The giftie

Recent correspondence with Richard Zare of Stanford University brought this fragment from Robert Burns’ To a Louse to mind-

Oh wad some power the giftie gie us

To see oursel’s as others see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us,

And foolish notion:

What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, 

An’ ev’n devotion!

Professor  Zare was at the University in December as part of our celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. He also visited other places in India and spoke with many of our leading scientists. Given his academic eminence, he has often been asked for his impressions (and advice, directions, etc.) of science in India (and also, as it happens, in China where he is on the national advisory board).  I should also add that Prof. Zare, as a Foreign Fellow of the Indian Academy of Science, Bangalore is also concerned about general issues relating to science in the country… His observation that there is an undue emphasis on quantity- number of papers, impact factors, h– index comparisons, and a general overemphasis on metrics (X has more papers than Y, or Y is more cited than Z, or Z published in a journal with higher impact factor than did W, and so on) above any discussion of quality and significance of research prompted him to write a letter to the Editor of the Bangalore journal, Current Science. That letter appears this week, and has further been commented upon in the volume’s editorial by Prof. P Balaram, Editor of the journal (and, as it happens, the Director of the IISc, Bangalore and a member of the University of Hyderabad’s Executive Council).

Zare’s letter- which has already been reprinted in the China Science Daily (!) is about Indian aspirations to improve the country’s scientific reputation. In cautiously offering advice- which he knows to be from another society in another time and in another place- Zare tells of the criteria used by the Chemistry Department at Stanford in tenuring decisions, namely in giving teachers a permanent appointment.

  • First of all, they must be good departmental citizens. Our Department is a small one and we need everyone to work together for the common good.
  • Second, they must become good teachers. Yes, we would be delighted if they become great teachers, but we only ask that they become good ones because everyone who really wants to achieve that status can do so. […] It really matters to us that we have good teachers for our students.
  • Third, the Department wants them to become great researchers. This last criterion is the most difficult, and it presents the greatest challenge to our beginning faculty. It makes sense to us because Stanford University is primarily a research university.

(I have reformatted the above quote which is essentially reproduced from the letter.)

While we do not have such criteria for making appointments permanent in our University (or any other University) are these so difficult to ask of our faculty here? It is, in the end, more about aspiration and expectation than anything else, since nobody, not even the savants at Stanford, can guarantee outcomes…

In his editorial this week – and this, like the letter, can all be seen online since Current Science is an Open Access journal- Balaram has a comment that is pertinent.  Given our realities, he suggests, academic performance is not demanded and academic freedom often degenerates into a licence to legitimise non-performance. While the best of institutions hire faculty with some care, the majority of institutions operate under severe constraints while recruiting new faculty. There is also a vast difference between the state and central institutions, with the former being subject to considerable political pressure. Despite the many constraints and inhibitory influences, research output from India is indeed increasing both in quantity and average quality. While both the carrot and stick are used equally effectively in the West to enhance academic performance, neither is available to most institutions in India. Administrations must follow the policy of benign neglect with respect to high performers, even while turning a blind eye to the significant dead wood accumulating in our institutions. Attempts to provide incentives by the many national award schemes are unlikely to have any impact in an environment where institutions have a limited judgmental role in assessing faculty performance.

At the University, we are sensitive to many of these realities. The PURSE grant that the UoH received some years ago was directly a consequence of DST’s metric evaluation of our academic merit, and in general the grant has been a good thing for us, enabling research and scholarly activity for the most part. For the nation as a whole, it is also probably true that the academic output is increasing in quantity but, regrettably, it is simply not enough because the quality is, for the most part, not that great. One can only share Balaram’s closing hope that the new year and the near future will add more good citizens, good teachers and great researchers to our institutions.

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3 thoughts on “The giftie

  1. Zare, Balaram, Ramakrishna and ……….

    What are our thoughtful solutions to the identified age-old problems? Do we have few things to test on an experimental basis? We may have to find ways to experiment on the theories/hypotheses that we generate. As a biologist, I would draw an analogy to the logical algorithms developed in Bioinfomatics that most often, require cellular/biochemical confirmations.

