The Role of the Government in Publicly-Funded Institutions: To what extent should the government be setting the agenda for activities of the institution or its faculty?

Education - Hows my driving?

First, let me put this column is perspective. In the December issue of Fundamatics, I wrote a column entitled, “The Golden Rule, Balgram, Michelangelo, IIT, and IIM,” which basically made the case (I should never say such a thing to my fellow IITians – what I mean is that I attempted to make the case) that government bureaucrats are best advised not to be making decisions in the running of colleges or universities– particularly the IITs and IIMs. I quote below some excerpts from that article, though I encourage you to read it yourself.

Some may claim that governments (I am talking in generalities because this would apply equally to government-supported institutions in any country) should have control because they provide funding in small or large part. In the linked article, I made the point that having money in your pocket or having the authority to make budget allocations does not, repeat not, make you an expert in higher education! We need to leave decisions to the experts who have spent a lifetime in that field, not some person in power who has never spent any time running an academic institution.

Now, having provided a little context, in the current article, let me continue to explore these ideas further. Let me give credit to Sudhir Sharma, from the first batch of IIT-B (MetE, 1962), who graciously wrote a comment on my article, and with whom I have set up a dialog on these weighty issues. He wrote to me just after I had started writing my first draft of this column and I was able to use those ideas to respond to him, and correspondingly was able to use some of our dialog to enhance this column! This is a learning process – each gaining from each – which I enjoy very much.

Sudhir wrote: “Hi Beheruz, just finished reading your article and enjoyed it!! I don’t know who, besides the government bureaucrats, would disagree with your arguments against the government control on the direction of research or the future expansion/growth of IITs/IIMs just because they control the purse. That could stunt the growth of these great institutions. One can also argue that IITs have flourished in spite of government controls but maybe they could have done even better with total free hand given to IITs. But you will agree that in any case all these institutions need to work within a development framework for the needs of the country.

While I thank him for his kind words, I am going focus on the last sentence, because that was the focus of my rough draft of this column. Do institutions, do faculty need to work within a development framework for the needs of the country?

Should a government – of any democratic country or state – be able to set the agenda of an academic institution? I would say “No.”
Should a government – of any democratic country or state – be able to set the agenda of a public academic institution? Even one in which the government provides the vast majority of the budget. I would still say “No.”

Here are my thoughts, which may be controversial, but that’s okay, because Fundamatics is a magazine that gets us to think, not just to follow a path carved out by others.

Should a government – of any democratic country or state – be able to set the agenda of an academic institution? I would say “No.”

Should a government – of any democratic country or state – be able to set the agenda of a public academic institution? Even one in which the government provides the vast majority of the budget. I would still say “No.”

Why?

To repeat myself, having money to allocate does not make you an expert in higher education! We need to leave decisions to the experts who have spent a lifetime in that field, not some person in power who has never spent even one day running an academic institution.

One might get the impression that I am opposed to a public academic institution being an intrinsic part of society or a contributing partner to the welfare of society. Nothing could be further from the truth as some examples which follow will demonstrate. For the record, I believe that academic institutions should be contributing partners to the society of which they are a part. The viewpoint I express here is let them do it. Don’t use political power to force them and certainly don’t tell them how. They know their strengths and weaknesses and they know how best to get the job done.

But, no one should overlay a constraint that the sum total or even the vast majority of work done by faculty in an academic institution must follow some master agenda or “five-year plan” set by the government (any government). The government should not be in the position of managing activities of faculty or academic institutions.

In the language of academe, particularly in the US, there are three major activities of the Faculty: Teaching, Research/Scholarship, and Service. I will analyse these interesting questions along these dimensions.

But, while we can understand the focus on today or the short term for industry or politicians, we cannot let that drive our teaching needs for students, who – let’s face it – will be just getting started 3-4 years from now. They will be in the work force for the next 40-50 years so, we have to keep a 40-50 year time horizon for them!

In the Service dimension, I embrace the idea that a large proportion of the Service we do to the community, the  state, the region, and the country should be geared to meeting their needs, particularly for a public institution such as the IITs – and my own university here in the US – The University of West Georgia. We spend a good amount of time, effort, and energy – both institutionally and individually – to serve the society of which we are a part. We do everything from economic development, to working with schools, to hosting seminars to help the business community, to reading to little kids, and helping people who are in need of help. We work with industry, with the Chamber of Commerce, with the school systems, with social organisations in the area, with charitable organisations, and with the prisons, and have many other socially-responsible activities too voluminous to list. This is the right thing to do. We do this happily and willingly, and well. True; it is also in our enlightened self-interest in the long term, but we do this without government pressure to do so. We do this without government memos. We do this without a government-prescribed plan handed down to us. And, that is the way it should be.

