Over the past month spent in these hallowed portals I’ve realised how little we students know about our first full-time director, Ravi J Matthai, who laid the foundations of the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), and made it what any institute can wish to be — built to last.
Vikram Sarabhai, one of the founding fathers of IIMA and the first (honorary) director of the institute, zeroed in on Matthai to succeed him in 1965. The proposal was met with considerable scepticism, even opposition, from the group of highly-strung and qualified academics that had already assembled at IIMA. Matthai was but 38-years-old, young, callow and raw in academia. An BA from Oxford and most of his working life spent in the ‘boxwallah’ world, his two-year-shy experience at IIMC wasn’t considered ‘grey’ enough to earn him the respect and admiration of his academic confreres.
Sarabhai though was spot-on with his choice. Ravi Matthai was everything that IIMA could have asked for of a full-time director — perhaps more. Over his seven-year term as director, he went on to not only silence the many Doubting Thomases but, more importantly, with his commitment went about evolving protocols for the fledgling institute. If today IIMA has grown to become one of the finest business schools in the world, credit must go to Matthai. He put together an ecosystem with culture, practices, tradition and processes all uniquely its own. He made the faculty central to the institute’s functioning and granted them the academic freedom that true intellectual pursuit warranted. He equilibrated roles; the director was only a primus inter pares, first of equals among all professors. He played guide, friend, philosopher to all and made their contributions beefier: faculty, students, staff — every stakeholder in the institute’s wellness. He was the quiet lodestar.
The collegium approach he introduced — academic, mural, extra-mural — facilitated ushering in a culture of transparency. No mean achievement this in an era when hierarchy, pecking order, and feudalism held considerable sway in national consciousness and popular imagination.
What though makes Matthai shine luminously was his ability to walk his talk — his resolve to quit directorship in 1972 — after seven years at the helm when he had everything going for him, much as he had told Sarabhai while taking charge. The institute needed change, he said, a new incumbent only can bring in fresh ideas and fresh perspective. This singular act of self-abnegation unobtrusively sowed the seeds in institutionalising a single term for the director with a built-in check; on completion of his term, the director turned a professor when his warts, if any, will likely tumble out of the closet. What a way to democratise administrative hierarchy.
Matthai stayed with IIMA till his death, working on his ‘Jawaja’ project that strove to integrate rural education with economic activities. Few know that management guru C K Prahlad believed Matthai’s work inspired him with his ‘bottom-of-the-pyramid’ paradigm.