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UNIVERSITIES AT THE CROSSROADS by Andre Beteille. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

THE university in India stands at the ‘crossroads’ of expansion and dilution, managing to include a greater diversity of people but largely generating ‘trained incapacity’ (p. 5). These observations from India’s well-known sociologist, Andre Beteille, draw upon nearly six decades of his presence in the university (Delhi) and from his numerous engagements and positions within India’s educational system. While Beteille’s observations are derived from his engaged roles as teacher, researcher and institution-builder and are therefore legitimate as a body of knowledge, the volume as a whole stands as an exception to the fact that writings and reviews on the state of higher education in the nation are highly limited. Even as public announcements on expansion, reform, privatization, and globalization (and of course persisting forms of crises) are frequently made, the absence of a body of scholarship on the higher education system, on its countless colleges, its universities, various research institutes, the examination system, the student body, and the impact of all of these on the economy and the larger nation, becomes all the more glaring.

The failure to develop a sociology of education and or of educational studies in India has meant that there is little or no understanding of the linkages between educational institutions, state and society, no expertise in which institutional reviews, with attention to structures and processes, can be conducted, and little or no theoretical or methodological competence to review various institutions and understand why and how they function or fail to function. In the absence of such scholarship, Beteille’s writings, produced over the years and now consolidated in this collection of essays, serve to fill a large gap.

Beteille brings a Tocqueville-like perspective to his observations on universities in India. Assessing them for their orientation and linking them to the history of universities as derived from the West, Beteille seeks to identify some of the key challenges we face here. That the Indian university, with its roots in colonial administration, has failed to attain either the Humboldtian ideal of combining research and teaching or the American ideal of advancement of knowledge, irrespective of its application, is well conveyed in the various chapters. Beteille also flags the concern that the ‘idea of the university as a community of scientists and scholars… bound by the obligations of academic citizenship has become remote from the reality…’ (p. 175). Yet, despite these observations and the fact that the book is dedicated to Edward Shils, whose pioneering work on Indian universities and its teachers remains a hallmark, Beteille does not dwell adequately on the challenges faced by university teachers or on the problems that they pose to the university idea/ideal itself. As with the limitations of institutional reviews, there is a paucity of understanding regarding the making of the university teacher, where the committed and concerned scholar is now a rarity.

Quite rightly, Beteille rues the fact that university expansion based on political compulsions has led to a dilution of standards and quality. Yet, as with many of his earlier essays, Beteille assigns much of this blame to a loss of recognition of ‘merit’, where merit remains upheld and unexamined as an apriori quality. He endorses in various ways the Napoleonic idea of ‘equality of opportunity’ for facilitating ‘careers open to talent’ and seems uncomfortable with Rawls’ critique of a ‘callous meritocratic society’. Popular and professorial prejudices have reproduced this commonsense: the quota system is singularly responsible for the decline of universities. It would have behoven Beteille’s sociological eye to have actually examined this issue and so questioned this ‘taken for granted’ common sense. The multiple problems associated with the Indian university (concerning administration, finances, disciplinary orientation, the examination system etc), not to mention the deeply embedded forms of discrimination that the average reserved category student faces, are all issues that remain completely under-researched. More specifically, the absence of a democratic ethos in the very constitution, functioning, and everyday culture of the university is an issue that warrants further deliberation and study.

True to his optimistic personality, Beteille does not write off the university as an idea and as an institution, but flags the possibilities that innovation and creativity could bring. He sees possibilities in the ways in which new networks and various civil society organizations can energize the university. Although he mentions the problem of the separation of teaching from research, Beteille does not mention the very structuring of institutions of higher education in the country which constitutes a foundational problem in which the very definition of university has become limited in India. The separation of the disciplines where the professional courses have been placed in their own islands, where select elite institutions (such as the IITs, IIMs, now the new Law Schools and institutions for basic sciences) and the range of natural and physical science institutions have been culled away from the university, must be recognized for their consequences on the subsequent marginalization of the university. The implications of this for denying the viability of universities (which are then treated as second order institutions meant to do lower level work, including conducting exams) remains a key problem. That such a structural defect continues to be overlooked means that the new mantra of establishing many more universities (as demanded by the National Knowledge Commission) is oblivious to the deep problems of the Indian university.

