The appointment of a new Director for any institute marks a paradigm shift that ushers in a new era of change. When Professor Rangan Banerjee was appointed as the new Director of IIT Delhi, BSP approached him for a conversation about his visions, hopes and ideas for the institute. However, Professor Banerjee wanted to hear from the student community first, their expectations, their concerns, and the changes they would like to see.
Enthused and intrigued by his active interest in the opinions of the student body, we readily obliged and circulated a survey among the students. After going through and collating approximately two hundred responses from UG and PG students, we had a set of diverse concerns, from administrative to academic, from mental health to inclusivity. Finally, we were ready to present the responses in front of the Director. We promptly scheduled a meeting, and before we knew it, we found ourselves waiting on the steps outside the Director's office, questionnaires in our hands and nervous excitement about what to expect.
Upon meeting Professor Banerjee, he made us instantly feel at ease by asking us to introduce ourselves. We settled in with our notepads and cameras, and the conversation began. As we gradually delved into the intricacies and nuances of the various issues and concerns, we gained more insight into the thoughts and beliefs of Professor Banerjee. We were inspired by his pragmatic and solution-oriented approach to crucial problems and his receptive temperament towards students' suggestions.
One of the most striking takeaways from our conversation was his keen eagerness to meet with the concerned students, representatives or authorities to dive deeper into the issues' specifics and not abandon the suggestions and concerns merely after talks. He persistently emphasised his intention to bring all the stakeholders on board and subsequently figure out the ideal solution to every issue the students or faculty put forward.
What follows, is our insightful and memorable dialogue that transpired with the Director, over the next 2 hours.
Q. What were your first thoughts of the day when you woke up as the director of IIT Delhi? On a scale of 1-10, how excited or nervous were you?
My first interactions were two meetings; one with all the faculty followed by another with all the staff. I was thinking about what I wanted to say to the people. I did not want to present a list of things I wanted to do because I felt it would be presumptuous. I wanted to take people along. I introduced myself and explained what my background was. I talked about what I would have liked to see as a faculty member at IIT Bombay. I was pretty worried about how this first interaction would go. In the meeting with the staff, I was concerned because my Hindi is not good. Everyone was speaking in English, but I still spoke in my broken Hindi.
“I have been walking around the campus. It's a really beautiful campus. I think I have come out of my comfort zone and am quite excited overall. To answer your question, the routine things like paper signing are not issues, but gaining acceptance as an outsider, taking people along, seeing that you focus on the right things and articulating to people were the things I was concerned about. I wouldn't say that I was nervous. It was only before the interactions with the faculty and staff that I was a little nervous. Otherwise, I was excited to settle into the role and start working by taking all the stakeholders, faculty, staff and students, along.”
Q. Many of the responses from UG students were related to the lack of emphasis on research work or department core jobs. Why is the research aspect less focused upon for the UG students?
A. This is a crucial question. Getting undergraduates involved in research and getting them excited about it is something we want to do. We are brainstorming ideas on how to do this. We are constantly talking to the faculty to find out the best way to encourage UG research participation. We will even have our faculty speak to students about their research, and we have to figure out its logistics and ways to implement this.
Recently, I saw the AXLR8R electric vehicle team in the guest house lounge. "When you work together on a project like that, where you get hands-on experience, the engineering really comes to life". We want to have more of that, and we will support that more in the institute going forward.
When students enter IIT, they are full of enthusiasm and excitement. “However, our large classes in the first year kill the excitement for academics among the students. Afterwards, the students remain passionate about their hostels, sports and cultural activities, but the passion for academics goes missing.” So we have to figure out ways to provide an enabling and transformative education to students. I believe that the classrooms are not just about disseminating information since everyone already has access to the latest news. It is about building perspective, learning techniques and finding exciting applications.
We could create this excitement through conversations with alumni. Prof. Ambuj Sagar was telling me about one of the courses where they were discussing innovation. He informed me about two young alumnae who launched a startup revolutionising the cattle trade. Their startup is doing very well. So there are multiple ways in which we are adding value to society.
"When people figure out that what they are doing in classrooms and labs can make a difference in the real world, that brings a different level of kick and excitement."
Also, I feel that we should try to encourage more dialogue between the students and the faculty. For instance, students rarely consult the faculty before making decisions about their courses. They usually consult seniors or peers. Thus we need to revamp the faculty advisory system, where students feel that the faculty is advising them in their best interest. Many of our faculty are trying to do this individually, but I think we should institutionalise it.
"This is what I want to work on; bringing the joy and excitement back to the classrooms since this is what eventually makes a difference in society. This is my first goal; getting students excited about academics and research."
Q. During placements, finance, banking, consulting and other non-core companies are given priority and called on the first day itself. Why are core companies not highlighted as much (except for IT)?
