Untold stories about how India built its higher ed institutions

Stories of visionary leadership: How Homi Bhabha, Satish Dhawan, Ravi Matthai, PK Kelkar, and Verghese Kurien among others, built world class institutions

Founding Fuel

The story of TIFR, IIT Kanpur, the Indian Institute of Sciences, IRMA, IIM-Ahmedabad as world class institutions with a wider, deeper social mission is truly extraordinary. These stories are as much about visionary leadership shown by the likes of Homi Bhabha, Satish Dhawan, Ravi Matthai, PK Kelkar, Verghese Kurien. And the principles they stood by.

We tuned into these stories on Monday night (March 26) on Clubhouse, because amidst all the brouhaha generated by what's going on at Ashoka University and the high profile exits of people such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramaniam, we may have forgotten these stories of institution building. 

The ones recounting them are all products of a pretty fabulous higher education system that provided the foundations for their professional and academic careers. It proves that we did some things right back in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

In the room were

  • Sanjoy Bhattacharyya (Partner at Fortuna Capital)
  • Ashok Misra (Fellow, National Academy of Sciences & Former Director, IIT Bombay)
  • Rishikesha Krishnan (Director, IIM-Bangalore)
  • S Sivakumar (Group Head, ITC)
  • Meeta Sengupta (Founder, Centre for Education Strategy)
  • Hari Pulakkat (senior science journalist)

The conversation was jointly moderated by Founding Fuel’s Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi.

The building blocks

Autonomy, integrity, an ability to nurture discordant conversations as a source of good ideas, attracting bright young faculty, an emphasis on research and teaching—these are some of the underlying principles that Ashok Misra points to.

He says, “The IIT system that goes back to the Kanpur days and the Bombay days, enjoyed a huge amount of autonomy in almost everything. The only place that autonomy is a little wanting is finance because the finance comes from the government… Right from the beginning, the founder and director PK Kelkar did that at Kanpur. And I tried to do that in Bombay… the governance system is very sturdy in the IT system. Integrity is a very important part of the IT system… When I was there, we empowered all—faculty, heads of departments, deans—to give their best in whatever commitments they took in either administration or in academics to take IIT Bombay to greater heights.”

The six stories that follow expand on these principles that went into building these spheres of excellence. (Edited for clarity and brevity)

#1: Institution comes before any personal glory

“Institution building requires a lot of courage and determination that certain basic principles are inviolable,” says Sanjoy Bhattacharyya.

One such principle at IIM-A was to be practice-led, through consulting. Because those learnings get reflected back in the classroom. In fact, consulting by IIM-A professors played a big role in shaping the success of various companies. For example, marketing legend Prof Labdhi Bhandari’s role in advising Nirma on how to take on Hindustan Unilever.

In this context, he recounts an anecdote about Prof Ravi Matthai, the first full time director at IIM-A, and about a distinguished professor at IIM-A who later went on to occupy high public office.

Prof Matthai had an abiding commitment to a set of beliefs; a commitment to the institution, rather than any personal glory. These clearly grounded principles applied equally to everybody. One of them was that to achieve excellence as a business management institution, IIM-A must also attempt to translate what was taught in the classroom into a consulting practice, and commitment to research. That research is to be communicated through papers, books, and addressing conferences worldwide.

Now the professor this anecdote is about was an outstanding classroom teacher, but did not entirely buy into that he should spend time doing research and he certainly didn't believe in consulting. His area of focus was economics but he was not even very significantly involved in government committees or policymaking.

When it came time for him to be elevated to the next level, two people in the five member appointments committee, despite his seniority, took the stand that unless he focuses himself on achieving certain standards here, he is not going to be elevated to the next level.

You need that determination that certain principles are inviolable. Because when people think they can game the system and say, well, I can get away with not doing this—that’s when the rot sets in.

You need a clear set of beliefs, well-articulated, understood by all, a sense of shared purpose. And senior people who have the courage and determination to make sure that you stay on track.