While these issues have often been raised, the more pressing concern of developing new teaching-learning methods, of revising curricula, and producing more updated and relevant texts are also matters that need more engagement and democratic consultations. That the university as an institution and its ability to produce new knowledge forms is sharply eroded is visible in the fact that no new or knowledge or significant breakthroughs have been associated with any of the universities in India. In fact, more up to date and pertinent bodies of knowledge are now being produced and disseminated by civil society organizations and individuals. Trends in environmental studies, gender studies, education, architecture, alternative technologies, agriculture, health, and even medicine are witnessing more contributions from non-university sources. What do these imply and signify about the very viability and relevance of universities? Only if these and related questions about the administration, the state-society linkages, the conditions of work and work culture, processes of review and promotion, teaching, learning, pedagogies, and texts are all reviewed can a comprehensive perspective about the state of India’s universities emerge.

Beteille seconds and elaborates on the need for universities to recognize the importance of liberal education and rues trends where even social sciences face dilution with the focus on policy and development. In his conclusion and call for endorsing the inclusive education drive, Beteille focuses on the need for universities to accommodate ‘all classes and communities, and all sections of society’ (p. 191) and for universities to be built as multi-disciplinary institutions.

Beteille’s own contribution to university life and to the body of social science scholarship needs no reiteration. One hopes that endeavours such as his will initiate further studies and reviews of the state of the varied institutions associated with higher education. For too long have we neglected to study existing institutions and failed to engage in collective endeavours to forge new ideas of what ‘Indian universities’ can or should be.

A.R. Vasavi


LIBERALIZATION’S CHILDREN: Gender, Youth, and Consumer Citizenship in Globalizing India by Ritty A. Lukose. Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2010.

IN most public discussions in Kerala on the post-1990s challenges to politics and development, the term ‘consumer citizenship’ evokes an awkward silence. This is partly because the conjoining of ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ is still perceived as producing a contradiction in terms, as if ‘consumer’ indicated a state of complete withdrawal from the public, and ‘citizen’ meant total engagement with it and insularity from the seductions of consumption. This widespread attitude, however, effects a closure. It tells us little about ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ as evolving ideas and empirical realities and certainly hides the history of their intertwined emergence in Kerala.

Liberalization’s Children challenges many assumptions that often underlie the above-mentioned incomprehensibility in the context of college student life. It questions the view that the consumer-subject is primarily shaped by globalization; that globalization in a regional society with a history of progressive politics like Kerala can only be an external force forcing its way in as an intruder; that the ideology of nation-building, which is supposed to shape the ‘citizen’, is largely immune from consumerist aspirations; that those who protest globalization and ally with nation-building do so because they are excluded from the prospects of globalization. Rather, it tracks ‘globalization’ and ‘liberalization’ as discourses and practices that unfold within Kerala in relation to regional processes.

The book seeks to demonstrate how politics, the public and the experience of belonging to and participating in these do not disappear but are restructured in and through consumer citizenship against the backdrop of the neoliberal restructuring of higher education and public life in general. The focus of the book is on a section of society that has come to be most closely associated with the promises of ‘opening up’ under the new liberalizing-globalizing regime – the ‘youth’. The four core chapters of the book probe practices especially associated with this group: fashion, romance, politics and education. The exploration of the specific practices and the site of their unfolding – a medium-sized coeducational government-aided college outside a small town in South Kerala – is embedded in larger discussions of the regional and national contexts, contemporary and historical. As someone trained in the discipline of history, I felt that these discussions could have been fuller – but then they have a limited purpose to serve in the book.

‘Youth’ as a category is closely interrogated along the axes of gender, class and caste, to reveal the differential negotiation of the new world of opportunity, and indeed, hope, by young women and men of different castes and classes. The chapter on fashion, for example, reflects on the idea of ‘fun’ in public spaces of consumer-modernity and demonstrates how it differs between the lower class, lower caste masculine consumer identity marked by desire and aspiration articulated through fashion, and the upper class, upper caste young female trying to articulate her consumerist sense of agency. As the author notes, the latter is ‘a middle class object of desire that must ultimately be tamed and disciplined… Her notions of "fun" are situated in and through notions of modernity, public and private, that make her claim on these new consumer spaces tenuous’ (p. 94). A revealing absence, however, is of the lower caste lower class young woman in the representation of ‘fun’ – she continues to be privatized and ‘can make little claim on a modern public, either as a threatening or entitled figure’ (p. 95).

