Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Role of Academic Institutions in Supporting Thought Leadership

India can be the home of thought leaders across disciplines. We have some impressive role models – Professor J. Ramachandran from IIM Bangalore whom I wrote about two weeks ago, and people like Anil Gupta, Ramachandra Guha, Raghunath Mashelkar, A. Paulraj and Manindra Agarwal whom I wrote about last week.

In my last post, I outlined a possible agenda for the individual scholar who aspires to have impact. The five elements of this agenda are: (1) View yourself as more than a teacher; (2) Have a clear focus and strategic intent; (3) benchmark against the best; (4) strive for continuous improvement; and (5) manage your time judiciously.

But is following this agenda with individual determination and perseverance enough? Most of us work in academic institutions. These institutions have their own missions, and set their own priorities and rules of the game. Unfortunately, many institutions in India don’t provide the environment needed to support thought leadership. Excessive teaching loads, absence of funding for research, restrictive leave and travel rules, the absence of a climate to discuss ideas, and control-oriented leadership are some of the inadequacies of the Indian system.

But, let’s assume that there are some institutions today that aspire to do better, that want to provide an environment conducive for scholarship. What should be their agenda, and how should they be managed?

Building Supportive Institutions

There are some core foundational elements which any organization needs to provide for its members to do well. These include treating individuals with dignity, transparency (or, at the minimum, consistency) in organizational processes and decision-making, and basic hygiene factors like good physical working conditions and regular and fair compensation. From what I hear from friends who work in institutions across the length and breadth of India, these basics are themselves scarce.

But the good news is that we have a new generation of academic leaders in both the public and private sectors who have realized the potential of our country and want to change things. Here is what I think they should focus on, once they have the basics listed above in place.

Design for a Balanced Workload

People need time and space to come up with original ideas. Research is not something that can be fitted into the gaps between classes. It needs fairly uncluttered time. So, clearly, careful design of faculty workload is critical to create the right environment for thought leadership.

What’s the ideal workload? Most good US universities require faculty to teach 4 courses a year. Somewhere in the region of 120-150 hours of teaching would seem to be ideal. Equally important is the distribution of that teaching load. Many productive faculty find it helpful to do all their teaching over two semesters or terms so that they have the remaining time to focus on their research and writing.
Institutions need to hire enough faculty to allow for a workload that balances teaching and research.

Faculty who are early in their career face enough challenges in trying to establish themselves as scholars. Institutions certainly need to avoid burdening them with administrative responsibilities at this stage.

Push and Pull for Excellence

Indian institutions have traditionally been weak on motivating high levels of performance. Thanks to accreditation requirements and stakeholder pressure, this is beginning to change. Setting high expectations that require faculty to stretch should help to move towards excellence.

However, some cautions are in order. During a recent discussion with some other IIM directors, it quickly became clear that overly-elaborate points systems that measure (and often monetize) everything may be counter-productive.

Another caution is to stretch gradually and not to the extent that people feel tempted or compelled to resort to inappropriate means to achieve expectations. India already has the dubious distinction of being one of the major centres of academic fraud, and we don’t want to make this reputation worse than it already is!

Personally, I would favour an individual goal-setting process where each faculty has an individual plan for what s/he seeks to achieve. Each year’s plan should be an improvement on the previous year’s plan. The plan should necessarily have a high content of research and writing, though the exact mix could vary from one individual to another.

While institutional expectations and the goal-setting process provide the pull for excellence, given where we are today a strong push is required as well. That’s where faculty development has a significant role to play.

Make Faculty Development a Strategic Priority

Many of our leading institutions have what is called a “Faculty Development & Evaluation Committee” (FDEC). Intriguingly, these committees often focus only on evaluation and the “D” is deafeningly silent.
Indian higher education is on an expansion trajectory. Given the limited mobility from industry, most of the faculty positions will be filled by young men and women straight from doctoral programmes. While a small percentage of these PhDs will come from foreign universities, the bulk will come from Indian institutions.

These young PhDs from India are bright and capable. But if they are to become high-performing scholars, they will need to be mentored and supported. In addition to careful goal-setting, they will benefit from frequent and constructive developmental reviews and feedback. And, institutions need to create a portfolio of initiatives to support their development.

We are trying to put together such a portfolio at IIM Indore. Its early days, but we have some of the ingredients in place. See the chart below….

But, faculty development is not only about money and incentives. It’s about mentorship and intellectual support. Helping young faculty find the right mentors is one of my major challenges today.

It often surprises me how little time heads of institutions spend on speaking to their faculty one-on-one in a developmental frame. Considering that most people who come to leading academic institutions as faculty do so because of some internal trigger or motivation, I would have thought that all the leadership needs to do is find out how it can help each individual attain her potential. But, in my 18 years as a faculty member, I can’t recall any occasion when a director asked me that question or had a meaningful discussion with me about my career and aspirations.

Invest in a Strong Doctoral Programme

This is one of the best investments you can make if you want to build scholarship in your school. Not only do doctoral students keep abreast of the latest developments in the field and current methodologies, they provide an ongoing source of ideas and discussion triggers. They also provide excellent collaborators for faculty. But, it’s amazing how many institutions in India see doctoral programmes as a burden rather than a strong catalyst for scholarship.

Institutional Platforms for Thought Leadership

Forming Special interest groups (SIGs) around inter-disciplinary themes can be a useful way of getting people to work together in potentially impactful areas. This is an initiative we have just started at IIM Indore, and we’ll hopefully have more to report in times ahead.

How do you choose the themes? Look for areas which are relevant to the mission of your institution, that are relatively under-studied, and that are of importance to some important stakeholder(s). Beyond that, having a critical mass of interested individuals would help drive the SIGs forward.

Other important platforms are powerful databases and specially-designed or collected datasets.


India has a good set of competent young faculty in its leading institutions. I hope the leaders of at least some of these institutions will create the conditions needed to help these faculty flower and bloom as thought leaders.

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]

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