You talkin’ to me?

Many years ago I managed to persuade a Romanian taxi driver in New York city  to let me drive his cab for a couple of blocks (I had helped him change a flat tyre, so I figure he was feeling kindly). It was strangely exhilarating, even if it was mainly along an empty stretch of a street in Harlem- the powerful brakes, the low centre of gravity, the idea of it all… But I digress.

nyc_taxiThat incident flashed through my mind (and de Niro fans will know why) some months ago when I saw the op-ed about Central University Vice Chancellors in The Hindu, Wanted: intellectual leaders, not CEOs by Apoorv Anand and Satish Deshpande of Delhi University. Trying to see it as a commentary on the system, and to not take it personally is even more of a challenge. Especially when the references seem so direct, and even though no names were mentioned. I guess if the shoe fits…

Anand and Deshpande start with a multiple choice question: Who or what is a Vice Chancellor today?

  1. The CEO of an academic corporation.
  2. An academic or bureaucrat with political connections.
  3. A person selected by accident, error or compromise.
  4. An intellectual leader.

but they don’t give a fifth (and more correct) choice, namely

5. Possibly all of the above, at least in bits and parts..

As Mark Twain said, those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made. The same holds for the processes that bring about VCs in our country. Or any other position of some complexity for that matter.

There is a lot of what Anand and Deshpande say that one agrees with, and much that one can disagree with, even on purely academic terms. Boats are intrinsically sinkable, but only when they are on water, if there are leaks, and even then not always. So too, universities. If they have to function, there is always the danger that in some ways they will do so poorly.

With the two and a half years’ experience that I have had (and that has been more educational than some of my previous years in academe) it seems to me that some of the discomfort that is expressed is tied into the multiplicity of expectations that we have of our University system. It is not just a place where you get quality education that prepares you for jobs in the real world. Our Central universities are expected to play other roles as well. So is there a simple answer to the question “What is an Indian University for?” The multiplicity of goals that we, as a nation, seek to achieve through our educational institutions makes this a germane question, particularly as the answers themselves have evolved over the years.

Here is an incomplete answer: in addition to (tertiary) education, our universities are also sites of knowledge creation and knowledge preservation. They are arenas of skills development and vocational training. Being nationally funded, they need to assure wide and deep access, across geographical and social strata so as to be agents of social transformation, enabling social change. Helping people to cross barriers, both economic and social is one aim, but in addition, we also seek to make India a society with the sense of “scientific temper”. All this is done in the foreground of a globalizing (but still very feudal) society with a deep fissures and shallow pockets, so that there is a perpetual shortfall of public (or for that matter private) investment in what is very clearly both a public and a private good.

sailor-who-fell-from-grace-with-sea-mishima-yukio-paperback-cover-artAnd a VC’s job is to make all this happen smoothly while transforming the office itself in the same way as the country has been changing? In comparison, Rumpelstiltskin‘s skill seems a trivial one.

This post in not in defence of the indefensible. The slow and painstaking methods of intellectual leadership that Anand and Deshpande recognize as a requirement of being a successful VC is undeniable, but this is only one of the components… To focus on this- not that they are unaware of the other aspects- is to oversimplify the whole process. A complex system has complex demands, and to quote Mishima in closing, one is perpetually striving to make some sense out of the chaos of existence

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3 thoughts on “You talkin’ to me?

  1. Yes, but I am not sure if vocational training be a part of a University’s mandate or mission. These are best left for vocational training institutes. As has been rightly mentioned, Universities are sites for knowledge creation. Universities should lead the society, and not be led by the society, as what seems to be happening presently.

  2. In addition to the knowledge creation and preservation, universities should play a key role as good knowledge managers. And the VC as an intellectual leader should set the direction for the creation, preservation, and management of knowledge. A visionary VC would align the direction these knowledge-goals of the university to the larger socio-economic, scientific, and political aspirations of the nation. This entails VC as an intellectual leader may sometimes have to take locally unpopular decisions keeping larger national goals in the mind: courageous VCs intuitively know how to balance this act.

    Regarding the challenging complex social context in which the universities have to function, I agree with what you say “all this is done in the foreground of a globalizing (but still very feudal) society with a deep fissures and shallow pockets.” Within the University, these challenges from outside society are aggravated even more by the parochial, nepotistic elements acting to fan over-politicization and polarization of genuine issues affecting all of us. Therefore, skills of ‘social engineering’ are an asset for the socially astute VC.

    Dr. Madhubabu
    Faculty member

  3. Sure enough. I wonder you were smart in choosing a stretch of a street in a not-so-busy area in New York City to drive around, otherwise with traffic lights seemingly every meter along the way, you would have had a more direct experience how the driving is in New York City, a great place where intellectual and cultural diversity gets celebrated on a much bigger canvas. And the diversity is so unbelievable and magical that so many a times, I forgot whether I am in New York City or India while seguing from speaking English to Hindi mid-way, and even knowing that the person listening in front is understanding Hindi, completely!

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