The chapter on romance also reveals that spaces for romancing in the public are precarious, always holding the prospect of danger; while both young men and women perceive sense pleasure along with danger and transgression as they negotiate romance in the public space of the college, the ‘freedom’ thus enabled is more ambiguous for women. Perhaps the analysis of these chapters would have been richer (if this is not too much to ask) if they had also included a consideration of another phenomenon in Kerala equally shaped by late modernity marked by globalization and migration: that of ageing. Kerala is indeed an ageing society in which people of the older generation of the upper classes and castes continue to retain control over resources of many kinds even as they are plagued by anxieties and insecurities of many sorts. This would perhaps have helped us make greater sense of the precariousness of the ‘freedoms’ opened up to the young via consumer citizenship and the moral panics over romance and fashion that especially centre upon the elite-female body.

The third and fourth chapters, which focus on politics and education, examine some of the anxieties that consumer citizenship create for the young. Here again, danger and pleasure are entwined, and agential possibilities are mostly directed at young upper class upper caste men. The ongoing restructuring of higher education receives greater attention in these chapters (though, of course, the book is not on higher education – the college is relevant as the fieldwork site precisely because it is the preeminent site in which the discourses of globalization and citizenship collide and where youth and citizenship are reshaped as a result). The chapters pay close attention to the nature of the support that many young people offer to pushing aside public politics to make space for ‘civic virtue’ in colleges and to the continuing and perhaps widening inequalities of gender, class, and caste that structure education as it is rapidly being transformed into a consumer good.

Based on fieldwork undertaken during the 1990s, many of the anxieties that the book touches upon, for example the moral panics around dressing, have deepened and widened today. For instance, the lower class lower caste consumer-masculine subject sporting his chethu style is now likely to be disciplined, in public and violent ways. Just a few weeks back, police in a small town in central Kerala boasted of their ‘crackdown’ on young people – mostly male – who were wearing low-waist jeans. The police accused them of engaging in ‘obscene display’ as their underwear showed under shirts that were not long enough! The complaints were apparently made by ‘senior citizens’ and the reporter was told that these young men were of a ‘low class’ sort! Meanwhile, the widening of the inequalities of caste continues.

Research in the post-millennium shows that the dropout rates among SC/ST students in postgraduate programmes is about 44 per cent, compared with just 12.5 among the non SC/ST students; another study shows that of all the dropouts from engineering education, about 80 per cent were SC/ST students, and that only half such students actually pass, and after many attempts. These are probably accentuated by the growing social distance between teachers with UGC scale salaries and students who are increasingly from underprivileged backgrounds, lower castes and women – the major beneficiaries of public education, especially in the liberal arts, in Kerala (since the better-off students who seek liberal arts education tend to migrate to metropolitan universities outside the state).

My own experience of fieldwork in colleges reconfirms many of the observations made in the book: ‘citizenship’, for example, seems to have been decisively redefined. When I asked student groups of several degree colleges in South Kerala to tell me what they felt were the key aspects of ‘citizenship’, the largest group cited the ‘right to vote’. Another group, almost as large, responded with ‘the right to get a passport!’ The largest group consisted of students who mentioned both. Clearly, if ‘the right to vote’ indicated formal citizenship, ‘the right to get a passport’ pointed at substantive citizenship – to be realized in and through the consumption made possible by the wealth amassed through migration to the Gulf countries or elsewhere. Saddest, however, was the utter incomprehension displayed by their teachers towards these responses, and the blindness to their own implication in their students’ lack of an adequate vocabulary to express their views. Their main reaction was embarrassment at the ‘ignorance’, ‘laziness’, and ‘incompetence’ of their students who, as one teacher was brazen enough to say, ‘are from low class families, coming here only because of reservation.’ Her advice to me, who was doing fieldwork among students to get a sense of what they expected to learn through studying history before I wrote a book for them, was that I write for students ‘with eighth standard level of understanding.’ In other words, teachers often appeared to be voicing the concerns of Nehruvian nation-building citizenship, but without any concern for social justice. Their desire for a productivist campus culture did not help to alleviate – and actually buttressed – their elitism vis-à-vis their largely underprivileged students.

