On the last day of the first part of the current Budget session of parliament, the government introduced the Indian Institutes of Management Bill 2017 (IIM Bill). The primary intention of the proposed legislation is to enable India’s premier public management institutes to award masters and doctoral degrees rather than diplomas. The Bill proposes to grant the IIMs a level of structural and functional autonomy that is unprecedented for any Indian public university.
The legislation is a product of more than two years of deliberation between the government and the IIMs. Despite placatory public pronouncements by both IIMs and the government, the proposed legislation does not adequately recognise (let alone address) the problem of social diversity – one of the most important predicaments for universities around the world, especially public institutions.
IIMs currently suffer from a grave social diversity deficit, especially in the composition of its faculty. The data that we compiled using RTI replies is presented in the table below. At the time of writing this article, only 13 out of the 20 IIMs have independent full-time faculty bodies and only six of these 13 institutions responded to our RTI queries with actual data. The remaining institutions used every obfuscation strategy available in the book to skirt our queries (we have appeals as well as fresh RTI applications pending at these institutions). We have data for 233 faculty members across six IIMs. Two faculty members across all these institutions are from the scheduled castes (SC) group and five from other backward classes (OBC). There are no faculty members belonging to scheduled tribes (ST). While at this time we are able to report data on only six IIMs, anecdotal evidence points to a diversity deficit at the remaining institutions that is at least as acute.
The IIMs have claimed the lack of an adequately qualified applicant pool from historically underrepresented sections of the society as the primary reason for lack of social diversity in their faculty composition. This is at best a duplicitous argument, as nearly a third of all faculty members currently working at IIMs were trained by these very institutes.
We collated data on educational background for all permanent (tenure-track) faculty members working at IIMs. This data presented in the table below, shows that across 13 IIMs, 31% of all faculty members obtained their highest credentials at an IIM. While we do not have official data on the social composition of doctoral students at various IIMs, anecdotal evidence suggests that it mirrors the faculty monoculture. The three oldest IIMs (at Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru) have run well-developed doctoral programmes for over three decades and have been the chief source of faculty members at newer IIMs established later. Even a half-hearted commitment to faculty social diversity would have resulted in these doctoral programmes admitting students from diverse social groups. Currently none of these three older institutes have a publicly-stated diversity or affirmative action policy for their respective doctoral programmes. Two of these institutes have furnished opaque responses that signal wilful obfuscation in response to our RTI queries pertaining to diversity and affirmative action policies in their doctoral programme admissions.
The IIM Bill has an enabling provision that allows IIMs to devise creative methods to address the utter lack of social diversity among their faculty bodies. Even before IIMs can deliberate on specific prescriptions, they need to recognise that the status quo severely undermines their position as “institutions of national importance”. A steadfast commitment to social inclusion is a fundamental legitimating principle for any public institution, and thus far IIMs have paid scant attention to questions of diversity or inclusion. In the six months that we have been researching diversity issues at IIMs, this indifference has been on display in the form of well-rehearsed anodyne responses to our very specific and pointed RTI queries.
IIMs are situated at the apex of management education in India and hold great normative influence over other such institutes. As a norm-maker, the commissions and omissions at these institutes have ramifications beyond their portals. The dominant sentiment at IIMs is a feeble defence of some imagined notion of meritocracy in elite institutions at the top of the pyramid.
Diversity deficit, the argument goes, is best addressed at lower levels (colleges and schools for example). At best, this argument betrays ignorance about the structures of stratification in Indian society; at worst, it is a wilful and self-serving abdication of responsibility by elites in these institutions. Unlike the entrenched argument, the case for diversity is stronger and not weaker because IIMs are elite spaces. As the economist Ashwini Deshpande has argued, exclusion in elite spaces is not only “a recipe for social unrest and long-term disharmony” in society, but “can have long-term negative consequences for the economic health of nations”. There is no legitimate normative argument for an elite public institution in a democracy to practice social exclusion.
Several IIMs have themselves been beneficiaries of diversity and inclusion policies at foreign universities that account for over 26% of the total faculty strength at IIMs. Every Indian graduate student admitted to a US university instantly recognises how she/he is a direct beneficiary of diversity policies. Key decision makers at several IIMs are drawn from this pool of direct beneficiaries of positive discrimination. As IIMs stand at the cusp of becoming full-fledged public universities, the mandarins at these institutions will do well to recover from their amnesia.
Thanks to mandatory quota-based reservations, IIMs enrol a socially-diverse student body in its flagship MBA-equivalent programme. The institutions do a great disservice to students from historically-disadvantaged sections of the society when they do not find aspirational role models on the faculty. There is accumulated research evidence that shows how students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds learn better when they have such role models. The diverse student body at the masters level is a natural talent pool from which IIMs can recruit future doctoral students and faculty. However, this is possible only when a socially disadvantaged student is made welcome in an inclusive environment.
Public universities represent a special social compact between the institution and society at large. The unique privileges enjoyed by these institutions is predicated on social inclusion as a central legitimating principle of such a social compact. If IIMs do not pay urgent attention to reversing the diversity deficit reported here, they risk a serious crisis of legitimacy.
IIMs must take advantage of the great flexibility allowed by the new IIM Bill to devise ameliorative measures. The 20 IIMs are all diverse institutions and a homogenous or formulaic top-down push for diversity will likely not yield desirable results. While the individual IIMs must be allowed to retain the flexibility to devise their own diversity and social inclusion policies, parliament must make it abundantly clear that continuing to ignore social diversity would be against both the letter and spirit of the Bill. Indeed, the Bill must be modified to mandate that IIMs report demonstrable progress on addressing the extant social diversity deficit.
Siddharth Joshi and Deepak Malghan are at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Views are personal.