On February 15, former IIT Bombay Professor Rangan Banerjee took over as the Director of IIT Delhi. In an interview with The Indian Express, he spoke of plans for curriculum overhaul, the need for building caring institutes, a renewed focus on research, and the reopening of campus.
You took over on February 15. What have you done in the last three weeks?
Initially, and even now, the focus is on understanding stakeholder perspective, figuring out what they want and their vision. I also have a vision and a plan, but I want to talk about that after hearing extensively from stakeholders. If I talk about it right now, it completely biases things because I really believe that you have to take people along. On February 16, I spoke to faculty, it was an online session where around 450 members had joined. I told them about my background, the issues close to my heart and the way I would like to proceed. On the 17th, I spoke to all the staff about their role in building the institute. I also had a meeting with student representatives and Heads of Departments on the 18th.
On Monday (21st), we had a senate meeting in which key decisions were taken. I’ve also done 12 selection committee interviews for recruitment and promotions. I’ve also gone around hostel rooms, messes and kitchens to see the situation first hand.
What are your short- and long-term plans for IIT Delhi?
The most important stakeholders are students. For them, we want to provide a transformative experience… The challenge now is that the attention span of the younger generation is shorter. They are the Twitter and Instagram generation, who have access to all kinds of information. So you need to do much more to excite them. The challenge is to create excitement in the classroom. We’re thinking of more learning by doing; have teams look at problems of relevance and people spending time in industries and other spheres.
When you look back at your school days, the good teachers actually knew each person, their strengths and weaknesses, and tried to build on it. So that kind of faculty advising system which builds on individual strength and tries to help people’s aspirations is difficult to do, but it is something we would like to try and do.
Outside the classroom, we want to enable conversation between faculty and students on a variety of curricular, co-curricular and other matters, to bridge the generation gap and work on how they see teachers as mentors and well-wishers. Different people have different skills and interests, specifically at the undergraduate level… This is the period when they are figuring out what to do, so we want to advise them accordingly. Also, different people learn at different paces, and in the Indian context we are so competitive, that we feel if someone has not finished a four-year course in four years, he or she has failed. That’s not necessary. Someone may finish in five years at a slow pace, and do extremely well in life. So we want to focus on people with different paces of learning. This is not so easy to implement but it’s something I’d like to do.
Maybe if we do this in a way which is supportive with student mentors and faculty advising, maybe we can also generally improve the wellness on campus and the happiness and satisfaction levels, and maybe reduce the tendency for suicides.
What about other structural changes?
One of the things we are doing is embarking on a full-fledged curriculum review. We are doing this at IIT Delhi after 10 years. This is something for which we will have extensive stakeholder consultation, talk with external people, look at the curriculum in other IITs as well as other institutes in the world. We’ll also look at what those who are giving us jobs are saying, what the industry is saying. This will take about a year or so.
Overall, we are looking at two things – excellence in academics & research, and we’re looking at societal impact. For the latter, we want to take people with expertise in different disciplines, put them together and solve some real-life societal problems. Some of this is already happening through the Centres of Excellence and interdisciplinary programmes but a lot more can happen.
We also want to do something more specifically for the NCR, like work on air pollution. We are also setting up an observatory at Sonepat. We have a Delhi cluster where we are working with the entire academic and research institutes in the NCR, and there we would like to have someone from JNU, DU etc. Maybe we will also look at the MSMEs in the NCR and provide them support. As an institution, we also have a role in society and that is in providing leadership of thought.
We want to create an enabling environment so that the faculty can fulfill their aspirations, and focus most of their time on teaching and research. But to create systems and processes to make that happen, to have the staff and ecosystem to make sure other things are taken care of – purchases, administrative activities – that’s a goal.
Why the need for a curriculum review and what are your views on the NEP?
The whole nature of knowledge is changing, so we need to keep reviewing curriculum. The tradeoff between fixed and variable – the whole nature of engineering in many cases has changed. So, I think it is required. Here we are looking at the structure of the B.Tech, M.Tech and PhD courses… We will probably start with an initial concept paper and then go from there.
Many of the things in NEP we are already doing like multi-disciplinarity and flexibility. We are quite conversant with it… The credits etc, we have to take it to our Senate. We are looking at working with AIIMS and we are looking at healthcare research. We are already aligned with the NEP so it’s not a big change for us.
What are your views on rankings? Do you think more needs to be done on that front?
We are going to focus on the things we feel we should anyway be doing, which is on excellence in research and academics, and societal impact and we believe that our rankings will anyway improve.
IIT-Delhi had sent a proposal to the Education Ministry on setting up overseas campuses. What has happened to that?
There’s a national-level committee which is looking at it, which the ministry has set up with several IIT directors. That committee report is going to come out, so maybe we should just wait for that report.
Do you think it’s important to get more foreign students and faculty?
I think that’s important for vibrancy on campus, but we have to figure out how to do that. As long as we can cater to the domestic students, it’s a good thing. We already have MoUs with the University of Queensland, and Taiwan. We have some joint degree programmes. We have some initiatives with the International Solar Alliance. Wherever we have MoUs, we are trying to make it two way. Often they attract our students, but we want it to be two way. Foreign faculty is more tricky; for short term it is easier but for long term there may not be a large number.
What is your stand on reservation in faculty recruitment, because there are arguments from some quarters that it will worsen faculty vacancy?
As an institution, we are committed to following all the laws of the land. We are also committed to diversity for gender, or other categories. In student intake, we fully follow the reservation policy. We will follow the laws of the land and we will do this while maintaining our academic ecosystem. We are working together with the Ministry and seeing how this can be done.
When will IIT re-open and how do you see education changing in a pandemic world?
All students are allowed to come back, those who have hostel seats. We’re expecting students to be back by March 14. For first-year students, from March 24, their second semester will be offline. For other students who are currently in the middle of an online semester, we have left it open but their final exams will be offline… During this time, if faculty wants to take classes offline, they are welcome to do so. We are also looking at hybrid courses. But by April, all students should be back on campus.
Students are very excited to get back to the hostels and classrooms. But during this time, we have also learnt e-learning and how to use other tools. So some of that learning can help us in our classrooms… I hope we won’t see additional waves, but we will have to be careful. A lot of learning in education is not just about classroom teaching but about teamwork and interaction, but there are many things which online can help supplement. Like today, I can get someone from the US to take a class, but I wouldn’t have thought of this earlier.