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Making Full-time Teaching Attractive

Everyone of us has a favourite teacher. Think back right down to your childhood and you will certainly find that one teacher stands out in your mind as being the one who understood you and your potential and prompted you to excel. You remember that person with the fondest of memories, some of us are even in touch with them and the rest of us wish them well for many years to come. Such is the lasting impact of a teacher — who according to our scriptures holds the exalted position in the natural scheme of things and is rated even higher than God — who is believed to be the only other person apart from the parents who shapes the life, thinking and character of a person.

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Everyone of us has a favourite teacher. Think back right down to your childhood and you will certainly find that one teacher stands out in your mind as being the one who understood you and your potential and prompted you to excel. You remember that person with the fondest of memories, some of us are even in touch with them and the rest of us wish them well for many years to come. Such is the lasting impact of a teacher — who according to our scriptures holds the exalted position in the natural scheme of things and is rated even higher than God — who is believed to be the only other person apart from the parents who shapes the life, thinking and character of a person.

This is the exact same resource that we in India take for granted. I have had the benefit of having worked in the education industry of two of the world’s largest democracies and have experienced first-hand the obvious difference in the quality and personalities of the teachers — right from kindergarten-12 and also in the collegiate levels.

The proliferation of B-schools over the last two decades in India is astonishing, has much as the fact that many of them shut shop and vanished fairly quickly too. Many of these schools also boast a decent infrastructure — acreage, modern buildings, residential dorms, state-of-the-art IT support, etc. However, if you look deeper and especially at the tier-2 and below B-schools, you will find that the quality of the faculty members leaves much to be desired. The unique discipline of management education calls for a certain psyche — one that naturally lends itself to a career and personality fitment in industry — not academia. The other issue is that many corporate geniuses are lousy teachers. So we are left with a very finite pool of people who have a scholastic interest in the discipline coupled with a natural flair for teaching. Take my case, I am an engineer — I gravitated towards management after masters in engineering and from there to accounting and research. The advantage I had was that I was in the US at the right time and the education setup there allowed me to dabble with various subjects until I found my métier.

We can therefore place some of the blame on the system — where people are unable to realise their true potential because of lack of opportunities and social pressures. These variables are slightly differently wired in the US which is also perhaps why we see Indians excelling in their chosen streams once they are part of the western education as opposed to when they were here. This is also eminently proved by the fact that one after the other, the best B-schools in the US and elsewhere have appointed Indians (or people of Indian origin) as deans — Nitin Noria of Harvard, Sunil Kumar of Booth, Chicago, Dipak Jain of Kellogg (then Insead and now Sassin, Bangkok,) Jitendra Singh of Hong Kong Univ of Science and Technology after his stint at National University Of Singapore, etc.

At the same time, the top B-schools of India have successfully wooed deans or directors such as Ashish Nanda of IIM-A from Harvard and Raj Srivastava (Univ. Texas and later at SNU in Singapore) of the ISB among others. Rumor has it that Stanford too has two Indians in the running for the top job. The Indian origin faculty members in top B-schools in the US number more than 300 and constitute over 10 per cent of full-time faculty members.

In fact, 10 of the 17 distinguished professorships with chairs in Kellogg are held by persons of Indian origin (out of a total of 120 full-time faculty members). What all this has led me to surmise is that there certainly are excellent quality Indian faculty but most of them are in the top 20 B-schools of India or among the top 20 B-schools over the world. Thus, there is ‘quality’ in the academic world which is of Indian origin, but their full-time affiliation is with top B-schools of the world and sadly not in India.

So where does that leave us? All of these people and many others have found that the US system offers them a lot more that what India can/does. As the former chairman of the Dean Search and Faculty recruitment committee of ISB, when it was set up in the early 21st century, I was able to find ample talent (in terms of qualifications, research and teaching potential and overall personality) in India itself. I followed the same model when I set up Great Lakes in 2004 as well. What is critical is to make the full-time professorship at the B-school an attractive proposition. If we find the perfect answer to this question, we can make India a knowledge powerhouse — not only in management but across all disciplines and also be able to control the brain-drain syndrome that we have become painfully familiar with. I would like to touch upon a few things that we have done at Great Lakes, which have met with resounding success and have gone on to enhance the reputation of the school.