Perhaps an issue that the book does not explore at length (precisely because its concerns are different), is that of a growing gap between students and teachers in the context of the neoliberal restructuring of public education. Much of the discourse in which many teachers voiced their disdain for students has been analyzed in the book: very often, students were accused of being lazy, too easy-going; their orientation towards desire and pleasure (‘fun’) was interpreted as evidence of an inherent ‘low culture’ that underlay a perceived ‘non-serious’ attitude. In the responses of students to my queries about what a book of history should look like, their orientation towards desire and pleasure were evident. ‘Textbooks’ were detested and it was clear that students would either master them through rote learning or reject them completely. However, their suggestions for other sorts of reading were anything but ‘non-serious’: they recommended that the book must have art, that it should make non-linear reading possible, that it should connect academic discussion to everyday life so that each illuminates the other.

But what appeared truly interesting to me was the way in which many students managed to gain familiarity with national and international debates in social science and sophisticated social theory despite their formal syllabi being outdated and the standards of teaching poor. This, I saw, underlay their attempts to reforge a sense of the political beyond familiar party politics and state power. This is a dimension that Liberalization’s Children has not been able to pay much attention to. Here the relatively active and vibrant nature of the Malayalam public sphere was probably crucial – these students were also avid readers of ‘high-Malayalam’ journals which carried sophisticated social analysis and reflections on social theory and it made up for the many inadequacies of the learning acquired in college. There are other movements, like those of Muslim students seeking to reconfigure Islam.

Thus the steady re-figuration of citizenship through the discourses of consumption that the book charts does meet with resistance other than that offered by powerful public-political forces (not to speak of resistance outside campuses, such as by the highly politicized youth of the Dalit Human Rights movement). This resistance refigures politics, but not necessarily as against pleasure and desire, and locates politics precisely in an oppositional civil society which is in confrontation with a more conservative civil society. And this resistance did develop precisely in the post-1990s, aided by the conjuncture of a number of events and processes: the democratization of access to sophisticated social science training in the 1990s, the weakening of the socio-cultural consensus generated by the leftist Malayalee national-popular of the mid-20th century, the translation of Ambedkar’s collected works into Malayalam, and so on. Besides the many interesting leads that the chapters of Liberalization’s Children offer, it may perhaps be of considerable interest for us to explore the contexts and experiences of these students who strive against the tide to reconstruct activism as youthful and pleasurable, to see to what extent, and in what altered sense, they may be called the children of liberalization.

J. Devika


INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION: Envisioning the Future by Pawan Agarwal. Sage Publications, India, New Delhi, 2009.

IT is well-known that higher education is the key to the global knowledge economy; we hear this rhetorically in academic lectures as well as political speeches. Pathetically, however, there is little systematic knowledge about higher education in the country. ‘It is surprising,’ as Philip G. Altbach observes, ‘that India has no major higher education research centre and no group of researchers focusing on this key subject’ (Foreword, p. xi). The ‘wisdom’ of a Birla-Ambani report or the ‘advice’ of a National Knowledge Commission is a poor substitute. Viewed in this light, Pawan Agarwal’s Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future comes as a welcome analysis of the complexity of the higher education system in the country and the serious problems that it confronts as an engine of growth and development.

There is essentially nothing Indian about the higher education that Agarwal speaks about, except perhaps the morass that it is in today. The ‘system’ of higher education that we have given ourselves is a curious mix of two different patterns: the first was an implantation of the University of London model that began in the mid-19th century colonial era; and the second is the result of the free imports from the United States of America in the post-independence period. These two patterns have been variously adopted and adapted to the economic, political and social realities of India. A historical understanding of the nature and consequence of their adoption and adaptation is a sine qua non for any attempt to grapple with the problems and prospects of higher education in India today. Regrettably, there is very little by way of such an understanding in Agarwal’s book, except the laconic statement that ‘higher education is rooted in the country’s history and culture’ (p. 1) and an allusion to ‘the British model’ and American influence in the opening paragraph of the first chapter of the book.

