Much of the last week was taken up with conferences and conclaves, meetings in Delhi and Washington. I am only slowly getting familiar with the routines, the ceremoniality of it all, the somewhat studied smiles and pauses. The speeches. But in the midst of it all, there are things that stand out, as did an excerpt of what one of the senior administrators at Stanford said last week, when talking about quality.
In his book, Rabi, scientist and citizen, John Rigden tells of when Dwight Eisenhower was President of Columbia University, and Isidor Rabi (picture on the right) was awarded the Nobel prize for Physics. As Hans Bethe (another physicist and Nobelist) recounts, Eisenhower met Rabi and said “Professor Rabi, I congratulate you on the Nobel Prize, and besides, I am always very happy to see one of the employees of the University… So Rabi drew himself up to his full height of five feet five inches and said,” Mr President, the faculty are not the employees of the University. They are the University!“
I don’t know what else I got out of that talk, but this made a great impression on me, as I imagine it did on Bethe, or on Rigden, or for that matter, on Eisenhower. The sense of identification, the sense of authority, or the sense of responsibility. This so defines a teacher, and in the end, this so defines a University.
The next few days in Washington were an eye opener in more ways. Visits to the University of Maryland in addition to The summit with Mr Kapil Sibal and Mrs Hilary Clinton. The U of M is one of the “land grant” universities, having 1250 acres given by the state for the purpose of education (sound familiar??). They started in 1857, so that is quite a headstart on us, but still… they now have about 3000 faculty, 39000 students, a similarly impressive number of departments and subjects. Given, as I learned, that our (by which I mean the country’s) placement deficit with respect to the US is 100,000 student seats, it make one think again of where we should be positioning ourselves at UoH. On the size front, we are a tenth of the faculty and a tenth of the student body but at the same nominal area. But we serve a population that is at least 10 times as many… Without making unfair comparisons, I still think it should be possible for us to do better on the numbers game.
But more. A serious question as to how we should increase numbers is on the cards. First off, we need better infrastructure, both for teaching and for student hostels. And for faculty housing. But after that. What should we be teaching? What are the areas where we should be investing intellectually? What is important for us, as academics? What is of interest to us as a nation? What subjects, what areas of human enquiry are of relevance?
None of these are unloaded questions, I realize, but we do need to start thinking along some lines. The 12th Plan is upon us, and if we want this to be a plan in any sense of the word, it is important that we start thinking. Among the foci of discussion at the summit were issues of skill development, of community colleges. And yes, the usual dual degrees, twinning programmes, semesters in India and other intersections were talked about but in somewhat tired voices. What was really urgent is the final realization that in India, we will soon have about 200 million young men and women in search of an education, and it will be our lot to educate them as best as possible to take their place, not in India, but in a world that is even more borderless than we see it now.
How will we prepare ourselves for the challenge of providing a skilled workforce to the world? One thing is for sure, we need new strategies for educating more people, in ways that they want, and in ways that are effective, using methods that may not exist… yet.
What will the University of Hyderabad be like in the year 2024, when we are 50? I suppose that is up to us to determine, now.