Nearly a semester has passed since our new Deans got appointed, and it is time we had a closer look at their lives. IIT Delhi is not an easy place to administer. Yet, these professors have taken up the challenge to do it. Here is Prof. Sandeep Sen, Dean of Faculty, talking about his life, his concerns and his plans for the betterment of the institution.
“By and large the process of admission to IIT and hiring of faculty has remained outside political and govt. influence. I would like that to continue”
1. What made you choose IIT Delhi as your workplace?
I did my B.Tech at IIT Kharagpur, in the early 1980s. While studying there, I realised I like the ambience and would get along pretty well with such places. Also, my mind was made up to become an academician. After my Ph.D., which I pursued abroad, I decided to come to IIT Delhi, primarily because my heart was set on IIT campuses and also because it suited my work. Since, the department had several faculty in my research field, Algorithms, I felt IIT Delhi is the one for me.
2. What are some of the steps that you plan to implement during your time as the Dean of Faculty? And if you could elaborate the reasons behind them.
My main function is to address the needs and aspirations of the faculty of IITD and ensure that teaching takes place in the best possible manner. The problem with India, in general, is that norms are not implemented properly. My first step will be to understand the system better and to ensure that the facilities on paper actually reach the faculty. According to me, a contented faculty is extremely essential for any top-notch institute. Students come and go, but faculty is there to stay for 30 years.
Another problem that I would like to address is the fact that IIT Delhi’s faculty is an ageing one. Since we are falling short in recruits at the required pace, we lack the faculty numbers to cope with the increasing number of students. Ideally, to maintain the student-teacher ratio, number of teachers should also increase but, in reality, the faculty numbers are falling due to retirement and leaving of jobs. Out of the nearly 800 faculty positions, only 450 or so are filled as of now. And this is inevitable in the current scenario. IITs employ only highly distinguished faculty and these are always hard to get. An example of a frightening statistic is that the 5-6 old IITs together, produce only 30 - 40 Computer Science Ph.Ds per year, which is obviously insufficient to meet the faculty demands.
3. What was the primary motivation that urged you to take up this role and what problems did you see in this specific domain?
You don’t really get to choose your domain. The Director calls you up one day and places a proposal in front of you (laughs). Taking up such an administrative post affects your academic research and also limits your time for student interactions. The amount of time dedicated to research falls from almost the whole day to around half a day. Continuing academic research gets difficult once you get into administration. So, I am, quite naturally, a little worried as it is a new challenge but one I am willing to accept.
4. In the current IIT system, what is the one part that you'd want to see as it is?
(After extensive thinking) It’s a question that has left me quite baffled (laughs).Usually, people are talking about changes and this makes it so difficult to single out things worth preserving. Also, the system’s dynamism makes it really difficult to keep such things in mind. But if I have to choose one, it has to be the admission system to IITs. By and large the process of admission to IIT and hiring of faculty has remained outside political and govt. influence. I would like that to continue, even though these processes may need further improvement.
5. What is the one thing that you feel plagues IIT Delhi the most at the present?
I will talk about IITs, in general, first. I have observed that, straight from Day 1, the students get preoccupied with issues that are not relevant to their primary purpose of joining IIT, viz, getting an education. They start thinking about internships, career paths, etc. and adopt a minimalist approach towards their present which they are supposed to live to the fullest. This leads to fewer number of students absorbing the true essence of IIT. A glaring consequence is the declining number of students who harbour academic aspirations. Earlier, the planning for the future involved PG( or Ph.D.) degree whereas, now it involves jobs and all. For IIT Delhi, in particular, this can be blamed on its metropolitan nature to some extent.
6. IIT Delhi is a premier engineering institute. It still falls pretty short when it comes to the QS rankings. According to you, what are the reasons behind this?
I feel that these rankings are very volatile and shouldn’t be taken with a lot of salt. They are based on perception and it is unrealistic to compare IITs with MIT and Stanford. I remember a saying, which became quite popular some years back, wherein IIT was said to be better than MIT, Harvard etc. combined. But the bitter truth is that there is a huge standard gap when we compare the two. The quality of people is the major reason. The research and academic work done in IITs is not revolutionary enough to “enter a textbook”. Even, many of the middle-strata foreign colleges have better faculty than the IITs and at a time, when all top institutions are competing for a limited pool of highly accomplished faculty, proper incentives need to be given. The facilities, wages, working environment- all should be decent enough to attract the top faculty. And with a budget that is merely 10% of MIT and all, IITs can hardly stand out in terms of resources and quality.
Another major reason is IIT’s tendency to focus more on UG programmes rather than PG or Ph.D. These two are the ones that contribute more to the value of an institution through their research. The students in these programmes, more often than not, come from non-IIT institutions. UG students from high-key colleges either prefer studying abroad or opting not to continue their academic career by joining big firms. Superior quality of teaching assistants and research assistants makes the faculty more productive as well. Such a scenario needs to improve if we dream of being higher in the rankings.
7. Any message that you would like to give the students of IIT?
I would like to tell the students that they should harbour academic aspirations in addition to job aspirations. Also, I would love to see some of our students come back as a faculty and ensure that IIT Delhi can justify its high brand value for the years to come. All the best!