Dr. Marti G. Subrahmanyam (1967/BT/ME) is the Charles E. Merrill Professor of Finance, Economics and International Business at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He holds a B.Tech. degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Madras (1967), a PG Diploma in Business Administration from IIM Ahmedabad (1969), and a Ph.D. in Finance and Economics from MIT (1974). He has been teaching at the NYU Stern School of Business since 1974. He has served on the boards of directors of several well-known Indian companies such as ICICI Bank, Infosys, and the Murugappa Group, as well as international companies such as Nomura.
He won the Distinguished Alumnus Award from IIT Madras in 2004, and from IIM Ahmedabad in 2011. He shares his memories of insti life in the first part of the interview with Chennai36.
How did you first hear about IIT back in 1962?
Well, most people were not really aware about the IITs, back in those days. The IIT system had just been established with the one in Bombay. Madras and Kanpur were established only in 1958-60 (IIT Kharagpur was established much before in 1951). IIT Delhi did not exist then, but was the College of Engineering and Technology. That is why I often make fun of my friends from IIT D by saying that theirs isn’t an “original” IIT! (Laughs).
The first JEE test, as we know it today, was held in 1961. Previously, each of the IITs had separate criteria and procedures for admission, as far as I remember. My parents and I came to know about the IIT system through two uncles of mine who used to teach engineering – one of whom was a well-known professor of aeronautical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the other was the Principal of Kakinada engineering college in Andhra Pradesh. Both of them served on several interview boards for recruitment of faculty at IIT Madras in its initial years, and used to stay with us when they visited Madras. Based on their suggestion, I had a crack at it, just the 2nd JEE to be conducted, and was lucky to get in. No one ever had any kind of special preparation for the JEE at that time, very unlike the craze that we see nowadays, with all the coaching centres and other modes of preparation. Also, it was in the late 1950s that Tamil Nadu first introduced caste-based reservations in colleges; the IITs began to be seen by many as an option blind to all these reservations. I was delighted to receive admission to IIT-M, for it meant that I did not have to go through the obviously biased admission processes elsewhere. Indeed, I was surprised that I received admission to one of the state engineering schools even without an interview, but I already had my IIT admission all set anyway.
Tell us a bit about the IIT Madras of the 1960s. How was the hostel life back then?
Before I joined, the institute used to operate from AC College, just across the road from the IIT main gate. When I joined, the only academic building that had been completed was the Building Sciences Block. That is where some of our early classes were held, until the Humanities and Sciences Block was constructed, I believe, in early 1963, after which many of our classes were shifted there.
The only hostels that were already built when we joined in 1962 were Krishna and Cauvery (I understand that both are post-graduate residences today). My batch moved into Narmada, the first of the undergraduate hostels, even as the plastering was going on. One of the abiding memories I have of IIT M is the smell of fresh cement in the first few weeks of my stay there. A couple of years later, Tapti, Godavari, and the rest, came up before our very eyes. Some of my batch moved to Tapti and other hostels in later years.
Hostel life was quite lively in our time. We used to spend a lot of time playing silly games and chatting late into the night. A noteworthy feature of each day was when the water was turned on in the evenings, so that we could shower after a hot day. When the water was delayed, there was much commotion in the hostels.
Of course, this was much before TVs arrived; in fact, I was one of very few students to actually own a small radio set in my room. We had a record player – yes, using the old 33 rpm vinyl LPs, which have recently come back into fashion – which incessantly played early Beatles songs, from the common room. I still have the sounds of “If there’s anything that you want…” and “Love me do..” ringing in my ears.
The hostel food was pretty lousy most days, and we yearned for the weekend, when we could either go to a restaurant or, in the case of locals, home. The restaurants that were popular in my time like Kwality etc., do not exist anymore, I believe.
The Schroeter cup was associated with a very popular inter-hostel competition even then. It was named after one of the German staff at the Central Workshop, Kurt Schroeter, who passed away in the mid-sixties. Although I was never particularly athletic, I was the editor of the campus newspaper, Campastimes. As the editor, I even had an office! I was an avid participant in quiz competitions and even represented IIT in inter-collegiate competitions on radio (the state monopoly, AIR).
About ragging, my guess is that it was pretty much the same as today. There was absolutely no physical abuse, as far as I know, just the usual playful teasing, although that was menacing enough, when one was at the receiving end! Even the physical ragging was relatively mild.