A. This ordering is based on what students perceive as the jobs they would like to do. This is not something we can arbitrarily enforce by executive order. We can try to get more core companies, but we cannot change their structure or how much they are paying. The only way to change this is to approach it through dialogue.
There is a logical structure and a set of rules used to decide which companies arrive on which day. There is a basis behind the structuring, which can only be changed by consensus and not arbitrarily. This has to be in accordance with the student's preferences and in agreement with companies.
Q. Some students are concerned that although IIT Delhi is consistently ranked among the top Indian institutes, its performance in International rankings continues to be poor. What are the reasons behind this, and what can be done to improve this?
A. Many factors impact the rankings of the institute. We majorly lag in the international student and international faculty parameters. However, our facilities, faculty and students are comparable to the best.
"My strategy is to enhance the student experience, focus on improving research impact and create societal impact. As we work on these factors, our rankings will automatically improve."
We also have many upcoming initiatives to increase international participation in IIT Delhi. Thus by enhancing the quality of work that the institute does, we will eventually move up the ranks. As an institute, we have a responsibility toward society, and we will continue to focus on enhancing our role and impact on society.
Q. Why do students prefer foreign institutes for doctoral degrees instead of IITs?
A. I think that is a question that we should ask our students. One aspect is that studying in a foreign country offers great cultural exposure and growth.
Another aspect is the perception of better monetary benefits from moving abroad. A large majority of my batch aspired to move to the US in my time, but nowadays, the number has reduced significantly. So money does play a significant role. As opportunities in India have grown, more students opt to stay in India.
There is a perception that we are not at par with our international counterparts. However, we have taken many strides in our research capabilities over the past decades. So I think that we need to believe in ourselves.
Additionally, PhD is, in general, not a preference of the students here. So like I said, we should get more students excited about research. This change cannot happen overnight; however, we need to start progressing in the right direction.
Q. On a similar note, some PG students suggested that developing a mechanism for research collaboration among UG and PG students would encourage and excite more UG students about research.
A. Yes, that is a great idea that can work well. It also seems like a relatively easy thing to do. If the students can detail out a proposal with the specifics, we can meet with the relevant authority and start working on implementing it. There are similar programs in Europe where UG, PG and doctoral students work on research problems together in a large team.
Q. Time and again, there have been instances of avoidable bureaucratic hurdles being faced by a student in getting a NOC for their internships, a student request made to the UG section getting stuck, or the Department not communicating in due time. How do you think the administration can cater to these processes more smoothly and effectively?
A. All of these different areas are handled by different sections within the administration. So what needs to be done is to make a summary of specific issues faced in each of these points. Then we can figure out whether we need to change the process or enforce a timeline. We need to have more accountability to ensure that the procedures do not take unreasonable amounts of time. I believe that these are easy things to fix by due process. We need to talk to the concerned sections in the administration and then document the suggestions and guidelines.
One thing that we need to ensure is that we do not antagonise the staff. We need to help them realise that process simplification is also beneficial for them because it relieves their workload. So excessive time taken by complicated processes is a nuisance for both students and staff. This is a no-brainer and needs to be done.
Q. Sir, can this be done through an online portal?
A. Yes, of course, it can and should be done. At IIT Bombay, we were facing many issues during the COVID time. So an online portal called AMS was built to verify, sign and pass all documents. It did wonders and simplified and sped up things a lot. I will talk to CSC and see how to proceed on this.
Q. There were multiple occasions when the Senate and the student community found themselves at odds in the past two years. Students felt they were not heard in some cases, and when/if they were, the decisions of the Senate betrayed otherwise. What do you think could be done to restore students' trust in the administration?
A. I have had only one senate meeting so far, the one in which we decided to open up. There are student representatives in the Senate who give their views on behalf of the student body. Not every decision will go the way the students want it to go or even how I think it should go. Every decision must be based on logic and arguments put forward and taken with consensus. In every Senate meeting, we consider the critical and substantive issues and then decisions are taken with the unanimous agreement after proper discussions.
Q. The Senate proceedings are often opaque, and students do not feel like their voices are adequately represented or heard in the Senate.
A. In the future, if anything happens that is not adequately communicated to the students, you should approach me and let me know. It is a commitment that all decisions and proceedings of the Senate will be transparent and communicated to students in due time. See, the decision may or may not be what the students are saying is correct since it has to follow a due process and must be based on the arguments presented. So the student representatives should put forward their views in the Senate. All decisions will always be taken by consensus. However, I can commit that student voices will be heard (through the representatives), and communication will be transparent. Even when we work under constraints, we will ensure that students are not kept in the dark.
Interview By - Anoushka Barthakur, Mariya Ezzy, Nikhil Gupta
Written By - Nikhil Gupta
Design & Photography By - Ashrut Sinha