When a CV Selectively Determines Academic Excellence

Chair, deanship and vice chancellorship positions constantly evade scrutiny on account of the seniority of their occupants.

In The Road to Academic Excellence: The Making of World-Class Research Universities, Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi identify three parameters in the making of ‘world-class research universities’: the concentration of academic talent in faculty and students, significant budget levels, and strategic vision and leadership. Besides these, the volume’s contributors also examined sources of funding: state and private funding, grants, endowments, etc. – the IITs were also studied.

In what follows, I will leave out the second component – budgets, for that is a different subject – while thinking of, on this Teachers’ Day, of a landmark ‘summoning’ of the CV of one of contemporary India’s most distinguished teachers, and an icon to many: Professor Romila Thapar. An unparalleled honour to her, and an appropriate tribute by a Higher Academic Institution (HEI), surely? One hopes that Thapar will submit her CV, which may entail the use of a cargo train given the sheer quantum of her work, on Teachers’ Day.

The concentration of academic talent in an HEI is not, let us concede, purchased or acquired overnight by hiring Nobel Laureates. Concentration is accretionary and, studies have shown, such accretion of talented people is higher in institutions where such talent already exists. That is, highly talented people are drawn to work in laboratories and institutes where brilliant and successful people already work.

In his ‘Ten Simple Rules to Win a Nobel Prize’, Richard Roberts has two interesting points: work in a laboratory of a previous Nobel Prize winner’ or ‘Even Better … Try to Work in the Laboratory of a Future Nobel Prize Winner’. The point is: the level of intellectual conversation, challenge, even combativeness among the highly talented is so high that the quality of their individual output improves over a period of time (as opposed to university departments discussions devoted solely to API, Pay Commissions and abstract theories of social justice).

While Roberts may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek, it is true that the presence of senior and bright scholars can serve as the proverbial catalyst for the next generation of faculty and students entering the system.

Also read: The Savarkar Provocation and the Death of Studentship in India

At this point one should also, in all honesty, admit that such towering presences can also be a deterrent for newcomers – the ‘stress’, of executing projects, publications, is very high in specific departments of my own institution because of the presence of high-achieving senior faculty.

Therefore, to be able to converse, listen – even overhear – and be ‘taught’ by a mentor like Romila Thapar would surely be of immense benefit to the next generation of historians, cultural critics and political scientists of any HEI. This is precisely what ‘concentration’ of talent means: the attractiveness of an HEI to a future bright faculty precisely because the HEI already hosts a bright faculty.

The question of strategic vision and leadership is, to my mind, connected to the question of the ‘concentration’ of good faculty. What is the vision of the HEI’s top administrators when they set out to hire faculty? Is it determined by visions and considerations such as: are we hiring people who will continue the exceptional work trail-blazed by Romila Thapar?

Does their vision include a continuity – even with a difference, for all scholarship must diverge from its predecessor to grow – of the kind of scholarly pursuits exemplified by Romila Thapar, or do they have a different, monolithic vision for what constitutes as ‘research’ itself?

In the age of APIs, Indexes and monomaniacal quantification of data – faculty spend more time compiling certificates from conference attendance than writing papers for conferences (in fact, eco-friendly faculty recycle their academic papers) – it is more than likely that an Aristotle would not have become a professor at an Indian HEI on account of not having documented every lecture, every seminar attended.

If peer evaluation – and by peers from every nook and cranny of the world – is an index of the excellence of one’s scholarship, then the letters of support pouring in for Romila Thapar instance the highest, most intractable ‘index’ ever achieved by any Indian academic. True, her h-index may not be much, and her API may be quite low, but if scholarship is what stands the test of time, then surely there is something spectacular about a person’s influence across generations of scholars, students and peers.

Influence is not quantifiable, usually, but the number of scholars who begin their careers with a respectful nod towards a Thapar, a Said and a Fanon are instantiations of that scholar’s impact.

Also read: Cultivating Empathy in National Law Schools

Ironically, the Indian HEI’s elusive quest for eminence and excellence is accompanied by a subversion of the principles of E&E exemplified in the scholarship of Thapar and the others called in to prove their credentials. It is here that the vision of any HEI needs to be examined: to account for the pervasive impact of a scholar and to retain and widen it, must be the vision. Unless, of course, the regime is afraid of the impact of certain scholars.

Finally, let us concede that any HEI has the legal and moral right to scrutinise the CVs and research output of every single member on its payroll and list of employees. But perhaps we can begin at a much higher level. Given that the regulatory authorities, funding agencies, administrative officers are public officers whose salaries are paid for from public funds, let us begin with the ministers and bureaucrats in charge of education, members of the University Grants Commission.

Then we move to the vice chancellors: ask, what have they published, patented, produced by way of output in the last 5 years before they became vice chancellors? When we expect new assistant professors to publish in world-class journals, it surely is incumbent that those who adjudicate on their performance should be people with excellent credentials?

To digress, the best insight into my own career came from a colleague who said, “You will never become a professor because those sitting on selection committees have never even heard of the journals in which you publish!”

Faculty who serve on faculty screening and selection committees must first submit their CVs online for the record and public scrutiny. A national repository of every professor’s, head’s, dean’s and director’s publications must precede a repository of CVs of the assistant and associate professors.

As the National Education Policy’s draft document makes unusually explicit, we have relied too long on seniority, as though it automatically implies wisdom and a sterling CV – it most manifestly does not in most cases.

Also read: JNU: The Story of the Fall of a Great University

Which is precisely why, when we question the scholarship of the ‘talented tenth’, we are being hypocritical: chairs, deanships, vice chancellorships are occupied by ‘seniors’ whose CVs would constitute only a cipher in the footnote of a history of Indian HEI, if that.

In short, summoning the CV of scholars those whose reputation, impact, influence and commitment makes Indian academia what it is, is as close as we can come to academic heresy.

Happy Teachers’ Day!

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.

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