#2. Seek students’ voice, embed decentralised decision making

Rishikesha Krishnan, who is director at IIM-Bangalore, recalls his days as a student at IIT Kanpur and the autonomy given to students.

“The way the entire student gymkhana was structured, we even had a students’ senate, with elected representatives and a president who was answerable to the senate. And it wasn't just restricted at that level. The student voice was very sought after by the institute as well.

“I can clearly remember this one summer when I was the acting president of the gymkhana. There were some really weighty matters being discussed in the academic senate, where the professors discussed things. And the students’ gymkhana president was a special invitee there.

“I participated on behalf of the student body, and I actually got time to speak. Many of the professors who were listening to me very carefully, later gave me feedback on what I had said.

“So there was involvement of students in the governance of the institute in almost every committee. Today, you don't really see that level of participation in governance in most institutions.

“Another story I heard from IIM-A was Prof Matthai’s insistence that faculty members in the committees take ownership of decisions. If a committee couldn't decide and pushed it up to the director, he would firmly push it back to the committee. This, I think, embedded a decentralized leadership.”

N Dayasindhu (co-founder and CEO, itihaasa Research and Digital), who had joined the conversation, added one more story that illustrates this democratic, inclusive principle: “I remember when the internet first came to IIM-B, and it was the first IIM to get onto the internet, way back in 1996. It was the students who were managing access to the internet, the allocation of email IDs and the web server. We came up with one of the first rudimentary policies on spamming and email etiquette and stuff like that. It was so empowering that the faculty had full faith in the students and they believed that the students could manage this—that these guys are going to manage bigger things later on.”

#3. The mission is more important than the strategy

Commitment to a mission gets tested when there’s a conflict. How the founders deal with these conflicts determine whether they are visionary institution builders, says S Sivakumar, who is from the second batch of IRMA. After about seven years in Gujarat Oilseeds Cooperative, he joined ITC.

“IRMA came into being when Dr Verghese Kurien was replicating the Amul model across India, and not enough graduates from other management schools were moving into the rural or the cooperative sector. So, it was set up with a mission of equitable socio economic development, and the core strategy was cooperatives.

“I became a persona non grata when I joined ITC because corporates were the last thing IRMA wanted at that point of time.

“When we rolled out e-Choupal at ITC, I wanted to recruit from IRMA. But IRMA was restricted to cooperatives and NGOs, and Dr Kurien said no.

“A year later, I ran into him at a panel discussion in Delhi. And I thought I will make use of this opportunity to deal with two aspects that they held against e-Choupal and me—that the core tenets of cooperatives is that the enterprise must be farmer-owned, and the whole value chain should be controlled by the farmers. And the second is that you eliminate middlemen to directly connect the farmers and the consumer.

“So, while e-Choupal was not owned by the farmers, I argued that the only way it can thrive is by being ultra-responsive to the farmers’ needs. And, second, that e-Choupal recognizes the role middlemen play, by making up for the lack of key infrastructure. Eliminating them would only mean more expensive.”

Kurien conceded the point. The mission is more important than the strategy. And he opened up recruitment for ITC at IRMA.

“In fact, much to my delight, a couple of years later in his autobiography he wrote that no doubt some students join the corporate world, but I believe that given the year they spend at IRMA and the insight they get into rural and agri reality, they will be a part of the transformation of rural India that we dreamt of.

“That's the spirit—the commitment is to the mission, and not to the personality or those kinds of issues.”

#4. A commitment to excellence and keeping up with changing times

Meeta Sengupta grew up on the IIM-A campus where her dad Prof Charan Wadhwa taught, and later she taught there as well. Meeta recalls how, when she returned from a stint as an investment banker in New York, she found that IIM-B was teaching risk, but her own alma mater IIM-A wasn’t.

She talks about how she persuaded the professors to include derivative, portfolios, and risk in the curriculum.

“I’m going to design the course for you. And I'm going to deliver the first one for you. The professor said, okay, here's a schedule and flight tickets, this is how much I can afford—which was like pennies, but you come and design it.

