Despite Internal and External Pressure, IIM Ahmedabad Is Ignoring Its Social Diversity Problem

IIM Ahmedabad responded to an RTI request asking for minutes of board meetings saying that "[i]information sought by [us] has no relationship to any public activity or interest and hence cannot be provided."

The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the preeminent management institutes in the country, are at the cusp of being granted a level of functional autonomy that is unprecedented for public institutions of higher education in India. The Lok Sabha has already passed the IIM Bill, 2017, and it is widely expected that the Rajya Sabha will follow suit. Will Indian society at large be able to hold IIMs accountable once the new IIM Bill becomes a law? The recent track record at these institutions and especially at IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA), the crown jewel among IIMs, suggests that IIMs, emboldened by the autonomy on offer, will further abdicate their responsibilities as public institutions.

As has been widely reported in various news outlets including The Wire, IIMs suffer from a grave social diversity deficit – of the 512 IIM faculty members where data is available, only two belong to the SC group, and IIMs currently do not have anybody from the ST group on their faculty.  Further, with only 13 OBC representations among the remaining 510 faculty members, IIMs are an exclusive preserve of faculty members drawn from the upper echelons of India’s hierarchical society. Beyond the broader structural factors that contribute to this utter lack of social diversity, decades skirting constitutional mandates in running their doctoral programmes is responsible for this situation that we have termed the “missing scholars”. Despite global pressure from IIM alumni asking the IIMs to take immediate corrective measures to reverse many years of wilful neglect, IIMA has taken the lead in not making the recommended changes. In their recently released guidelines governing doctoral admissions for 2018, IIMA has continued with its entrenched practice of ignoring questions of social diversity and inclusion.

In order to better understand the decision making process at IIMA, we had filed RTI (Right to Information) application with the institute asking for the minutes of their three most recent governing board meetings. The governing board has direct fiduciary responsibility for ensuring statutory compliance. IIMA has been stonewalling our multiple RTI requests on questions of diversity and inclusion over the last several months.  However, their response to our latest request for minutes of their board meetings was shocking even by their own standards. Their response (reproduced in full below, except for Joshi’s home address that has been masked) essentially amounted to a formal secession as a public institution – IIMA claimed that “[i]information sought by [us] has no relationship to any public activity or interest and hence cannot be provided.”

The absence of conviction in IIMA’s intransigence only betrays a lack of moral imagination around questions of diversity and inclusion. The wilful contravention of constitutional provisions is patently indefensible and the purveyors of a specious notion of meritocracy at IIMA have instead resorted to deceit and skullduggery. In the face of this intellectual defeat, IIMs lead by IIMA have consistently used a largely self-serving notion of academic autonomy as a fig leaf to cover up for the moral vacuity of their arguments for continued social exclusion.

The three largest and oldest IIMs at Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Kolkata have long made the fallacious argument that financial independence from public funding absolves them from the implicit social contract underlying a public institution. IIMs have largely reduced autonomy to their ability to pay their faculty members several multiples of what the professoriate at other Indian public institutions are paid. Beyond their stand on diversity and inclusion, IIMA’s latest act in opacity is also driven by the fact that we have been (thus far unsuccessfully) asking IIMA to make the salaries of its professoriate, or the so-called thought leaders, public. While the best public universities around the world disclose individual faculty salaries, we have only asked for anonymised data that does not identify individual faculty members. Astronomically high salaries for IIM faculty members, like the neglect of social diversity and inclusion, is linked to a wholesale rejection of a public university’s true mission. IIMs are able to substantially “top off” their regular salaries only by reducing the students at these institutions into customers, and the professoriate into customer service providers. Customers on campus represent an obituary for youthful idealism that is associated with students that they displace.

Successive governments have been complicit in facilitating IIMs’ retreat from their social compact. Indeed, egged on by a consumptive urban middle class, the state has aided and abetted duplicity and opacity at these institutes – especially on the knotty questions of social diversity and inclusion. In the most recent episode, the secretary at the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), K.K. Sharma, had written to all IIMs on April 19 asking them to take corrective actions to address their acute social diversity deficit. The letter was strongly worded and contained prescriptive suggestions for reversing long-term neglect of diversity and inclusion in the doctoral programmes at IIMs. The letter notes that that “there has been no appreciable progress in getting more numbers as Faculty from SC/ST/OBC categories,” and chides them for making “no concerted efforts in trying to set right this aberration.” As a first ameliorative step, the letter suggested “having more Fellows from SC/ST/OBC categories so that they can become prospective faculty members in your institute.”

Sharma, the author this letter, sits on the governing boards of several IIMs including IIMA. Most IIMs have chosen to ignore this letter and IIMA even claimed (in an RTI response) that they never received the letter even after we made a copy obtained from MHRD available to them. The governing board of IIMA would have been the forum where the policy measures suggested by Sharma should have been discussed. Given that IIMA believes that the minutes of its board meetings are not of public interest, we do not know if he attended board meetings held after his own letter was mailed and if the diversity deficit at IIMA was discussed in these meetings. Were the governing board members aware that they were signing off – yet again – on the violation of statutory provisions governing doctoral admissions at public institutions? We don’t know, because the IIMA has ruled that such information has “has no relationship to any public activity or interest and hence cannot be provided.”

The moral case for diversity and inclusion is intimately tied to the idea of a public university. In light of the above evidence which hints at the likelihood that IIMs may treat autonomy as impunity from any public scrutiny, it is imperative that the Rajya Sabha must include suitable amendments to the IIM Bill passed by the Lok Sabha to ensure that IIMs (and in particular, the leader of the pack, IIMA) recognise their mission as public institutions. Universities are not, and should not be, construed as an organ of the state unfortunately, the fate of many public institutions in India. The IIM Bill offers IIMs unprecedented autonomy to craft their own destinies. However, autonomy at any public university ought to be marshalled to fulfil its public mission. As important norm makers in contemporary India, the trajectory of IIMs following the passage of the IIM Bill will have reverberations beyond these institutions. Indeed, no less than the future of the public university is at stake.

Siddharth Joshi is a fellow at IIM Bangalore and Deepak Malghan is on the faculty at IIM Bangalore. Views are personal.