I received a copy of the letter written by 125 faculty members of IIT Kanpur to the President of India and the Prime Minister of India.
I respect the faculty members of IIT Kanpur. They are all accomplished individuals. However I must say that I was disappointed with the letter. I could only sense a mood of desperation in it. They seemed to be in a hurry and panic and hence did not think through sufficiently each of the points they had raised in that letter.
Here below, I have tried raising some of the points I disagree with in the letter. The quotes from the letter are all in italic. The rest are my responses. I was asked to quote the letter in full so that readers can make up their own mind. I have therefore posted the entire letter as a separate blog post.
"The undergraduate students of IIT Kanpur do not usually, or even often, come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. The vast majority come from the smaller metropolises like Kanpur, Patna and Allahabad, or cities like Bareilly, and the moffasil towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A typical example is the late Satyendra K Dubey, an IITK alumnus, whose murder in 2003 while working on the National Highway project got national media attention. He came from a small village in Bihar."
I studied B.Tech Mechanical Engineering in IIT-Madras between 1987 and 1991. I was from Nagapattinam. In the graduating class of '91 in IIT-Madras, I could locate only 10 people or so from the whole of Tamil Nadu outside of Chennai. These people were from Madurai, Coimbatore, Vellore and Trichy. No one went to IIT from Nagapattinam before my time. No one has gone to an IIT since my time. The bulk of the students - over 90% - who qualify for IITs from Tamil Nadu continue to come from Chennai.
I reckon that over 70% of students who get into IITs come from large metropolitan cities. The percentage could be more. I refuse to believe that "the vast majority come from the smaller metropolises like Kanpur, Patna and Allahabad, or cities like Bareilly, and the moffasil towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar." I find it a wild claim, not supported by what I saw between 1987-1991.
"Most IIT Kanpur students thus overcome poverty, bad schools, and many adverse circumstances to compete in a gruelling entrance examination for the right to be here."
The way IIT JEE is structured, it is very difficult to get into IITs overcoming "bad schools" or "adverse circumstances". Nor is it easy to overcome "poverty".
"Backwardness is not determined by caste alone. It is clear for all to see that other factors like poverty, region and gender have greater adverse impact on the chances of a person becoming an engineer or a doctor. [...] However the point we wish to make here is not to argue for one set of criteria for reservations over others. Rather it is to argue that the best institutions in India should be the preserves of excellence, with proven performance as their only selection criterion."
Despite agreeing that backwardness is created by caste, poverty, region and gender, the professors believe that nothing is to be done to improve the backward lot, and that "best institutions in India" select people only based on performance as the sole selection criterion. But then they go on to say:
"Even if Government insists on affirmative action programs for IITs, we are sure that the IITs can be trusted to evolve and implement such programs by themselves."
That is, IITs will look at an affirmative action program only if the Government insists, and not on its own. Given the antipathy towards caste based reservation as demonstrated by this letter, and the attitude of "performance as the sole selection criterion", can one trust IITs "to evolve and implement [affirmative action] by themselves"?
While I agree that affirmative action is not exactly equal to numerical quota, it is certainly not selection based only on proven performance. IITs have to agree to an aggressive "affirmative action" policy. If they want to be taken seriously, they have to propose their affirmative action plan. The statement "After all, IIT Kanpur has had an exemplary record of implementing the SC/ST reservation in a supportive and pro-active way that became a model for all IITs" is strange. What is the exemplary record demonstrated by IIT Kanpur in this regard? How many SC/ST students have they trained in the last 25 years? Surely the professors have access to these records?
"In fact, many of us, and our students, spend time in school education, health, and rural developmental projects outside our busy schedules. We could participate in major ways in innovative research in education, health, and grassroots work, and thus contribute significantly to affirmative action."
It is nice to know that the students and faculty take time off from their busy schedules to contribute a bit to the society. Such charities are always welcome. However, we are not talking about charity work here. We are talking about proper affirmative action. We are talking about bringing disadvantaged people with considerable abilities to be trained by IITs and thereby enhancing the human resource potential.
"Past injustices cannot be redressed by further injustices perpetrated today."
That is why extra seats are added so that no forward caste groups are affected. In what way is the new scheme proposed akin to "further injustices perpetrated today"?
"If a sudden increase of faculty is imposed on us by a drastic increase of seats, the entire academic standing of the IITs will be compromised, and they will go the way of so many universities before them."
Why is the best institution in India afraid of scaling up? They say that "in recent years, they have doubled their intake". Has that resulted in the lowering of the quality? Are they saying that they can only scale up so far, but not any further?
"So the IITs are already short of faculty, as few applicants meet our exacting standards of academic excellence."
What is the real truth? (a) The IITs are struggling to attract talent. (b) Very few applicants meet the exactling standards of excellence set by the IITs.
I would reckon that the answer is (a). I know how a friend of mine, an IIT-Delhi almnus, who had a PhD from University of Massachusettes and was a Post Doctoral Fellow in Cornell University found the whole hiring process in IIT-Madras unpalatable. But he persisted. He left US, camped in Chennai and eventually got a job. He could have walked into any University in USA, but he had to show tremondous courage and he had to risk his career to get into IIT.
I find it an absolutely childish statement that the standards set by IITs in faculty hiring are somehow better than those of US Universities. A few bloggers who are currently faculty members or researchers in USA and Canada have hinted about how pathetic the hiring process is in the IITs. (Sundaramoorthy, Venkat and Rozavasanth should write their detailed experiences on how the great hiring process works in the IITs.)
IITs can hire top class faculty if they wanted to, very easily. There are several talented Indians working abroad who would love to come to the IITs. IIT professors should take a relook at how their hiring process is managed, rather than claiming that it is not easy to find quality faculty. They are misleading the public.
"Many institutions in India now have good undergraduate programs, but only very few other than the IITs can train students in the highly specialised engineering and scientific skills required in India if it is to become a developed country."
This is why more IITs should be created and each IIT must take many more students than is the case currently.
"So there has been a concerted effort in the IIT system to shift our focus to post-graduate education and to creating an excellent research environment. This was the direction provided by the IIT review committee and Government over the last decade. To this end we have been working hard to increase postgraduate intake and provide more time to faculty for research. A drastic increase in undergraduate strength will derail this effort indefinitely."
Unless IITs produce large number of undergraduate students of great quality, and a substantial numbers of them decide to stay back in India and continue their post graduate studies in IIT, the postgraduate programs cannot produce the desired effect.
A way must be found to increase the undergraduate and post-graduate intake simultaneously. Surely the best brains in IITs can think through this problem and solve it easily?
"At this moment, when the entire nation is on the verge of take-off to becoming a major economic power, when multinational companies are shifting their research and development centres to India because of the vast technical manpower here, let us not play with these great institutions and cripple them in the hour of their greatest utility."
The insinuation that reservation will result in lowered quality of the output, and thereby crippling of the institution and the progress of the country - is getting to be ridiculous. Reservation is only for the intake. The students will have to subsequently clear the exams, and the exacting standards set by the professors of IITs. Did they think they are being asked to set separate question papers for the reservation students? Is that what they have been doing for the SC/ST students?
"We share the concern of the government for providing the young generation with good education and economic prospects."
Please, then do not oppose the reservation proposal suggested. I would go further and request you to develop an affirmative action policy that can be applied within the reservation percentages. Students from rural areas, women and economically disadvantaged can be given preference within each of the reserved areas. Thus, the IITs can show the country how reservation, combined with further affirmative action can help provide the young generation with great education and greater economic prospects.