“You didn't need to consult anybody. The autonomy, [a drive] towards excellence, is amazing. And so that's what I did in the late 1990s.

“That was the first time that risk and derivatives were taught at IIM-A because it was the right thing to do.”

Sanjoy adds a story about his father who taught accounting.

“It's the most dreaded course in first year, first term, everyone hates accounting, including the chartered accountants. It’s taught in a different way at IIM-A than most people who learn accounting are taught. It’s taught through the case method.

“Smoky Valley Cafe is originally a Harvard Business School case and my dad had taught it for some 15 years.

“One early morning, at some 5 am, I saw him sitting with that case, and he had a yellow legal pad. He was making extensive notes about past things that had happened in the classroom and what additional insights he could add to it—after having taught it for 15 years.

“That says something about a commitment to teaching and achieving excellence, which I don't see people doing right now.”

#5. Push for the right faculty and resources

Then there’s the story about how Satish Dhawan built up IISc with a single-minded focus on recruiting faculty and how Homi Bhabha got land near the naval base in Mumbai for TIFR.

As senior science journalist Hari tells it, Satish Dhawan used to meet the person he wanted to bring in and offer them a job on the spot. “I’ve heard that he recruited 71 people in just one year.”

“Professor N (Balki) Balakrishnan, who later became associate director of IISc, had finished his PhD and was going abroad for a postdoctoral fellowship. When Dhawan heard this, he met him and said ‘When you go abroad, you will be a screwdriver and someone else will turn the screw. You should stay and join the faculty.’ So Balki said ‘Look, I need some time. How much time do I have?’ And Dhawan said ‘How about 20 seconds?’”

Ashok Misra too emphasises that during his tenure at IIT-Bombay, and of course, Prof Kelkar at IIT Kanpur, “we did a lot of work to attract bright young faculty members. And then you have to change the system of making them an offer while you are on the run.

“In my several visits to the US, there's one anecdote about this very bright young man. We came and interviewed him and he said, ‘when can I know that I have an offer?’ I said, ‘Can you wait till 6pm?’ This was at about 5 pm and by 6 pm he had the offer letter.”

The story about how TIFR got land for its campus goes like this: “When TIFR wanted to build a new building, they’d identified a small piece of land within the naval base, but the Navy was not willing to give it away. Homi Bhabha wanted to talk to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but did not want to directly ask. So he took Nehru for a stroll by the sea next to where TIFR is now, and said this is a very nice place to build an institute. That caught Nehru’s interest.

“The story is also that when Nehru came to lay the foundation stone, he said it was a very difficult decision for him. Because the defense minister would not let go of it and the Prime Minister had to convince him. Actually at that time the defense minister was Nehru himself.”

#6. Merit, not privilege

In response to Reliance Retail’s CEO for grocery Damodar Mall’s comment on how the IITs and IIMs had instilled a culture of meritocracy, Sanjoy points to a story in Rajat Gupta’s book Mind Without Fear where Nehru invited the then director of IIT Delhi, because he wanted his grandson Rajiv Gandhi to be given admission. Nehru was embarrassed to ask him. His daughter Indira Gandhi was in the room so he said, come have tea with her and she then asked whether it was possible for Rajiv to join IIT Delhi? “The director was a very intelligent man. He said, ‘Yes, Madam, I can help hugely with Rajiv studying engineering. I have lots of friends in the UK, and I'm sure they'd be willing to help; I'll put Rajiv in touch with them.’ At the same time, he saved certain norms that were sacred at IIT Delhi.”

“The other one that I know of personally,” adds Sanjoy, “took place in IIM-A. Prof Matthai and my father were summoned by a very senior political figure, and asked whether his daughter could be given admission out of turn. And this was Prof Matthai’s masterstroke: He said ‘Yes, I will ensure that we provide you all the support that we can.’ And when my father and he came back, he told my father, please send him the application form.”

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