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The Scholar and the Manager

Social science institutes need outstanding academics as organisational heads. But unlike in the past, such academics are unwilling to occupy positions as head of institutions. A number of reasons are responsible for this reluctance. Ultimately, this is both a reflection and the result of the current state of social science institutions.

COMMENTARY
The Scholar and the Manager Supriya RoyChowdhury contemporary scene in the management of academic institutions. It is particularly relevant to explore these issues at this moment, when the preparations for remembering V K R V Rao in his centenary year

Social science institutes need outstanding academics as organisational heads. But unlike in the past, such academics are unwilling to occupy positions as head of institutions. A number of reasons are responsible for this reluctance. Ultimately, this is both a reflection and the result of the current state of social science institutions.

Supriya RoyChowdhury (supriya@isec.ac.in) is at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.

T
he renowned sociologist and the present chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Andre Beteille recently delivered the annual V K R V Rao memorial lecture in Bangalore, where the eminent economist had spent his last years. As this happens to be the birth centenary year of V K R V Rao, and the speaker had been a long time younger associate of Rao, it was indeed appropriate that Beteille delivered the memorial lecture.

Andre Beteille’s lecture, “Caste in Present India”, was marked by his usual erudition. In his introductory remarks, he spoke of his reminiscences of V K R V Rao. This discussion was interesting, interspersed as it was with names like K N Raj, Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, M N Srinivas, associated with the Delhi School of Economics at that time. Rao had been responsible for selecting Beteille as lecturer in the department of sociology at the Delhi School, in which Beteille spent the next four decades of his career, and their association had continued long after Rao left Delhi to return to Bangalore.

It seems that Rao had always criticised Beteille for the latter’s reluctance and refusal to ever be part of committees and commissions. On his part, Beteille had held all along that there are multiple ways to serve society, and being part of academic committees or bodies was not necessarily the only way to be of public service. Beteille told us that had Rao been alive today, he would have been asto nished to learn that Beteille was now the chairperson of the ICSSR. In fact, he had decided to accept the ICSSR chairpersonship only after he had retired, when academic engagements had perhaps become less intense.

This difference of opinion between the two academicians – the late economist, who had also been an eminent institutions builder, and the sociologist, who had until recently shied away from committees – raised some interesting points about the are gaining momentum. V K R V Rao was, of course, an exceptional and outstanding individual, who had combined both tasks of academics and of institution-building/ management. Amongst his many achievements, he is known for setting up the Delhi School of Economics, the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), Delhi and the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC) in Bangalore. He perhaps engaged in these task at a time when institutionbuilding could be done on a tabula rasa, relatively speaking. In later years academic institutions came to either represent highly politicised terrains or became mired in vested interests; as is well known it is not unusual for groups and individuals to regard institutional resources and positions of authority as instruments of power and patronage.

In this scenario it is understandable that some serious scholars at least would wish to keep away from governing or management positions within institutions of higher learning. It would be one way to protect their scholarly persona. Others who may have a more defined sense of serving or building institutions, may indeed dabble in it, and then have to retreat. Such examples are many. In certain spaces where the academic quality of faculty and students have been fiercely protected, as in the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institute of Science, it may still be possible for serious academics to move between scholarly work and institution management. But in most cases, the messy nature of institutions would prevent the easy passage of intellectuals to institution management, such as in leading American universities, where some of the best scholars become presidents of universities.

Vacuum in Leadership

While the rot in our system of higher education is a frequently discussed theme, the vacuum in leadership of academic

february 16, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
COMMENTARY

institutions is much less thought about. However, the absence of enlightened leadership is tied in a vicious cycle of cause and effect to the malaise that affects our institutions of higher education. This is true more of the social sciences in general. Many a search committee looking to fill the position of the head of social science institutions, may, in fact, come up against a situation where the most outstanding individuals on their wish list would not even consider being chosen for the given position. In a situation where the choice, then, may descend to second or even third lists, the appropriateness of the selected person may indeed be in question.

