IIT Madras

UPDATE(18/04/2012): I had a long chat with Prof. Narayanaswamy in the afternoon today, and asked him if what the emails suggest is accurate. In particular, I asked him if there is context to the emails, the absence of which might lead to a misreading. I am convinced that Nari did not suggest, for example, that the only place where students should get their privacy is in the bathroom. In fact, he was pointing out that this is the absurdity that would result if the council of wardens wanted to impose their morality on students. It is astounding to me that none of the other wardens seem to have understood what he was saying (some of them go so far in the opposite direction as to say ‘yes, Nari is right; we should make rules stricter’). More about this, and Nari himself, in the next post. Do keep this in mind as you read the following.

The Hindu report about IIT Madras and the administration’s seeming penchant for what threatens to snowball into moral policing mentions one heartening fact (emphasis mine):

… an e-mail exchange between senior faculty members that The Hindu sourced from one of the recipients.

In spite of myself, I want to see this as the silver lining in an otherwise dark and depressing cloud that is the story of the email exchange that has now all but gone public. I know one of the people sending the emails from an earlier exchange that some of you might remember. It is surprising to me that the people with the most strident opinions about what may be imposed on students are people otherwise considered student-friendly.

IITM’s mandate is more than to simply run classes and do research. IITM’s vision is “to be an academic institution in dynamic equilibrium with its social, ecological and economic environment striving continuously for excellence in education, research and technological service to the nation”

It pains me to see that the administration plans to create a responsible citizenry for this country by treating enfranchised adults like children. How is this going to work? If you micromanage every part of somebody’s life until that person turns 25, how will she ever learn to think for herself? How’s this, for example, from Narayanaswamy:

So we need to put in a framework which is reasonably self-regulatory
a. open door and windows.
b. ideally no LAN.
c. morning wake-up, and yoga and mess, night lights out.
d. expenditure on establishment B is closed, they collect and spend.

What shocked me was the demand for privacy.  We need to root out the feeling that the room is theirs for anything and everything.  I hope no one says “it is [sic] in the warden’s power.” Let us make the administration easy, and help the students get better.

I am trying to get aayahs to clean rooms from 6-7.15 in the morning.

Now, I know from the last time that Nari means well. However, not only does he want to dictate when students are to wake up (6am), but also what they should do once they do (‘yoga and mess’). And even the notion of privacy is to be frowned upon.

More importantly, there seems to be no interest in actually engaging students in a discussion. ‘In the next open forum, if at all there is one…’, starts the email by the Chairman, Council of Wardens. This was because, apparently, somebody asked why it concerned the administration what students were up to in their rooms (‘If I have sex with my girlfriend…’).

Several professors – check that – several wardens in charge of student well-being at IITM’s hostels seem alarmed that somebody said ‘sex’ in an open forum. One of them, Dr. Sivakumar Srinivasan, claims to have been ‘visibly upset’ (I suppose it is possible he had a mirror handy) at what he is sure is a lack of values and not just a sign of changing times.

If you start with the assumption that the people you are talking to are value-devoid hedonists, the only logical thing to do is to try and set them right by whatever means necessary. It is more disappointing than surprising to me, therefore, that what would strike you or me as micromanagement taken a bit too far seems like the right thing to do to the wardens.

However, I would, if I could, urge them to consider the possibility that times change, and that value-systems evolve. The assumption that the value system one grew up with is somehow universal is small-minded. Moreover, the notion that you can change values in self-respecting adults by imposing ever harsher discipline goes against elementary psychology.

In the internet-age, the single most effective thing you can do to ensure that something ‘goes viral’ is to aggressively try and erase it from the public record (this is called the Streisand effect, if you want to read more about it). Unfortunately, I doubt an internet-based anecdote is the best way of convincing this group of people to accept the mutability of value-systems.

Postscript: The email exchange was supposed to be private, and a debate between colleagues about what to do to correct what they think is a problem. It is likely to contain things that are more ‘out-there’ than what the same people might say or do more publicly. Given this, I flip-flopped on whether I should write about the emails at all. I hope I’ve made the right call.

2 thoughts on “IIT Madras”

  1. My irony meter is broken. Faculty who disregard their students’ privacy have their own privacy violated, showing them to be the immature anal-retentive idiots that they are. Incidentally the guy who is afraid of his students getting into ‘alternate sexual preferences’ is a Computer Science Prof. The greatest person in the field of Computer Science is Alan Turing, a homosexual man. Homophobic computer science researchers is such an oxymoron.

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