The strength of the book lies elsewhere. Scholars working on higher education in India, few as they may be, have invariably complained about a lack of systematic and reliable data. For instance, with data on enrolment available from four sources – the University Grants Commission’s ‘annual reports’, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s ‘selected educational statistics’, the National Sample Survey Organization’s ‘survey reports’, and the Census – ambiguities and gaps abound. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Agarwal for his painstaking collation of massive statistical data on higher education. These data are presented – in 67 tables, 17 figures, and 22 boxes – and analyzed to present a comprehensive state of higher education report for India as of 2006-07 and locate India in an international perspective.

Agarwal has no scholarly pretensions. What he brings to bear on his analysis of higher education is his vast and varied experience in the education sector as an officer in the Indian Administrative Service. Especially his two stints as an administrator – one as Director in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, handling higher education and human resource development, and the other as Financial Advisor and Coordinator of new initiatives in the University Grants Commission – seem to have shaped his interest in and thinking on higher education. These concerns were academically crystallized during his sabbatical at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), New Delhi and his fellowship with Fulbright’s New Century Scholars Programme (US). What Agarwal presents in this book is a blending of his academic forays with his rich administrative experience.

The book is divided into nine chapters, besides an Introduction, which spells out the scope of the book. Agarwal vividly portrays the complexity of the institutional structure of higher education in the country, and highlights the ‘high fragmentation’ and ‘sub-optimal organization’ as the festering sores of the system. Commenting on the improvement in access, that has been ‘largely due to expansion of private higher education in recent years’ (p. 64), he raises issues about equity and quality. While accepting that the future of higher education in the country ‘would largely depend upon the growing private sector’ (p. 112), he observes that the growth in this sector has hitherto taken place in ‘a policy vacuum’ and this could ‘leave large gaps’ (p. 113).

Explaining the changing scenario of financing and management of higher education, Agarwal concludes that ‘the much publicized increased outlay will have little impact on increasing access or improving the quality for much of the higher education system unless these are accompanied with wider institutional reforms’ (p. 167). But he does not elaborate on them. On the question of higher education in relation to workforce development, Agarwal’s conclusion is that ‘for big countries like India, given the enormity and complexity of the task due to a large labour market and a huge higher education and training system, multi-level coordination through central planning is less useful and the market forces can usually do a better job’ (p. 246).

Agarwal sees the state of the research enterprise in India as a story of ‘hope’ and ‘despair’. He reiterates the oft-repeated suggestions about improving the quality of doctoral education, creating highly skilled manpower through collaborative approach, incentives to promote ‘useful research’, and so on. Then there are the non-starters: ‘Proactive efforts are required to attract private investment and the participation of world-class universities in postgraduate education and research in science and technology’ (p. 303). Surprisingly, he does not see the disjunction between teaching (done exclusively in universities) and research (done mostly in institutes and laboratories) as a basic flaw in our system.

Agarwal’s review of the discussion on the regulatory framework is interesting. If he sees the continuation of the UGC as an ‘anachronism’ today, he also believes that the setting up of the proposed Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (IRAHE) would serve little purpose. He opines that ‘the entire regulatory architecture needs to be designed keeping in mind the increasing professionalization of various occupations’ (p. 355). His discussion on quality management in higher education does not go beyond preliminary clarifications on accreditation and assessment as two of its components and some comparisons on quality considerations in India and the USA.

The concluding chapter, curiously titled ‘Perspectives’, sums up the main observations of the study. Given the facts, as Agarwal notes, the conclusions are obvious. Contrary to what its subtitle suggests, the book does not envision any future for higher education in India. As Agarwal confesses in the Preface, the book ‘does not provide a single vision for the future’ (p. xviii); it is left for the reader to engage in an informed policy debate based on the data and insights the book presents. Rich in data and insights as the book may be, what it lacks is a sociological imagination.

N. Jayaram


BRICK BY RED BRICK: Ravi Mathai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad by T.T. Ram Mohan. Rupa and Co., Delhi, 2011.