There are multiple reasons that underlie this scenario. In a situation of scarce and dwindling public interest and resources in the social sciences, a limited number of faculty positions become instruments of patronage distribution. Over the long run, then, leadership of social science institutions thus may fall into the hands of academicians who lack both academic and institutional vision. In an alternative scenario, when an exceptional individual takes over the reins of an institution, he or she may be pulled down or pushed out by the weight of the mediocrity and/or vested interests that reign in most social science research institutions.

Governing Process

It should further be underlined that the governance of institutions frequently is the reflection not only of institutional heads/directors, but also of governing or managing councils. Unfortunately, the growing malaise of social science disciplines is manifested in the absence of outstanding academics to lead governing councils of research institutes. A range of norms determine the composition of such governing committees in different contexts. In many cases, governing councils may be composed of eminent citizens: a sprinkling of retired academicians, but mostly former administrators, corporate leaders, journalists, lawyers, and so on. Despite their proven competence in their own professions, they may understandably be eminently unsuited to guide academic institutions, particularly through moments of crisis or change. Unfortunately, even a little bit of power that goes

Economic & Political Weekly

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february 16, 2008

with a prestigious position, combined with an exaggarated sense of “doing something new”, may urge some members of such bodies to persist in their agenda of intervening in the structures and functioning of academic institutions. The combination of the intertia or disinterest of some and the self-importance of a few is frequently a recipe for institutional disaster.

It should, however, be underlined that it is the declining quality of faculty as well as of the heads of social science research institutions that has made it possible for governing councils to play larger roles than such councils traditionally have played. In earlier times, when academically eminent persons headed such institutions, and when faculty members themselves represented a more confident and achievement-oriented profile – not vulnerable to favours of governing councils in the form of selections and promotions – such intervention may not have been possible.

There may also of course be cases where able heads of institutions may come up against governing councils which, or sections of which, represent certain vested interests; in the ensuing conflict, a head of an institution, more accustomed to scholarly pursuits than to board room fights or backroom intrigues, may well choose to quit. With such events in the background, the possibility of finding another suitable person to take up the reins of such an institution in the future, dwindles even more, and the downward spiral of institution management quickens. Thus the cycle continues wherein serious scholars would distance themselves rather than be involved in the management of social science research institutions.

Bridging the Gap

On the other hand, there is perhaps a need to study the blueprints of success, that is, cases where the bridge between serious scholarship and effective management has been successfully built. One thinks immediately of Partha Chatterjee, who has combined an awesome international scholarly reputation, prodigious intellectual productivity, with an equally impressive record of leading the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata through a period of remarkable growth. Another example would be that of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, where stalwarts like Rajni Kothari, Dhirubhai Sheth, Ashish Nandy had created and sustained a dynamic intellectual environment.

It may indeed be difficult in the future to attract talented persons to leadership

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COMMENTARY

positions of social science research institutions. Yet, the need for outstanding leadership is now more urgent than it ever has been in the past. Teaching and research in the social sciences has increasingly begun to take a back seat, to be replaced by money-generating projects and consultancies. In such a situation, it is only the outstanding leaders who can reverse the decline, but they must come from a genre that believes in research and teaching as defining institutional purposes rather than in multiplying projects.

The fact that Beteille accepted the chairmanship of the ICSSR, despite his stated reservations about such positions, brings hope to this dull picture. But the ICSSR, of course, is an umbrella body. It cannot intervene in the every day functioning of its constituent institutes. What needs to be remembered, however, is that one cannot depend on the possibility that outstanding leaders would be available. Instead, a process of change of structures and systems could be initiated whereby the rot is stemmed, and a context created for talented faculty to be drawn in. This may in the future break the vicious cycle, and once more enable gifted persons to be drawn to leadership/management positions in social science research institutions. Perhaps the greatest role that the ICSSR would have in this process would be to recommit public funding and public interest in social science research, and at the same time to significantly change and stiffen points of entry, selection and promotions within these institutions. Only this dual step could rekindle a sense of academic purpose, sadly lost in the quest for projects, and reintroduce an element of dynamism. Until then the spirits of the great men who created and led institutions must surely be restless, however vigorous may be the commemoration of centenaries.

february 16, 2008

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Economic & Political Weekly

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