Image Source: <unsplash.com>

Image Source: unsplash.com

In the Teaching dimension, I suggest that academic institutions should be sensitive to curricular needs of the society of which they are a part. For example, if India needs more Electrical Engineers for the foreseeable future, it is reasonable that to expect that IIT (and other engineering schools) should be responsive to those needs. Not because of a mandate from the government, but because the government has access to vast amounts of data that might reasonably be expected to advise and inform faculty and institutions.

To use an example from my time as President of UWG, in the late 1990s (I was President from 1994 to 2013), I was approached by the CEO of a local IT firm who suggested that our Computer Science program was not keeping up with industry needs, and if we were flexible in terms of considering substantive curriculum changes in needed programming languages, it would be beneficial for his firm in terms of recruiting talent.

This was a tough conversation for me. First of all, curriculum is a very serious issue for any institution, and I believe that the curriculum is the prerogative of the Faculty, not of the President. Second, it is not pleasant for a President to hear from a CEO that our curriculum was not current with industry needs. But, instead of getting defensive, I actually saw the potential of what he said. Rather than defining his proposal as benefiting just his firm, I saw this as a win-win-win-win-win-win for the University, the CS Department, our students/graduates, his firm, the IT industry, and for the entire region of which we are part. So, I immediately got the department chair and faculty of the CS department involved, and suggested that they have direct conversations with the CEO and his senior staff. After all, they (the firm and the faculty) were the experts and could talk the same language, while I did not know C+ or was it C++ (I forget how many pluses there were circa 1996-97!) from a hole in the ground.

In the Teaching dimension, I suggest that academic institutions should be sensitive to curricular needs of the society of which they are a part.

To fast forward, those conversations went very well; there was some give and take and we changed our curricular and programming emphasis. The results were mind-blowingly great. The firm loved our graduates, they made major contributions to the firm and the IT industry in the area, our CS faculty, students, and alumni thrived (today our online graduate program is ranked ninth in the US in faculty credentials and training and 18th overall – see this webpage. The firm has done exceptionally well and has gone from a local firm to one listed on the New York Stock Exchange. So, my vision of a multiple win occurrence has in fact come to pass.

In spite of success stories such as this, I would oppose any requirement that faculty (at IIT-Bombay or UWG or anywhere) have to design their courses and curricula solely to meet the needs of the government or even of local industry. Why? Because of many reasons, some of which are listed below:

  1. Many of these principles are universal, and cannot be constrained by what happens to be the immediate need of the country. When we teach fundamental principles (say Physics, Chemistry, EE, Chem. E., etc.) those need take into account – but rise beyond – immediate societal needs or even beliefs.
  2. In this point I will attempt to make the case for the vast, vast difference in time spans of needs assessment. Academic institutions need to have a perspective that is approximately ten times as long as that of government or even industry.

Let’s have a little humility here (a tough sell for an IIT audience). We don’t even know what the needs of tomorrow are, either in the country or in the world, or (who knows) on the moon. You don’t know these, I don’t know these, industry doesn’t know these, and most of all – the government doesn’t know these. So, they should stay out of the business of telling academic institutions what to teach. With the focus on quarterly or even annual profits for industry and with the focus on the next election for politicians, perhaps we cannot blame them for not looking beyond those horizons. But, while we can understand the focus on today or the short term for industry or politicians, we cannot let that drive our teaching needs for students, who – let’s face it – will be just getting started 3-4 years from now. They will be in the work force for the next 40-50 years so, we have to keep a 40-50 year time horizon for them!

So, what can the faculty do? I have written and spoken much on this topic (in countries ranging from the US to Saudi Arabia, from India to Japan), and it would take too long to insert that discussion here. But to condense those points into one sentence: In addition to teaching them rigour and content in their chosen field, we need to teach young people fundamental and timeless principles, and most significantly, teach them to acquire new information on their own and deal with unstructured situations, so that they have the ability to handle the needs of tomorrow. They should learn how to learn.

So, to answer my original question: “To what extent should the government be setting the agenda for activities of the Institution or its Faculty?” I would say that, beyond funding selected areas of interest (which there should be no pressure to follow, and for which they should not control the methodology, analysis, or recommendations), the government should stay out of the business of setting the agenda for teaching, research, and service activities.

The bottom line is that the typical politician cares about the next election a few years from now, but a great academic institution has to care about the next half century. So, we cannot be driven just by the political mandates of the day.

3. People elect politicians and so they have the right to determine what the priorities of the country are during their terms, but academic truth can never be guided by politicians, or – and this is really controversial – or even by popular opinion. For example, just because the leadership of the time and even most people at the time of Galileo believed that the Sun moved around the Earth, that did not make it so.

