Apart from the annual lament of why Indian universities do not feature in the world’s top 200, there has been a recent clamour that “innovation and leadership” is a mantra to create outstanding centres of higher education. The ministry of human resources has placed a bill in parliament for designating innovative universities while more recently a couple of national workshops exclusively devoted a session on this theme. I find myself at some distance with this approach to excellence.
To begin with, I find it completely artificial and synthetic that one can somehow invoke “innovation and leadership” and create an institution that demonstrates all the virtues that can be attributed to it. Instead, a much better way will be to understand what those crucial things and the natural organic cultures are, that get embedded in some institutions and make them special.
The vision of the institution is the overarching umbrella. And the key is how well the leaders of the institution communicate this vision, for that is critical to attract the right people to the place – drawn not so much by other considerations as by their resonance with the vision, their personal alignment with the purpose and perhaps the idealism (that exists in all of us) to contribute to building a fine institution. And this importantly includes both administrators and academic faculty. For in great academic institutions, one will find that if faculty excels in what they are good at, it is the administrators and support staff who created the enabling conditions.
Thus great institutions recruit brilliantly, something so vital when talent is scarce. Once institutions can bring together talented people who share and resonate with the vision, it enables them to provide a tremendous amount of autonomy and freedom. And without autonomy and freedom how can one even think that an institution can be vibrant, creative and collegial? On the contrary if the leaders are unsure of their faculty’s alignment with the vision, then caution comes in. With caution, very soon the culture turns into a toxic broth that can kill all initiative and innovation — what we know in most places as a combination of risk-averse conditions, lack of trust, red tape and bureaucracy.
The logical consequence of freedom and autonomy is “ownership”, not in its clichéd sense but one where the younger faculty think of what “our institution” should be in twenty years’ time and the elder faculty ensure that a fully enabled second rung of leadership is ready when it is time for them to hand over the baton. In such universities, where ownership is part of the DNA, institution building does not merely become a part of the faculty’s work plan and responsibilities. It almost unconsciously, organically becomes a voluntary and happy part of their life.
Tensions will exist everywhere, including the best of institutions. Often, it is mistakenly thought that if there is a great team, everyone gets along swimmingly with each other. Far from it. The world beating Australian cricket team that strode the cricket world from 1995 to 2010 was not one happy family; members were ideologically and temperamentally in opposite corners. So too in the best of academic institutions. As they strive for speed, scale and quality of educational programmes, as they strain under the lack of enough teachers, the stress of teaching Marx and Foucault in English to students who come from a vernacular background, as stark disagreements on the composition of the programmes arise, there will be opposing views in the team. Some will say we must, others will say no, while the rest will agonise over how. And here is where the leadership will rely on the glue that binds the team together — the alignment to the overarching social purpose of the university — to help them dialogue, reason and find solutions or at least reconciliation.
Great institutions of course do terrific research, for academic ethos is the soul of great universities. Serious scholarship is encouraged and respected but in the context where research is seen as one of the best ways towards furthering and realising the vision and social purpose of the university.
Finally, humility is an essential part of the DNA. And especially in the development domains of education, health, livelihood and sustainability, one of the best ways to achieve this is through a healthy bridge between academics and field practice. The appreciation of ground reality, an understanding of how hard and how long people on the ground work to create even small shifts in society is the finest way to continuously improve university curriculum.
Innovative practices are not those one or two grand orbit-shifting ideas but rather the many small things that become a way of life at the university simply because the “soil is so fertile”. For example, faculty can proactively overhaul the curriculum of existing programmes because of their commitment to the belief that students at the university must get the best learning experience. They do not wait for any formal signal from the VC or dean. Similarly, they can create a completely new orientation programme for incoming batches of students simply because of their involvement in the admission process and an appreciation of the needs of a diverse community of students. Why, even in the case of the field and academic bridge, things can happen through exemplary initiatives. The visits of the faculty to understand the field and weave meaningful research can enrich the academic curriculum at the university while at the same time elevating the quality of analysis of work on the ground. Experienced practitioners will share lecterns with the most respected academic dons. Such things may start as a trickle but can soon define the ethos of such universities.
I will conclude from where I began. That it is only after an odyssey of many years can one say if an institution is blessed with great leadership or is a testimony to innovation. An institution need not announce that it will be a place of innovation. Rather, if it ensures that the culture, systems and processes are conducive, then twenty years later or two hundred years later, history will testify that this university or institution is indeed an embodiment of great leadership and innovation.
The author is registrar and chief operating officer of Azim Premji University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org