    It is well known, at least in science circles, that impact factor and h-index do help to rate the impact of research, but at the same time are not exclusive parameters that suggest ‘quality’. Then, we must sit down and define ‘quality’. The Heads of Institutions must exercise wisdom and play a crucial role in setting bench marks for recruitment of good citizens, good teachers, and great researchers for the Indian Academic Institutions.

    If the appointing authorities use time-tested criteria to appoint Head of the Institutions, for a tenure of 3 or 5 years (state or central), most of the problems would be solved. Some such criteria should be:

    •First of all, the Head of the Institution must have highest degree of integrity and moral values.
    •Second, they must not worry too much of ‘personal’ reputation and care only institutional (in a way national) interests. Given the complexity of the nation, what are the ways we get good chiefs? (some time we also end up with good chefs !). Academic fraternity of an institution would be happy to have proven academic administrators as their Chief. It would be a dream to have upright administrators because everyone who really wants to achieve that status tend to deliver goods. It really matters to our country to have honest and committed academic administrators.
    •Third, the Institutions must get great academic administrators, which is the most difficult (given the national scenario). If that happens in a row, and as a rule, would set things right, in national perspective, in all of the established and infant academic institutions.

    These criteria would make sense to us because University of Hyderabad is reckoned as one of the promising academic institutions of the country. It would be more meaningful if we compare ourselves with comparables. It is also important for us to think of Indian models rather than a Chinese/American experiences to find solutions for the given unique systems in our country.

    Having thought of such problems in academic institutions, ignited by Zare and Balaram, it is expected that Ramakrishna would set tone for such changes, preferably with an Indian model, to streamline things at our University. Let us dream of this change.

  2. These are indeed valuable criteria for tenure decisions. In fact, I would say these are principles that should be incumbent upon all faculty members. While much of the burden of being good departmental citizens and good teachers is on us as teachers, in the humanities and social sciences (including the arts and communication) a big issue is with research funding. There is limited external funding available. It would be good if university takes a pro-active approach and sets aside some funding that can be disbursed on a competitive basis to non-science faculty. This way we have some chance of measuring up to that important third criterion.

  3. Is it really so difficult to find a “good teacher” or a “good researcher” or a “good administrator”? Let us see what kind of students we attract! That tells a lot about ourselves: what the people on the other side of the table think of us.

    What are the chances that once a “good teacher” or a “good researcher” is selected, he/ she will stay good for the rest of the career? Where is the incentive? There are plenty of shortcuts already available. A number of our own students end up as our own colleagues: is it a healthy sign? What we can do about it? Just talking on a blog?

    Your quote that “Administrations must follow the policy of benign neglect with respect to high performers, even while turning a blind eye to the significant dead wood accumulating in our institutions. Attempts to provide incentives by the many national award schemes are unlikely to have any impact in an environment where institutions have a limited judgemental role in assessing faculty performance” reads very nice but one cannot forget to note that the very same authors are the architects of the very policy of they are now criticising.

    We have heard so many times that we have received the prestigious DST PURSE grant, but till today I do not know how the money was distributed, what came out of it and the invisible cloak of secrecy surrounding the purse equipments, the purse projects and so on and on. Why blame others when we are to be blamed ourselves? For asking a simple question on the expenditure, I was once openly threatened of departmental and legal action. Nobody blinked!

    We can be good teachers only if we take teaching seriously. Many of our colleagues are so highly specialised that they can only teach that very special subject only. If we see that there are teachers who can only teach M.Sc. students but not B.Sc. students there is something seriously wrong with your selection (actually the after selection process). The teaching process need to be revamped. Locally. Now.

    Youth is when you blame all your troubles on your parents; maturity is when you learn that everything is the fault of the younger generation.

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