A second comment about appointments to academic posts

I won’t take chances. This was a comment I just made this morning at Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi’s blog, here [^]. Comments at his blog are moderated. And, I don’t know if he will allow it in. (There could perhaps even be some valid reasons for this comment not to be run there.) So, I have decided to go right ahead and note my comment here, too. (On second thoughts, as I have often said earlier on this blog, I anyway think that I should be bringing here many other comments I have made over a period of time at many other blogs, too.)

Here is the comment I have just made at Sanghi’s blog:

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Quote:

Dear Dheeraj,

You write interestingly, even engagingly. Well, at least, you write—as in contrast to mostly just excerpting from Internet links!

I don’t mean to fully defend the practice that has been adopted. I just wish to note down out a few points that seem to be contrary to the flow of your argument, a few points that passed through my mind.

When you recruit a lower-level employee, a PhD student, or a professor, you do follow the meticulous process you mentioned; it involves lengthy interviews, too. Why might someone not follow a similarly long interview while recruiting IIT directors?

I think that some at least plausible answer may be hidden right in that question.

For the starters, when it comes to the candidates for the director’s post, as against the other posts you mentioned, simply because all the candidates have already been subjected to a meticulous process, throughout their prior career, typically spanning over decades.

They have been observed and evaluated at the senior and responsible positions for at least a decade or more by multiple, disparate, parties. … Any comments they make at professional conferences, any viewpoints they offer at the industry-institute interactions, the quality of the documents they write for obtaining funding, etc. Also, the blogs they write [ 😉 ]. And, they have been continuously evaluated by various parties: h-Index (certainly), student evaluations (if these are taken seriously at IITs)—and, certainly, via the annual reviews from their seniors, which includes mandatory remarks from the viewpoint of their potential as leaders. The CRs (annual confidential reports), made over a decade+ times (through various political dispensations, under many different HoDs and Deans and Directors) do have some purpose, you know—i.e., if these are taken seriously at IITs!

They also have been short-listed by the formal selection committees. Presumably, the committee’s role does not end only with providing an unordered list of names. Presumably, the short-listing committee takes its job seriously.

IITs are not private institutes. The top decision makers here, by explicit organization structure, are the concerned ministry/ministries. Whether you like it or not, they do have their regular input channels, too—channels other than the selection committees. In India, in case you have happened to overlook it, we have more than 10 central agencies for internal intelligence gathering. When the body called the Planning Commission got dismantled, another one stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Another point: At the director’s level, IITs also typically do not go for rank outsiders. Most, if not all, of what I say would remain valid even if the candidate is an outsider.

The cumulative input from multiple sources thus is already there. It is distilled, and available, just in case not already factored in, by the time the short-list is made. And, then, there are internal reviews.

The final interview, thus, is more or less just a formality. Shocking? Why should it be, to you?

Dheeraj, since you are a senior IIT professor, I must ask you: If similarly detailed and well-processed inputs were available personally to you, for all the candidates applying for a post-doc position you had in your group, would you ever bother talking with each of them for 30+ minutes? … Please concretize the situation; it is unlike what actually happens when you select your post-docs. When you select your post-docs, you mostly don’t know about all of them. … Suppose if you or your IITK/other IITs colleagues that you trust, themselves had personally seen all your post-doc candidates right from their fifth standard (if not the first standard), and suppose you had maintained your own reports about them, including from the viewpoint of their potential as post-doc researchers, and if you had had the opportunity to go through everything about every one of them, how much time would you want to allocate for merely chatting with them?

And, doesn’t this happen in the USA anyway—and I mention this point, because I know that at IITs, esp. at IITK, a top-10 US PhD is routinely valued better than a PhD that COEP graduated after a failure at a PhD program in a 50+ USA school. Thus, mentioning the US practice should be perfectly acceptable.