Source: unsplash.com

Image Source: unsplash.com

So, who should be making these curriculum and course decisions? The Faculty. They are the experts – not the politicians, not even society, not even governing boards, not even presidents of institutions. Of course, faculty should be responsive to input from outside, of course faculty should be engaged – through research, scholarship, consulting, and conversations – with the outside world, so that they can make good decisions, but once one is satisfied that they are engaged and capable people, we need to leave it to them.

There was a line several years ago from one of these Internet sites (Shift Happens) that has stuck with me:

We are preparing students
– for jobs that do not exist …
– using technologies that haven’t been invented …
– in order to solve problems that we don’t know yet.

For example, regardless of one’s politics, I suspect that most of us would applaud the vision of Prime Minister Nehru and the leadership at the time to create the IITs as world-class engineering institutions at a time when the country had many very fundamental issues to address. Consistent with what Tom Friedman says in his classic work, The World is Flat, no one knew that one day, Y2K would occur and India would come on the world stage in the IT field. Whatever the thought process was, the IITs did not define themselves as solving only the problems of the 1950s or 1960s. When the world needed IIT graduates, they were ready for jobs that did not exist in the 1950s, using technologies that hadn’t been invented at that time, in order to solve problems that we did not even know of when they were created.

education-rock

So, we cannot be focused exclusively on the current needs of the country when we teach students. We need to trust our faculty and academic experts to make decisions about institutional matters. And, this point carries over to the discussion of Research or Scholarship as well.

In the Research or Scholarship dimension, again, it may be desirable that some applied research be slanted to the current needs of the country. And, of course, a government can offer competitive funds to encourage research to meet their needs. For example, in the late 1970s, very early in my career, and very early in the life of the United States Department of Energy (USDOE), I competed for and was awarded a grant from the USDOE to do research on electric cars. The agency – not in their own private bubble, but with the help of faculty experts from all over the country – decided on the parameters they wanted investigated, and several faculty from across the country (with no pressure to do research in this area) wrote proposals to the DOE. After review of proposals – again with the help of faculty experts – very few proposals were selected for this honour (among them was mine). I designed and completed (what I believe to be) good research to respond to the needs of that time period. As it happened, I was just about to leave for a year of industry leave in India by the time the approval came through, and so I applied for, and was granted, a delay until I returned to the US. The point I wanted to make here is that I controlled the methodology, the analysis, and the final recommendations, without any interference from the DOE – the provider of the funds. The government did not tell me what they wanted to hear, and I submitted no private communications to the program manager giving him power to control my final report. I owed them only a progress report showing that my timeline and budget were on track and the final report (which was soon approved). Other governmental agencies such as the National Science Foundation follow approximately the same process.

But, let me be clear. While I see no problem with governments offering such funding opportunities with peer review of competitive proposals, if I were heading the institution or even a sub-part of it, I would be very uncomfortable saying that any particular faculty member should have an identical research emphasis to that of the government, let alone say that all faculty should do so. We should respect quality research and scholarship – “quality” being judged by one’ peers in the field (journal review boards, preferably international, and preferably blind reviews) – regardless of where it takes us.

However, correspondingly, the institution and its faculty should be aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of the society of which they are a part, but not necessarily be exclusively focused on or obsessed with meeting the need of the hour.

Why?

Because, just like the discussion on teaching and curriculum above, we do not know today where tomorrow’s research needs lie. Just as governments should not dictate teaching and curriculum, so should they stay out of the business of managing individual faculty research.

Basic research of course, is not geared to any particular need of the hour, but even applied research can – does not have to have – application to the immediate need of the country.

In fact, I would go further, and perhaps be even more controversial: Sometimes, good research may even run counter to the immediate desires of the government. The government has the right to fund desired areas of research but not, IMHO, the right to stifle alternative areas of research.

There was a case that stood out in my mind in the 1970s or perhaps early 1980s (I was a junior faculty member at the time with no ties with any of the actors or indeed the institution in the case, so I was completely unbiased). A faculty member in one of the state universities in the Mid-Western United States published research on the negative health effects of eating a lot of beef. (Please note that I am not getting into the ban on beef controversy in India! That is not the point of this anecdote, which did not call for a ban but simply suggested that an emphasis on eating less beef might be healthier.) To complicate this scenario, that state got much of its revenues from the sales of beef, and so there were calls for her dismissal. There were claims that her salary came to a significant extent from sales of beef, and she was an ungrateful person and should be fired. Regrettably, these calls came not just from politicians (who we have got used to behaving this way), but also from regular citizens who were offended at her research, and some media that wanted to get into the act. Well, as it turns out, in spite of all the political “noise” of that time, her research was vindicated several years later!

