The New Captains of Academia

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The New Captains of Academia

It is not just the students who flock to the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. Its also the school that goes in search of its students. Just as corporates analyse their customers, ISB, too, conducts a market analysis of its prospective students. Thanks to an active strategy, the institute has managed to work out the right mix of gender and diversity that meets world-class standards. After being stuck with a low gender ratio at only 25% women students for the past three years this year the school gave admissions to 28% women.

Ajit Rangnekar, Deputy Dean, ISB, and former head of PwC, Hong Kong and Philippines, is the force behind this gender balance of the premier institution. Rangnekar, who joined ISB in 2003, is perhaps the most well-known head of an Indian institution from a diverse professional field. He is also among the prominent leaders of academia that people point to, to prove professionals from other fields do make successful education leaders. These new captains of academia, comprising corporate heads, army officers, doctors and lawyers, bring with them diverse experience and expertise. They have introduced new and professional ways of managing institutions, turning them into successful ventures, and at the same time redefining academic leadership.

Earnest Workers
It is not a new phenomenon, though. Professionals from other fields have helmed institutions before with either officers from Indian Administrative Services or corporate leaders being appointed as vice chancellors. Ravi Matthai, the renowned founder-director of IIM Ahmedabad, came from a corporate background. Such people, however, were few. They were always considered outsiders and exceptions. Not anymore. The present crop of non-academic institute heads bring with them the zeal to succeed and work that little bit harder to achieve goals; partly the reason for their success. It is not unusual for Dr Rajeev Shorey, Professor and President, NIIT University (NU), to finish a class at 11pm and then brainstorm with students until past midnight. Students are his priority and they can get an audience with him anytime. Not many institutions can boast of round-the-clock access to their top shot. Shorey, who earlier headed Vehicle Communications and Information Management Group at General Motors India Science Laboratory, is clear that, for a university to reach the next level, it is important to understand the youth. You can understand this only when you meet students, he says.

Fresh Perspective
Most of them rely on professional experience outside academia to create new benchmarks of administration. Their industry insight is especially required to bring about turnarounds.

When Swati Mujumdar took over the reins of Symbiosis Centre for Distance Learning (SCDL), her staffs lackadaisical attitude and lack of enthusiasm for anything new shocked her. There was no concept of timelines or standards for performance, says Mujumdar, used to vibrant and competitive work environment after her 12-year stint in the US with companies like Nortel Networks, EDS, Cisco and Compuware.

Realising that it was more the system than the people that was at fault, Mujumdar decided to overhaul the system. In the first two years, she concentrated on streamlining business processes and developing a value system. From introducing proper documentation to developing manpower, everything was done with care. Roles were rejigged and new people hired. Soon the employee attitude also started changing. My background in the IT industry helps me analyse issues and think of work in terms of flow charts, says Mujumdar. It was only when she had taken care of the basics that she decided to turn her focus to expansion and she started introducing two to three new courses every year. Within two years, their strength grew to one lakh students from around 10,000. I did some simple things like putting bar codes on assignments so that anybody could do data entry and introducing online tracking of assignments, exams, fees, and dues on our website, so that students did not have to call us all the time, she says. All the institutes IT systems were developed in-house and they spent just 1.5 lakh on it. Mujumdar also generated MIS (Management Information Systems) reports on the assignments pending with each faculty and then had them collected from their home, if necessary. This resulted in faster evaluation. She also opened a full-fledged call centre to create a centralised information resource. This helped save time that departments spent on answering calls.

Leadership in higher education has been long considered the sole preserve of the dons the academic variety. The traditional school of thought is that colleges are not businesses and academic deans and institutional heads are not corporate CEOs. However, upon a closer look at their work environment and profile, we can find distinct similarities. While there is plenty of opportunity for each to learn from the other, it is not uncommon now to find a former business head helming the academic ship. Whats more, they are doing a fine job. In this issue we take a look at institutions under these crossover captains