Wednesday, August 25, 2010

U.S. Returned Faculty Are Liking It In Small Town India

In an effort to expand the higher education system, the Indian government in 2008 decided to open 8 additional branches of the Indian Institute of Technology. There was plenty of criticism of this move including a) is the decision being hastily implemented when the infrastructure is not yet ready?  2) are there enough new quality faculty available to teach? 3) would these new institutions become bogged down by the same byzantine bureaucracy and hierarchical stranglehold bedeviling older institutions?...

Its not that any or all of these concerns are invalid and indeed they may be playing themselves out in small or large measures on many of the new campuses of the IIT's. But sometimes I feel there is too much pessimism.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a feel good story on the refreshingly positive experience of many U.S returned faculty who are now teaching at the new IIT campus in Ropar, Punjab, a small town near Chandigarh.

The administrators there worked hard at recruiting faculty, concentrating on young faculty and in fact manipulating the recruitment process to facilitate quick hiring, and then giving them considerable freedom in setting up syllabus and research labs. Here are some snippets:

 Ropar has tapped alumni networks abroad and marketed its advantages as a flexible new player in a mostly hidebound system.....

.... So how did Ropar do it? To get the word out, administrators relied on their established network of IIT contacts and alumni, including holding events in the United States to explain the opportunities available at the new campuses in India.

Once they found a candidate they wanted, they figured out ways to cut through India's notorious red tape.

For example, Ropar's new hires often start in a "visiting position" to avoid the lengthy selection process involved in hiring permanent faculty members.

Then the institute works on converting them into permanent faculty members.

And some faculty and student comments:

"I can see a lot more flexibility and freedom here in terms of research and teaching," says Himanshu Tyagi, 31, a graduate of IIT Delhi, .....

New research "is taking off here," Mr. Gupta says. "So you can actually set up your own lab and make an actual contribution, which is kind of hard in the U.S."

"The faculty here are much younger than Delhi's, and they are ready to experiment," says Ishan Chhabra, a third-year computer-science student. "They are ready with bleeding-edge research, and they take it and expose undergraduates to it. In an older institute, only Ph.D. students would be introduced to it."

I think the "lets make a fresh start" and "making an impact" mentality among young faculty is helping along with some enlightened and sympathetic administrative decisions.

Off course there are always the occasional hazards:

In the car with a young trainee and her mother, Mr. Gupta was fumbling with the stick shift until the instructor proudly announced that his student was a "foreign returned" professor at the new Indian Institute of Technology down the road.

There was a brief silence. "Are you married?" the girl's mother inquired.

Some things will never change in India.

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