The goal of the Institute should be to deliver education — not to make profit. If the promoters of the school are aligned towards profiteering, you can be sure that doom is inevitable. What this means is that if focus on education is secondary, the school will naturally have below-par students, infrastructure, faculty members, industry relations, etc. Everything will suffer because the head of the school (trustees and director/dean) doesn’t believe in education as an end, but as a means to another (money) end. Once the vision and goals are properly aligned, with the top-management in sync with these, the next step is to craft the perfect program — the offering is not perfect if the market refuses to buy it. So, the B-school program offering must reflect the needs of those aspirants and must constantly be overhauled and tightened to also reflect the changes in trends, industry and technological advancements. With this, the school will be able to take in excellent quality of students — by student quality I am not talking about academic credentials, potential and attitude are equally important.

It is only when these variables are in place that we can tempt already stellar scholars to join us and furthermore encourage others on a path of self-improvement. What we are doing is creating a challenging environment. Nothing drives performance more than a positive, vibrant, synergistic peer group and this is the point; when you will be able to see a marked change in the attitude, delivery and potential of the faculty members. Good B-schools don’t stop here — they are always on the look-out for excellent faculty members to augment their strengths. Creating a participative (even revolutionary) and democratic work culture, providing opportunities for research and paper publications, international travel and teaching assignments, corporate consultancy engagements, etc., are all part and parcel of what a good B-school needs to offer its faculty members. These are what the US colleges offer in abundance which the Indian counterparts sorely lack.

The next obvious point is of course, the finance. If we compare the salary, complete benefits package and the teaching load for the same between the Indian and US schools, there is an even bigger gap. At Kellogg from the time I got my distinguished professorship in 1984 till the time of my retirement in 2010 my teaching load was 24 x 7, i.e., 24 hours in one month and seven months in a year. However, when I was an ‘untenured’ professor, the situation was diametrically opposite — I needed to keep my nose to the grind. The reason tenured faculty members get a significantly reduced teaching load is because they are expected to devote the rest of their time on quality research and publish top-notch journals and undertake institution-building activities — not simply teaching. These other set of activities help to keep us intellectually stimulated and motivated. This is critical in a profession where the routine is fairly the same every year. Thus, if we want excellent faculty members, the faculty on full-time basis has to be given a better package commensurate with comparative US institutions, and a work profile similar to the US schools with a good blend of teaching and research. Of course, performance in both research and teaching decides the tenure and the system is generally “UP OR OUT”. I know of several highly-qualified persons who are also excellent teachers but refuse to take-up a full time teaching job because they feel it constrains them when rightfully they should be liberated.

There is also one last point that focuses on the mindset of the people. In India, teaching is viewed as a cushy job which is a 9 to 5 one and which is tension-free. The system also plays along — the present scenario allows a person with a questionable Ph.D. from a fly-by-night school to be appointed as the director of a B-school. While the AICTE and other accreditation agencies like NAAC lay down the academic qualifications for teachers in a B-school, they don’t assess the quality of the teacher or teaching per say. Where then is the scope for improvement, achievement and innovation?

B-schools have a strong industry interface and it would be quite easy for us to come up with endowments to create such a tenure track system with distinguished professorships and chairs in various areas based on corporate sponsors. Overall, merely sending professors for refresher courses to better B-schools can never be the answer to a better set of faculty members. It calls for a fundamental change in the vision of the B-school, the education policies of the government and the support of the industry for the simple reason that excellence can never be a product of mediocrity. Excellence can only be attained if you have excellent resources doing an excellent job.

The author, Bala V. Balachandran, is a J L Kellogg Distinguished Professor of Accounting & Information Management at Northwestern University, USA. He is also founder, dean & chairman of Great Lakes Institute of Management, India

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 14-12-2015)


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