Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why are IIM directors soft on Arjun Singh and hard on Murli Manohar Joshi, asks Indian Express Editorial.

Why are IIM directors soft on Arjun Singh and hard on Murli Manohar Joshi, asks Indian Express Editorial.

Why are IIM directors soft on Arjun Singh and hard on Murli Manohar Joshi, asks Indian Express Editorial.

The author is president, Centre for Policy Research

Lessons in unreason
Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

The day IIMs caved in to HRD's quota blackmail, higher education lost its last pretence of autonomy

Respected Heads of IIMs: I hope you will pardon my presumptuousness in writing to you like this. But this matter is of some importance. Last week we saw a chilling episode unfold in the history of Indian higher education.

The facts are simple. The Supreme Court has ordered a stay on implementing the OBC quota. In response, IIM Ahmedabad had initially proposed what seemed
like a sensible measure: release the general list of admitted candidates, while withholding the list of candidates admitted under the OBC quota for this year. This list would be released depending upon what transpired in the apex court. This proposal was reasonable. It did not put on hold the academic calendar; nor did it prevent the implementation of OBC
reservations, if the court gave the green signal. But then, the IIMs, following a directive from the HRD ministry, first issued on April 5 and reiterated on April 19, decided to withhold the release of any lists.

Whatever the outcome of the court proceedings, the manner in which the IIMs conducted themselves is outrageous. A terse one-line order issued by a joint
secretary of the Government of India was enough to bring India's mightiest institutions to their knees.

Perhaps it is a sign of just how chilling this episode is that we have even failed to register all that it reveals.

The bane of Indian higher education is that most of it is now governed by political rather than pedagogical considerations. Many excellent universities are now empty shells because they became appendages of the
government: everything, from the academic calendar to appointments, is increasingly determined by ministries and politicians. Even regulatory institutions like the UGC, whose job was to shield universities from egregious government interference, have often become conduits for political design. The lines that separated the professoriate and the civil service are being seriously eroded. Government secretaries now regularly attend meeting of independent regulatory bodies and most states have no compunction putting civil servants in charge of our affairs. But we took solace in the fact that
a few islands of excellence survive, their eminence protecting them from government interference. Alas, this illusion was finally shattered last week.

What was disturbing is that your eminent institutions were becoming a party to the government's attempts to almost blackmail the court. After all, the compromise IIM-A had suggested would have honoured the integrity of all positions; instead you chose to play into government's hands by abetting a scenario of potential chaos that would have ensued if the entire list was
withheld. Of course all institutions, even autonomous ones, have to negotiate with government. But to see the premier institutions put aside all logic, morality and reasonableness to comply with a unnecessary and
illegitimate government order, to see them become party to the government's disrespect for institutional proprieties, was shocking indeed. The public would have sided with you; neither pro- ,nor anti-reservationists would have had reason to disagree with the solution you proposed. Yet you chose to cave in. Is it because you don't trust your own judgment? Is it because you are
no longer capable of providing leadership? Is it because institutional propriety has ceased to matter?

There was also the odour of double standard in what you did. When Murli Manohar Joshi had, in the name of justice, sought to regulate fees, cries of autonomy immediately went up. When Arjun Singh passes an order that is at least as serious, if not more so, there is quiet acceptance. For those of us who have despaired of our successive ministers of education, this double
standard is glaring. Do we now judge institutional proprieties by the yardstick of our ideological allegiances? Whatever may have been your reasons, the effect of your decision will have been to erode the credibility of institutions. The mark of an institution's greatness, after all, is its ability to rise above the taint of partisanship.

I admit readily that running institutions is not easy. The multiple pressures, the diverse demands put on you do not lend themselves to simple solutions. And what can academics do when the political class is hell-bent
on destroying education? What can we do in the face of a seeming political consensus? What can we do when the most academically accomplished prime minister a nation could wish for lets his ministers run riot? But the IIMs
are important just for this reason. India looks to its best institutions not just to build a reputation by selecting a few out of hundreds of thousands of students. It looks to them to provide leadership to society, to extend the boundaries of the possible, and to enlarge our ambitions. But we cannot imagine institutions of higher education being able to do this, if they cannot stand up to governments on behalf of what is right and legal. The IIM
Ahmedabad website proudly makes two claims. First, that the empowerment of faculty has been the propelling force behind the institution. But there is very little evidence of faculty governance in decisions like this. Second, that the institution combines the best of eastern and western values. I wondered what this referred to. After all it was one of the virtues of the Indian tradition that even kshatriyas used to keep their arms outside before entering the gurukula.

Let me be clear. The issue is not reservations. The cause for concern goes even deeper. The IIMs are, in numerical terms, small institutions. But their power to define aspirations is large. In succumbing to the government, in
the manner you did, you disempowered all those who are fighting for values you hold dear: institutional propriety, autonomy, and a proper matching of ends and means. One thing the history of institutions teaches us is that
autonomy has to be earned, it does not inhere in mere statutes. Your faculty, your boards can leverage the power of their eminence to reform higher education, if they so desire. Those of us interested in, and
associated with, India's higher education already feel considerably diminished by the track record of so many institutions. The day IIMs succumbed was truly a sad day, because we felt even smaller.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research