KOCHI: J Letha, the first woman to be appointed to the post of Cusat Vice-Chancellor, will be demitting office after a successful stint during which she was able to turn around the fortunes of the university which until then was not considered a top-notch educational institution.
A gold medallist from IIT Madras, Letha started out as a lecturer with the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Calicut in 1983. Though soft-spoken, her achievements show her iron mettle.“In 1984, I joined the College of Engineering Trivandrum(CET). I served as the CET principal from 2008-2011. In 2011, I was picked as Technical Education Director from a list of fellow contenders which included the principals of various engineering colleges,” she said. Letha had also served as the Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Technology, University of Kerala.
Before she took over as Cusat VC she didn’t have the faintest idea of how a university functioned. “Though I was an ex-officio member of the Syndicate in my capacity as Technical Education Director, I didn’t have any knowledge about the inside workings of the university. But when I was asked to draft the Kerala Technological Act, I did an in-depth study of all the bylaws governing each and every university in the state,” she said. According to her, this gave her the necessary ammo when she became the VC.“I still remember my first presser as VC. I don’t know what I was thinking when I told reporters I will give direction to the institution. I didn’t even know at the time whether or not the university lacked direction!” she said. However, Letha said she had been spot on since the university indeed lacked direction.
“The university was given B grade by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). It was pathetic,” she said. A major shortcoming was the faculty was severely understaffed. Since the faculty positions, around 96 of them, remained unfilled, no research programmes were being done. The students had to suffer since they didn’t have any qualified resource persons to go to,” she said. So, filling the faculty posts and getting an A grade in NAAC rankings became the top priority.
“I knew it will take a lot of time to get the right persons appointed as faculty members. So, I decided the need of the hour was to get a good result and secure A grade. The project was to take place over a one-year period. I wanted only the best persons to be appointed as faculty members. So, I went in for a panel which had experts from educational institutions across the country. Not even one of them was from Kerala. We also decided not to interfere in the panel’s working,” she said.
The result was overwhelming, with the university getting a faculty packed with efficiency and talent, she said.”The university got an A grade in 2016. We wanted an A+ but the understaffed faculty in the two engineering colleges under the university made it impossible. We couldn’t appoint any faculty in these colleges since the ones who had been appointed earlier were yet to be regularised by the government,” she said,
However, she could start a series of research programmes with the help of the new faculty members. “Today the university has a Patent Office and has registered around five patents. More and more researchers are applying for patents,” she said. The university was awarded the Chancellor’s Award for the best varsity in Kerala. “We have utilised the award money to set up a Chancellor’s Chair at the university. An expert from among those working with the world ’s top 200 universities will be invited to occupy the position,” she said. Meanwhile, Cusat became the only university to submit a proposal invited by the government under the Centres of Excellence project. “We gave a detailed project report and were allocated Rs 249 crore for its implementation,” she said. “A part of the fund was used to improve the infrastructure facilities. To become a Centre of Excellence we should be counted as a premier institution in the country. Only then will we be able to attract students, both domestic and foreign,” she said.
The university is planning to build a central research facility which will house the costly instruments to be bought using the funds.“The aim is to develop an inter-departmental relationship. Research will progress and the institution will attain greater heights only if the departments work in tandem,” she said. As she steps down, Letha can reflect on and indeed be proud of what she has managed to achieve. “I have done my work, now it is up to my successor to take off from where I have left off and transform the university into an institution with an A+ grade,” she said.