Building a new IIT: Some ground realities

Setting up a new IIT which can actually live up to the expectations from an IIT is a complex and challenging project. Most new IITs still do not have a properly functioning campus of their own. Finding faculty fit to be at an IIT remains a tough task, and so is finding suitable administrative staff -- from the director to a clerk -- who understands and can live up to ethos of an IIT.

The label of being an IIT helps but only so much -- the challenges faced by new IITs soon come out in the open. Not so long ago MHRD had denied second terms to the founding directors of three of the newly setup IITs whose incumbent directors were found to be unfit for the job or were embroiled in one or the other issues. I'm sure it is easy for anyone to guess the severity of those cases that lead to news headlines and discussions on social media.

Seen from within, there are three major areas where most new IITs struggle:
  1. Campus infrastructure
  2. Faculty
  3. Administrative staff acquainted with IIT system
It helps immensely if key decision makers in a new IIT have had some experience at an IIT or a better institute. Let me also quickly add that I do not mean that visionary institute builders cannot come from other places. Nor am I trying to imply that prior experience of a leader at an IIT is a guarantee of success. The operating word is it helps (to have had a stint at an IIT).

Let me delve deeper into some of the major problem areas facing new IITs. Building the campus infrastructure assumes greatest importance. Without good campus infrastructure you cannot attract good faculty, students, staff, collaborators, employers and so on. Location too is critical. Everyone (except perhaps the vote-bank driven politicians) wants that the new IITs should be setup at well connected places, in proximity to suitable collaborators and potential employers. Even if you don't get the required land within close proximity of a desired city, naming an IIT is another very critical decision. Just look at IIT Hyderabad and IIT Ropar, for instance. IIT Hyderabad is about 60KM from Hyderabad whereas IIT Ropar is just about 35KM from Mohali, yet most people perceive IIT Ropar to be in a remote area! Thus naming the institute is important to create a favorable perception among potential students, faculty and others who will have any business to do with the institute.

In addition to the location and naming, it is important to have right kind of people in various positions and administrative bodies of the institute. Needless to say, a competent and forward looking director plays a central role. To safeguard against any intentional or accidental wrong decisions, the BoG, building works committee (BWC) and deans team all must have right kind of people. In early phases of an institute having competent and enthusiastic deans is crucial for smooth operations and creating an organic academic structure and growth in the institute. A competent BWC is important because having a good functional campus -- which is almost a precondition for attracting good faculty, students and so on -- is largely dependent on how serious are BWC members in contributing towards building great infrastructure for the institute.

The master plan of institute campus is a most crucial item that the BWC has to deliver. Timely design and construction of various buildings and facilities is dependent on the master plan being right. It cannot be done correctly without involvement of those who will live the longest on campus -- the faculty and staff. Students and directors come and go every 4-5 years but faculty and staff remain with the institute for decades. To build a good campus, the administration has to be visionary and must hire a competent architect and engineers. Engaging a wrong architect can be devastating for the new institute -- ill effects may be felt for rest of the life of institute! The institute must draft the contracts with campus building consultants (e.g. architects, construction agency, project management etc.) carefully to safeguard its interests. Before finalizing the master plan, buildings' placement and designs the architect must be required to present it to an open house at the institute where everyone can ask questions.

Competent faculty befitting an IIT is another crucial component which is much more difficult to get than building the physical infrastructure. Institute administration must carefully consider what a young Assistant Professor would require to succeed in his/her area. Ensuring faculty's success will automatically lead to institute and student's success. Two things I'd like to clarify here in context of faculty's "success": a) To progressive faculty members of a top institute, "success" often means much more than getting promoted to the next level in the hierarchy -- he/she is typically striving for making big contributions/breakthroughs in his/her chosen areas of interest. b) Rarely will you find someone who joins a faculty position at an IIT primarily for financial considerations.

So how can the institute ensure success of its faculty members? I'm not sure if there is a magic formula for achieving this. However, creating a conducive environment to promote excellence is a must. Key to creating such an environment, here too, is the person at the top. Nevertheless, in order to create an environment of excellence one must understand what are the major hurdles. Some of the hurdles (not in any specific order) are:

  • Misalignment and lack of a vision
  • Conflicting priorities and lack of teamwork
  • Sub-optimal processes/policies
  • Lack of accountability
  • Communication

Few things that can be done to address the above challenges could be:

  • Creating a meaningful vision for the organization
  • Creating a transparent culture that enables trust
  • A sense of ownership must be created among employees
  • Rewarding the productivity

Achieving excellence also requires that people within the institute must understand at least the following: Purpose -- What is my purpose? Role -- What is expected of me? Actions -- What must I do to fulfill my role and purpose? Systems -- What processes and policies are in place to make me successful? Administration has an important role to play in ensuring that every employee of the institute clearly understands these points.

As I said in the beginning, achieving all of the above requires competent leadership. Getting a competent and visionary director, forward looking and enthusiastic administrative team are some of the most important things required to make a new IIT (for that matter any institute) successful -- everything else follows from there.


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