Venturing into academics after a rich industry experience of 25 years, Dr. Gautam Sinha talks about why smoothly running institutions are necessary for academic excellence in the country. Being a pivotal person in setting up IIM Kashipur from scratch, Dr. Sinha also reveals how he inspired management students to know the real India.
What inspired you to choose academics and teaching as a profession?
After completing B.Tech in production engineering, I got a job with the SAIL (Steel Authority of India Ltd). While working there, I completed my M.Tech in industrial engineering and management from IIT (ISM) Dhanbad. This enabled me to become a corporate trainer at the SAIL. I then did my PhD from IIT Kharagpur.
I had worked in the steel industry for nearly 25 years, and had started to feel that my potential and expertise were not being fully utilized. That’s when I took a job as a professor at IIT Kharagpur. I was 49 years old when I switched to teaching, but looking back, I am really happy about my decision.
Your LinkedIn profile says that you “revitalized” Ph.D. programs in all five schools at IMS Unison University. Do you think, research programs in non-technical studies attract fewer applicants than research programs in STEM courses?
While I was completing my Ph.D. in my 40s, I realized that, in the coming years, more and more people would opt for a doctorate degree while working in a job.
While we were founding IIM Kashipur in 2014, our team designed and launched an Executive Fellow Program in Management (EFPM), designed especially for senior working executives. My own experience of doing a Ph.D. while employed in a fulltime job shaped the design of this program. This was a radical step, more so, for a new IIM. This was followed by Fellow Program in Management (FPM) in 2015.
On joining IMS Unison University, Dehradun, in 2019, a review of the Ph.D. program revealed certain lacunae. With concerted efforts of the Deans, Heads of Departments, and Ph.D. guides, the mentoring of research scholars was enhanced. Also, the non-PhD faculty were encouraged to register within the university so that they could pursue their doctoral research while working. It gives me great satisfaction to see that at the end of my three-year tenure, two scholars have defended their Ph.D. thesis, one scholar (IMS faculty) has submitted his Ph.D. thesis and two more scholars are at the presubmission stage.
My experience with Ph.D. programs is limited to IITs and IIMs, hence my opinion is strictly personal. IITs are research-oriented institutes, which offer enormous support to research scholars. Many of the research projects are generously funded by external agencies, especially those in engineering and technology. Ph.D. scholars in IIMs receive similar support. Research scholars in STEM courses find employment in industrial research and academics. Hence, pursuing research has definite employment outcomes. Non-technical research does not attract similar funding. There are not too many openings for PhDs in non-technical areas and, hence, the only career option is academics. This may be reason why there are fewer Ph.D. applicants in non-technical courses.
In one of your blogs, you mentioned that the visit of then-President Dr. Pranab Mukherjee to IIM Kashipur in 2013 would “wake even the dead in Uttarakhand bureaucracy.” Does this imply that bureaucracy is a hurdle when it comes to academic needs?
Setting up of an IIM or IIT in a state is, in some sense, a joint venture between the central government and concerned state government. The centre funds the project and its operation for initial years, and the state provides the land and infrastructure, like electricity and water supply, and often, the temporary campus.
IIM Kashipur started operations in June 2011, but till May 2012, there was very little effort on the part of the Uttarakhand government to really facilitate the new IIM. Perhaps, the political ambition of the state government and its bureaucracy had been achieved with the setting up of IIM Kashipur. No more political mileage could be achieved, so why expend additional effort?
The imminent visit of the Indian President raised the antenna of the bureaucrats because it would automatically entail presence of the Governor, the Chief Minister and the who’s who in the state government. The collective presence of these people in power lead to a review of the progress, ultimately exposing the laggards, and thus the somnolent bureaucracy was galvanized into action. To be fair, after that I had the fullest support from the state government.
Besides bureaucracy, what were the other challenges you came across while setting up a new institution?