Would a colleague of yours in the USA—one who values your word—even bother to talk with someone you strongly recommend, i.e., with a personal touch of yours? Do they? actually? even for just five minutes? Especially if they themselves know someone trustworthy other than you, who personally knows the post-doc applicant? Do you find their practice offensive? Did you find it offensive when Manindra Agarwal’s students received offers for post-docs etc., even before submitting their PhD theses at IITK? Did you begin blogging something about the fact that there was no 30 minute interview, not even 5 minute interview for them? Do you hasten to wear your skeptical glasses if an IUCAA PhD student gets a post-doc offer at Princeton or CalTech even before submitting his thesis?

At this point, you should be a bit bemused, perhaps even a bit agitated, but you would still not be convinced. There is a bit of valid reason for it, too. I can understand and sympathize with your viewpoint.

You see, I myself have undergone a similar kind of a process—the kind that you criticize. When I applied for a professor’s position at COEP, what actually happened was that, apart from submitting my application (manually making sure that it was duly entered into the inwards register), I then dropped by a few professor’s cabins in the department, and then, also the Director’s cabin. I broached the metallurgy-to-mechanical branch-jumping issue with him, and sought his opinion about it. To cut a long story short, he bluntly told me that he has had no objection on that count (it was he who had given me an opportunity to teach an FEM course before my PhD thesis was defended), but that, as a director, what the department thinks, he said, was more important to him. And, while the department had thought differently earlier, when my PhD guide was still in it (or had just left it), now the department had begun “thinking” some “different” way.

I was duly short-listed, called for the interview, and it became evident to me within the first 1–2 minutes the nature of what to expect. (Doesn’t it, if you are past your 40?… In my case, I could tell right when I was in my 20s.) The interview did last for about 30 minutes—I stretched it, because I wanted to tell them in sufficient detail—while all along, they were just wanting to hurry it up and wrap up it all. … To cut a long story short, in the end, they selected someone whose thesis had been examined by a low-ranked NIT’s low-ranked professor, whereas every one in COEP knew that my guide had, on my informal remarks, dared contacting people from top 5 univs in the USA for examination of my thesis (including Frank Wilczek). That none of them bothered to examine it is a different story. The end result was that after almost 1.5 years, my thesis was finally picked up for examination by two senior professors from one of the five old IITs—both of whom had been HoDs and Deans, and one later on was a Director of a central lab. Now regardless of this difference, COEP showed me the door. As expected and made clear right during the interview process. (“Are you now casting aspersions that we don’t know what is good for this institute?” etc. When I say I had stretched them to 30 minutes, I mean it. After taking the decision, they did not take care to inform me of the outcome. I saw the director. He managed to sympathize with me. Though he didn’t say a thing, I knew that he knew that I knew that I should have known that I would not get selected.

Just a COEP professor’s post and an IIT director’s post, there is a difference, you say?

Well, Dheeraj, you then speak more like a typical IAS officer or a second-rate corporate MBA, than like a professor. If a director directly impacts some 500 faculty members over his entire term(s), a professor impacts some 500 students every year. And the impactees in the second case are both far more sensitive and powerless. And, with far longer period of their future at the stake.

If there were to be betting rackets for IIT Directors’ positions, the going rates would almost consistently get the selections right, regardless of change of political dispensations, and without the benefit of even a one minute interview. Why is a five minute interview so difficult to get by top ranked IIT professors, cognitively speaking.

And if you still say that the five minutes interviews still are not acceptable because the process can result in wrong/bad selections, well, you only join me, my argument—you cast doubts on the short-listing and the real reviewing processes, on the grounds that some people who could easily become second-rate directors, too, had got short-listed by the selection committee. Exactly similar to what happened to many other candidates in the COEP process. Not just short-listing, but the internal reviews before the interviews even began.

But then, who blogs about a non-JPBTI anyway—let alone for him? Who defends him? Answer: None—if his PhD guide is dead.

These are some of the things that passed by my mind, while thinking about this directors’ selection issue. I don’t pretend to know or understand the full situation. But I do know that what I said is, in many important ways, relevant.

Best,

–Ajit
[E&OE]

Unquote

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A Song I Like:
(Hindi) “aayaa hai mujhe phir yaad wo zaalim…”
Singer: Mukesh
Music: Roshan
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi

[E&OE]

 

 

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