improve themselves within their own context. I've certainly heard a lot of opinion and criticism of the current state of regulation, but this was a framework that really made a lot of sense to me. 
Today, my last day in Ahmedabad, I've got two meetings prior to an evening flight to Bangalore; I am currently hanging out in my hotel between the two. In the morning I went to CEPT, a nationally funded professional school covering architecture, planning, design, technology, and management, that recently has converted to a university (degree granting rather than "diploma" granting; to make sure their students aren't disadvantaged for post-graduate (sorry, "graduate", in American ed speak) studies elsewhere).  They were among the oldest institutions set up after independence, but when the central universities were set up as academic (not professional) institutions, the national government funding began to flow most strongly towards them. I met with the Dean of the Faculty of Planning, Darshini Mahadevia [though there was an embarrassing incident in which she gave me the wrong business card, that of a research associate; I'd been told I'd meet with the Dean and also a faculty member, so I took the card at face value, assuming this was the faculty member...even though I thought she really looked like the Dean I'd researched on the web...so it was pretty awkward when I, at the conclusion of our meeting, said I also needed to meet with the Dean. Sigh. It had happened before that I had met with faculty when deans or directors were otherwise occupied when I showed up!]. Dr. Mahadevia has been Dean for 6 months or so, so I felt a certain kinship- though, to be fair, she's stepping up at a particularly challenging time.  They've restructured significantly, and are starting their new curriculum on August 1st, they're also deciding whether or not to privatize; their government grants only pay about 20% of their costs, and for apparently no real reason, those grants haven't been actually delivered to the university for several years...so they're running at a deficit with no ability to do anything about infrastructure, etc. In order to actually support themselves, though, they'd have to increase class sizes dramatically, catering most likely to students who would only be looking for a degree as a job qualification. Faculty, who are currently engaged in the practice of their professions as well as teaching, and who engage with practice in the classroom, would become full-time educators, and the nature of the education they would be offering would change dramatically.  They're also wrestling with prescribed curricula from a professional association of urban planners; if they don't teach those curricula, their students would not become members of the group and would thereby not be eligible for government jobs. However, the faculty believe that the prescribed curriculum is actually outmoded and a disservice to their students. So what to do? Limit the job opportunities but provide a better education, which would go a way towards enhancing employability outside the government? Offer a "bridge" course that would satisfy the association's needs?  
She mentioned, and I've become conscious of this, that I'm generally meeting with people at academic institutions that are doing very well. I'm not seeing the grimmer reality of what a large volume of institutions are actually like. Though it's not the same as direct experience, certainly I think many of those I've spoken to have called my attention to the ways in which they and their institutions are fortunate, and have made me aware of challenges faced elsewhere. It's also beneficial to see what "the best" are worried about, where they're trying to go, what challenges they're facing. It is certainly clear, though, that the challenges extend well beyond those I'm learning about directly.
I am excited for this afternoon's brief foray into primary/secondary education at the Riverside School!