Pallavi Singh's report in the Indian Express has one central idea: It's good times again at the IITs; faculty are flocking to them. The report features short profiles of a few IIT-D faculty, who give us their reasons for choosing academic jobs even though other options are seen by our society as more attractive: being one's own boss, being a part of a vibrant academic life, setting one's own pace, presence of high tech labs here, etc. Also among the reasons is housing inside safe, pollution-free campuses.
All of that is pretty positive, and I would heartily recommend this article to anyone who's considering an academic job in India as an option.
But Pallavi Singh goes overboard in reeling off statistics, some of which is quite vacuous. Consider, for example, the breathless claim that "more than 20 per cent of [IIT-D's] most experienced faculty would retire in the next seven years." WTF? If you assume an academic life that spans 30 to 35 years (on average), you would get about 20 percent attrition through retirement in any seven year period!
With all that fluff out of the way, let me turn to the key problem with Singh's report: its relentless hype of the rather meager measures by the IITs. Don't get me wrong; if these measures have led to hiring of more faculty, well, it's good for them! But this sort of hype is pointless: the only thing it achieves is a general feeling of smugness all around. And when IITs still face substantial faculty shortages (as much as 40 percent at IIT-Roorkee) and when we are in the process of creating several new IITs, IISERs, IIMs, and Central Universities, smugness is the last thing we want!
Why do I feel that Singh's report is full of hype? I'm glad you asked. The long answer is here, but the short answer is that IITs should do better than what they have done to create conditions for setting up their junior faculty for professional success. In operational terms, this would translate to things like a 10 to 20 fold increase in start-up grants, generous travel grants (Rs. 1.5 lakhs a year, for example), a spiffy, individual lab for each faculty member, a world-class research infrastructure (no power cuts, for example), and a faculty-friendly administration. Taking additional steps to attract and retain excellent graduate students would also help!
Why do I keep harping on these steps? Remember, I am not even talking about salaries! There is a reason: these non-salary measures are far easier to implement, particularly in this era of institutional affluence and alumni generosity. More importantly, they are under the direct control of the IIT administrations. If the IITs have been tardy in implementing them -- and I believe they have been tardy -- the conclusion is clear: their whining about faculty shortage is an empty PR exercise to deflect the blame from themselves.
In any event, the enhanced salaries for junior faculty through fellowships (Rs. 1 lakh for five years at IIT-D) or signing bonus (Rs. 3 lakhs at IIT-B) are nothing to write home about. The best you can say about them is that they are better than nothing.
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Thanks to Sharath Rao for the e-mail pointer.