But, that’s not my point – my point is that research should never be decided by politics, by political expediency, or even by popular or media opinion (remember Galileo?). Incidentally, I would conceptually have been equally supportive of a good research article contradicting her findings, of course.

facts

Source : Hiking Artist

I am a freedom of speech nut, and feel that part of the sacred duty of academe is to create and foster an environment in which different opinions (based on the scientific method) should be respected and encouraged, even if some people, or indeed many people, or indeed if even most people disagree with the results. The pursuit of truth and knowledge should not be enslaved by any one political viewpoint. I would respectfully suggest that the response to speech that one finds wrong or even offensive, should be more speech rather than gagged speech. What that means that others have an equal right to offer a contrary viewpoint. Of course, we know that all over the world there are counties where people have no speech rights at all. But, it should never happen in a democracy or a society that prides itself on principles of democracy, on freedom, and on human rights.

As another example, I happen to believe (with all the caveats of this not being my field of expertise) that climate change is real and is at least partially caused by our actions. But, my principle of freedom of speech trumps these beliefs – in other words, of course opposing viewpoints need to be heard and taken seriously. Unlike some people, I don’t claim that only viewpoints with which I agree need to be heard!

Some say Voltaire said something like this, but whoever did, I agree: “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Some say we should credit Voltaire with this quote, and others disagree, but whoever said it, I agree!

Before I close, let me add one more example of the points I have tried to make above. I am indebted to Sudhir Sharma (from the first IIT graduating class) for this one, and he expressed it very well in a message to me, so I am quoting him below:

Our batch on the occasion of Golden Jubilee celebration of graduation in 1962 set up a legacy chair in honour of Dr. PK Kelkar who was first Dy. Director and Planning Officer of IITB during the first year in 1958, and our batch loved him for a great person he was. So we collected funds from our classmates to set up a nano technology chair in his name -First Batch Dr. P. K. Kelkar Chair in Nano Technology in 2012. Dr Vasi of EE was the first Kelkar Chair professor, he has retired now and another professor in EE is holding this chair. As the name implies it was set to support research efforts in nanotechnology which we thought could be very beneficial to India. Everything is left to the chair professor to explore the wide field of nanotech without interference from us or anybody else, it’s up to him, the expert. And of course IIT will not accept the funds if we were to micro-manage their efforts – this is similar to many legacy projects set up by other batches at IITB.

So the golden rule here was just to specify the research area and leave the “driving” to the experts!

Here is another example of my basic point. If you have money to give or allocate, please do it. Certainly, the donor or the government has the right to set broad parameters. IIT-B cannot take those funds and throw wild parties with them or use them without permission in ways not specified earlier. But after that, the donor or the government is best advised to stay out of micromanaging the way in which the research or teaching gets done. In Sudhir’s words, we should “leave the driving to the experts.”

So, to answer my original question: “To what extent should the government be setting the agenda for activities of the Institution or its Faculty?” I would say that, beyond funding selected areas of interest (which there should be no pressure to follow, and for which they should not control the methodology, analysis, or recommendations), the government should stay out of the business of setting the agenda for teaching, research, and service activities. However, correspondingly, the institution and its faculty should be aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of the society of which they are a part, but not necessarily be exclusively focused on or obsessed with meeting the need of the hour.

Institutions and faculty have a more strategic and important role to play, and indeed a sacred duty – to prepare ourselves and our students to meet the (as yet unknown) needs of the future…

Beheruz Sethna

Beheruz Sethna

[B. Tech, EE, '71, H4]
Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna is a professor of business and retired sixth President of the University of West Georgia (UWG). A distinguished alum from both IITB and IIMA, he is the first known person of Indian origin ever to become president of a university anywhere in America. He also obtained the University’s first endowed Chair. Beheruz has published a book and 69 papers (30 since becoming UWG President), several case studies, and obtained externally funded research from the U.S. Department of Energy, IBM, AT&T and others. Amongst his many awards, he has been named among the 100 most influential Georgians. He has also recently been awarded Founder's Award the highest honor from the University of West Georgia.
Beheruz Sethna

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[B. Tech, EE, '71, H4] Dr. Beheruz N. Sethna is a professor of business and retired sixth President of the University of West Georgia (UWG). A distinguished alum from both IITB and IIMA, he is the first known person of Indian origin ever to become president of a university anywhere in America. He also obtained the University’s first endowed Chair. Beheruz has published a book and 69 papers (30 since becoming UWG President), several case studies, and obtained externally funded research from the U.S. Department of Energy, IBM, AT&T and others. Amongst his many awards, he has been named among the 100 most influential Georgians. He has also recently been awarded Founder's Award the highest honor from the University of West Georgia.

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