Not all challenges arise because of bureaucratic delay. When one embarks on setting up of an institute of national importance like an IIM, to live up to the legacy of earlier institutes is a challenge. In the initial years, operating from a temporary campus can be a challenge because the prospective and new entrant both carry a grand image of what an IIM should look like. Therefore, to attract students is a challenge. The next challenge is to attract faculty because they expect an organisation that functions smoothly, whereas you can only offer the promise and chaos of a start-up. Convincing companies to recruit your students for internships and jobs remains a challenge for new institutes. The location, if not favourable, itself would aggravate all the above challenges.
What inspired you to introduce the “Knowing the Real Bharat” project for MBA students?
The Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management (LBSIM), Delhi, had a social internship program as a part of the PGDM curriculum and covered nearby villages in NCR. This project was conducted over the entire semester and the students visited their project site one day every fortnight. The idea was to expose the young would-be managers to the realities of rural India.
As expected, the outcome was a report submitted at the end of the semester with many pages, charts and graphs, but seldom any real change on the ground.
I challenged the batch to make one difference to the lives of the villagers, no matter how small, that was visible and would remain long after their last visit. I very proudly remember that one group created a few toilets for women with money raised from donations by the villagers and support of Sulabh International, an NGO that builds and maintains public toilets across India.
In your virtual session with Dehradun University, you talked about the difference between the technology adaption rate among generations and teachers. Does this difference affect Indian education? If yes, what is the solution?
Each generation has its own characteristics and learning styles. At 68, I consider myself the “Jurassic Park generation”. We were used to the traditional banking system of education wherein the teacher is the depositor, and the student is the account.
Knowledge is to be deposited and stored, to be used later, when needed. Examinations entailed regurgitating the gained knowledge on paper. This negates the spirit of enquiry and fosters passivity in students.
Most teachers today are millennials or Gen Y, born between the 1985-2000 period. They are the first digital natives, who grew up with mobile phones and worked with computers. They communicate in text language and are familiar with social media, but most likely were taught in the banking system of education.
Today’s students are Gen Z, born in the 21st century. They are second generation digital natives. They don’t wear watches, grew up with smartphones and are more likely addicted to their mobile devices. Their attention span is short. They communicate with images and emoticons but are very good at multitasking. They prefer multimodal learning and knowledge on demand. In personal life, they want utility and experience but not ownership.
There is an obvious mismatch between the teaching and learning styles of the teachers and students. This has been further exacerbated by the online delivery of education due to Covid in the last couple of years.
Recent research in education seems to indicate that to engage with Gen Z, the teachers need to use multi-modal and blended learning. The teacher needs to foster creativity, collaboration and problem solving. This can be achieved by having a mix of individual and group projects. The teacher can inculcate curiosity and fearlessness by encouraging questions, rather than passive acceptance. A good teacher in the eyes of Gen Z, according to S Kraus & S Sears (2008), is approachable, creative, encouraging and caring, enthusiastic, flexible and open-minded.
In November 2015, three students of PGP went on a motorbike ride with you during your tenure at IIM Kashipur. Do you believe that engaging with students in nonacademic activities should be inculcated to build stronger student-teacher relations?
I have been an avid biker for over 45 years now and continue to ride my motorcycle. There have been many memorable rides with students of IIM Kashipur between 2012 and 2018.
The MBA curriculum includes rigorous and extensive interactions between the teachers and students. Interactions outside the class through sports and recreational activities definitely helps build a strong bond between teacher and students.
Why is it that Indian management institutions fail to figure in the world’s top 100 list?
In my opinion, our management institutes do not have intimate connect with the industry. This affects us in two ways. Faculty are distanced from the latest industry practices and research remains theoretical. The industry does not benefit from the research and industry managers are unable to share the latest with the academia.
Further, we recruit absolute freshers into MBA. In contrast, the best business schools in the world recruit students with three to five years of work experience. It is heartening to see Indian universities warming up to the idea of “professors of practice” and rising percentage of experienced students in the MBA cohort.