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Explained: In recent controversies, IIMs and the question of autonomy

How does the question of autonomy impact their functioning, and how important is the ability to take independent decisions to the institutional excellence that they have a reputation for?

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi |
Updated: March 11, 2021 8:34:38 am
Incidents at IIM Calcutta and IIM Ahmedabad (above) have thrown the spotlight on the question of autonomy. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), for decades the brightest jewel in the country’s higher education set-up, are going through a phase of turmoil.

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Last week, the Board of Governors of one of the older IIMs (Calcutta) stripped its Director of important powers, and The Indian Express reported that the Director of another old IIM (Ahmedabad) had pushed back against the government last year, refusing to comply with a request to submit for scrutiny a PhD thesis that a BJP MP had taken offence to.

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Although very different from each other, at the heart of both incidents is the question of the powers of the Director of the IIM, and the degree of autonomy that they, and the institutes themselves, enjoy.

How does the question of autonomy impact their functioning, and how important is the ability to take independent decisions to the institutional excellence that they have a reputation for?

What is the controversy at IIM-Ahmedabad?

At the heart of the controversy at IIM-Ahmedabad is a PhD dissertation with three essays on electoral democracy.

About a year ago, the Ministry of Education asked the Institute for a copy of the thesis after Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy had sent a letter to the Prime Minister alleging that the dissertation describes the BJP and BSP as “ethnically constituted” parties. And that the BJP is “a pro-Hindu upper caste party”.

Swamy had urged the government that IIM-Ahmedabad should be directed to have the thesis “re-examine[d]” by independent professors, and that the PhD be kept on hold until that review was complete.

When asked to share a copy of the thesis, however, IIM-A Director Prof Erol D’Souza pushed back. In his reply to the Ministry, he wrote that the government was not an arbiter of complaints regarding a PhD thesis, and that there were appropriate academic forums within the Institute to flag complaints.

And what is the case at IIM-Calcutta?

What’s happening at IIM-Calcutta is a first in the history of the IIMs.

The Institute’s Board and the Director, Anju Seth, are locked in a turf war, with Seth accusing the Chairman of the Board of infringing on her executive powers and the Board, in turn, accusing her of improper conduct.

The confrontation snowballed into a full-blown crisis last week after the Board passed a resolution against Seth and stripped her of the key powers of making appointments and taking disciplinary action.

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Historically, how autonomous have the IIMs been?

“Before the enactment of the [IIM] Act [in 2017], when the IIMs functioned as Societies, they had a fair amount of autonomy in academic matters and other issues such as the fixing of fees. Because of the latter power, the older IIMs (Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Bangalore, Lucknow, Kozhikode, Indore) were not dependent on the government for funds, and were in a better position to assert their autonomy,” said a senior government officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“However, the appointment of Directors and Chairmen remained in the government’s hands, and it often used this leverage to influence the IIMs,” the officer said.

However, this “autonomy” was only a product of convention, and “functioned as long as both sides respected it”, the officer said. “When this respect was compromised, friction occurred.”

What the IIM Act did was to “cast autonomy in stone”, the officer said. “The government cannot reduce it or pass orders which are not in consonance with the Act. The only way to undo anything is through an Amendment passed by the legislature,” the officer said.

Are there any instances of friction between an IIM and the government on a question of policy?

The IIMs have been protective of their autonomy, and have tended to oppose any perceived attempt by the government at curtailing their freedom.

A well-known example is from 2003-04, when the then HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi issued an order drastically reducing admission fees at the six IIMs from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 30,000. A face-off ensued between the then NDA government and the IIMs, and the matter was resolved only after the NDA lost the 2004 general elections, and the new UPA government reversed Joshi’s order.

What limits do questions of funding and administration place on the principle of autonomy of higher education institutions?

“Globally as well as in India, higher education is supported by the government in one form or the other. Normally this should not impact the autonomy of universities,” said Ashok Thakur, who retired as Higher Education Secretary in 2014. “However, if the government of the day thinks otherwise, there is no stopping it — irrespective of whether the institutions are funded or not, as has been shown in the recent case of IIM-A, which is financially totally independent. Funding gives the extra handle to the government as Parliament and the CAG have by default the right to know the fate of the funds approved by it.”

But this “interference”, Thakur said, “comes at a price, as universities that lack autonomy are less creative and therefore suffer in terms of quality and reputation”.

What are the implications of the ongoing turmoil in the IIMs?

Many in the IIM community see the ongoing situations at IIM-Calcutta and IIM-Ahmedabad as stemming from the dramatic shift in power dynamics ushered in with the new IIM Act. The government has relinquished control on paper, but the implementation of the Act will face hiccups as the Board assumes greater power in the functioning of the IIMs.

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