IT is somewhat intriguing, and disconcerting, why despite major developments in historiography, both method and subjects of enquiry, there is such scant material available on the setting up and evolution of our major institutions. Nowhere is this gap felt more keenly than in our knowledge about our institutions of higher education. True, we do have some ‘official’ accounts, usually produced to mark anniversary milestones. But these, expectedly, are dry and ‘sanitized’ versions which at best provide limited insights into what went into the decision to found the institution, the debates accompanying the scope and objectives, the selection of the initial/founding leadership and, least of all, the evolution of rules and processes which go into the making of an institutional tradition.

A somewhat richer literature does exist on some of our older institutions – Syed Ahmed Khan and the founding of the Mohammaden Anglo-Oriental College, which subsequently evolved into the Aligarh Muslim University; Madan Mohan Malaviya and Banaras Hindu University, to name a few. Some years back historian Mushirul Hasan compiled an interesting (though uneven) volume with accounts of diverse educational institutions from Zakir Hussain College and Indraprastha College to the Presidency College, Calcutta.1 Nevertheless, the coverage remains limited and the few accounts available fight shy of asking difficult questions about the role of individuals, how the founders garnered support for the nascent ventures and thus are of little help as a guide for future efforts. At a time when Indian higher education seems poised for a major makeover, both in terms of funding support and a dramatic expansion in the number of institutions – public, private, Indian, foreign – this lack of knowledge about our institutional histories can turn out to be a major handicap. How else can we learn about what works and what does not, why, in what circumstances, and so on.

It also appears that many of the available accounts seem suffused with a narrative of decline, of a ‘golden age’ when education administrators were individuals of high calibre and vision, held in high social regard and ‘trusted’ by the extant political leadership and thus granted a degree of freedom and initiative difficult to imagine in the current climate. All this, it is believed, resulted in the recruitment of ‘high quality’ faculty infused with integrity and a sense of purpose, significantly contributing to major improvements in both teaching and research. Remember, for instance, how Mohan Singh Mehta, the founding vice-chancellor of Rajasthan University invited scholars ranging from Daya Krishna (philosophy), Raj Krishna (economics), G.C. Pande (history), Yogendra Singh (sociology), R.C. Mehrotra (chemistry) and the librarian N.N. Gidwani, to name but a few, to help build the new university – all without the tortuous process of advertisements and selection committees. Notably, none of the appointments were challenged in court, a far cry from current practice.

Similar accounts abound when we read about the setting up of the Indian Institute of Science, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Statistical Institute or the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. It is instructive that each of these institutions, all products of either a phase of the national movement or the early years of independent India, have arguably enjoyed a far longer run of quality work and stability than the institutions set up later. Clearly, there is something here worth exploring about leadership, autonomy and freedom that our current educational planners seem clueless about.

In some ways the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) falls in a similar category. Set up in the early 1960s, over the five decades since its inception, IIM-A has acquired a formidable brand equity, its ‘products’ commanding a high market premium. Yet, at the time that it was set up, management education was hardly on ‘top of the mind’. T.T. Ram Mohan’s monograph, Brick by Red Brick, a detailed look at the founding and early years of the institute, provides valuable insights about what went into making a ‘success’ of IIM-A, not just as a school of management training and research, but as an institution with a distinct way of functioning and a culture of social concern and public accountability. And while it could be argued that the early ‘halo’ has somewhat dimmed in recent years, with the institution embroiled in a range of controversies, ranging from directorial appointments to fee fixation and affirmative action, it cannot be denied that IIM-A still deserves to be classified as one of our (unfortunately rare) success stories.

Central to the making of IIM-A is the role of its founding leadership, in particular Vikram Sarabhai and the first full-time Director, Ravi J. Mathai. Sarabhai, of course, is well-known and regarded as an unusual and prolific institution builder across multiple domains. A Cambridge trained physicist and scion of an important business family with close links to the Congress Party, Sarabhai was not merely the founder of our space programme but also set up the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), the Ahmedabad Textile Industries Research Association (ATIRA), the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), the Operations Research Group (ORG), to name a few, as also the Blind Men’s Association. He also served as a part-time founding head of IIM-A. How and why he and his close associates – Prakash Tandon, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Kamala Chowdhary (subsequently founder of the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development) – honed in on Ravi Mathai, all of 38 years and with no proven track record in management education to head and shape the institute is a fascinating story. It should, of course, not be discounted that Ravi’s father, John Mathai, had briefly served as India’s finance minister and the family enjoyed an enviable social position. Ravi had, however, briefly worked at IIM-Calcutta as also at a blue-chip company like Metal Box where he became known for taking bold decisions. In hindsight, it was an inspired decision.

It would have helped had Ram Mohan provided more details about the role of the Ford Foundation and the Department of Company Affairs in creating the ground for the IIMs. The Ford Foundation, incidentally, played a major role in the Nehru years in helping conceptualize, set up and support a bewildering range of public institutions – the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the Indian Law Institute, National Institute of Design as also our agricultural universities, the Community Development Programme and so on. It is only in the early 1970s, during Indira Gandhi’s ‘left’ phase, that the Foundation fell from official favour. Equally noteworthy is the role of the political leadership, both at the Centre (Nehru) and at the provincial level, in extending support to an idea which in the 1960s did not carry the cachet it does today. Nevertheless, the author, using both the institutional archives (unfortunately sketchy) and the Sarabhai papers, alongside interviews with institute old-timers, is able to bring alive the early years – how Ravi Mathai and his colleagues set about creating a structure of teaching, research, consultancy and social engagement through evolving rules, regulations, procedures and conventions that, by and large, have stood the test of time.

It is instructive that rather than be created through an Act of Parliament and come under the purview of the University Grants Commission, IIM-A was set up as a society – a collaborative venture between the central and state governments and industry. This meant sacrificing the right to award a degree, incidentally a choice subsequently also exercised by the National Institute of Design. Autonomy was crucial for the founding fathers. Links with industry imparted a practical orientation as also a market for its products. Unusual for the time was Ravi’s insistence on research, albeit of the applied variety. (In hindsight, though, it appears that the decision to locate IIM-A outside the university may have denied it the possibility of interacting with other disciplines, thereby affecting the quality of its research output).

A major organizational innovation was the involvement of the faculty in decision-making, contributing to the making of a collegial culture. Equally important were the norms set by Ravi about institutional and personal consultancy, making the teaching programme sacrosanct such that faculty could not sacrifice its commitment to students in search for more lucrative assignments. IIM-A is also unusual in the manner it distributes institutional resources and privileges across faculty – equally – irrespective of seniority. All these may appear trite, but anyone who has studied or run educational institutions is aware how differential privileges such as room size, secretarial assistance, access to research budgets and so on can mar institutional functioning and ethos.

In deciding that he would not serve more than one term as Director, Ravi set up a healthy convention. More unusually, he decided to stay on as a regular faculty, and – this is reflective of the high regard he was held in and the robustness of the culture of the institute – was not perceived to be an alternative power centre and thus a threat by his successors. It is another matter that all subsequent heads chose to exit the institute on the completion of their term in office.

Much of Ravi Mathai’s work, post his stint as Director, was with craftsmen in Jawaja, Rajasthan, an experience evocatively captured in a book The Rural University put together after his death. In part reflective of his initiative in setting up the Centre for Management in Agriculture and the Public Systems Group, the Jawaja work helped create space for civic and social engagement with the underprivileged, a tendency that most management schools are not known for. This helped the institute attract a range of unusual people like Anil Bhatt who did interesting work on NGOs, Girija Sharan who edited an unusual journal Zameer in the 1970s and Anil Gupta whose contribution to creating a platform for grassroots innovation is well-recognized.

Overall, T.T. Ram Mohan, despite somewhat laboured writing, provides us with a fascinating account of a man, an institution and the times. Looked at from the conflicted environment that we are more familiar with, it may appear that this is a story which cannot be repeated, that IIM-A became what it did only because of an unusual conjuncture of circumstances – a gifted leadership, a supportive political and business class, and a less cut-throat environment. None of this can be denied. Nevertheless, what the book also indicates is that successful academic institution building involves a willingness to take risks, refusing to give into various pulls and pressures, and creating a supportive network across different domains – in short, creating confidence and trust about the venture in the social and political leadership. These are lessons that our current crop of decision-makers would do well to remember if we are to break away from the narrative of decline we are so familiar with, and make some success of the many new institutions being planned.

Harsh Sethi