There were a lot of late night antics. I recall one of my friends, the late Ramachandran “Jai” Jaikumar, who was to become the first Indian to become a full professor at the Harvard Business School, was often behind these. He once produced a tattered manual, purportedly detailing the “Harvard stress test.” This “test” consisted of a lot of jumping up and down and step-ups on the old steel cots, followed by taking the pulse and plugging the numbers into a formula to get a score. Everyone was trying to outdo the other in the usual competitive IIT manner, little realizing that we would all be stiff the next morning. The Indian-style toilets added to the misery the next morning, since some of us could barely bend our knees! One of the other mischief makers was there to observe our predicament.
Another of Jai’s antics was to get us all riled up about holding our breath. (Jai was practising to improve his lung capacity for a Himalayan climbing trip, where he went on to climb previously unclimbed peaks.) I recall clearly many of us trying to do this in class, when every once in a while, someone would let out a loud gasp, after giving up within a couple of minutes, much to the consternation of the teachers. Jai was the champ holding his breath for almost five minutes, a feat we were all impressed by.
Academic life used to be quite intense. We had workshops every alternate week, throughout the first year, and also quite a bit in our second year. We had a number of German mechanics and technicians who taught us to operate the machines, in a quintessentially Teutonic manner. (The bane of the first year was filing a large piece of steel, seemingly endlessly, with the dreaded prospect of being told to “repeat” it, because it failed the specifications test, administered by “Baldy.”). Our classes used to be in the mornings and afternoons, with some classes even on Saturdays! It amounted to almost 39 hours of classes, labs and workshop per week, a number that would be considered way too high today. Alas, we did not know any better, way back then. (I believe that anything above 15 hours of classes a week has diminishing returns. Extended hours intrude into the process of learning and self-discovery, which take place in libraries and playgrounds, or simply in the hostels.)
In my third year, I remember, I had as many as 13 subjects, throughout the year! We also had the practice of surprise quizzes in most subjects; I recall many Saturdays on which we would have as many as three quizzes, and we would be informed only late as to which subjects they would be on the previous day. The designated courses to be tested the next day would be announced on the notice boards in the hostels, which we would all watch with some apprehension even as the assistant posted them. Then, we spent the whole night, desperately cramming for the three chosen subjects, with some of the clueless ones like me desperately looking to borrow someone’s notes.
Most students were barely 16 when we joined, and so we were into juvenile pranks of all kinds, which are best not mentioned in this blog! We made excuses not to attend class despite the strict attendance policy of 85%. We simply used to shout out our names for attendance in each class, and so it was possible to answer by “proxy” for our friends who did not turn up. (Smiles). There was once a particularly hilarious incident in the workshop, when the instructor smelled a rat and decided that there were a lot fewer students present than the attendance list showed. Of course, we were all milling around the workshop in an effort to confuse the counting; when we realized that a serious count was on, one of us managed to send word through one of our classmates to the hostel. Miraculously, when the final tally was made, voila, the missing students had arrived from the coffee shop and all was well! We must been inspired by the old Hollywood movies of POW camps, some of which we watched religiously every Sunday at the OAT.
My mechanical engineering class had only about 50 students, and the entire batch of that year had only about 200 students. We were a very diverse lot; in fact, in my days, many of the students were from Delhi and the North, and only a minority were from the South.
Electrical (including Electronics), Mechanical, Chemical and Civil were the only branches offered in those days.
Our teachers were relatively young, and many of them had actually just finished their post-graduate studies; there were not too many full professors who taught us, unlike today. This made us that much more sceptical of what was being taught. In fact, one of these instructors was an Assistant Warden of our hostel and he was severely ragged by us.
The courses were full of information, which I obviously do not recall much of today. My conceptual absorption was a lot weaker than many of the students today, I suspect, and most of my classmates were similar to me. Perhaps this was due to our relatively young age – we were, on average, two years younger than students entering IIT today.
On the grades-success correlation
Believe me, grades do not really matter in the long run. Once you have established yourself in the top 1% or less of the country by getting into IIT, you need not worry too much about your subsequent performance, so long as you learn constantly. After all, ranking those from within the right tail of the distribution has very little statistical validity, and so, except for a handful of outstanding students, and a few at the very bottom, there were no clear differences between us. In fact, the last-ranked student in my class, and my close friend, Jai, a brilliant fellow, who never studied for the quizzes, later went on to win prestigious medals from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). So I would say the correlation between grades at IIT and later career performance is weak at best, or even zero. But that does not mean that we whiled away our time. Most of us, including Jai, worked hard outside the class and learned a lot, but some of us were not too focused on grades. Therefore, this should not in any way become an excuse to not work hard and perform well, but a suggestion to follow your passion to learn. The point is learning takes place in and out of the classroom, in and out of the curriculum. Also, grades matter, unfortunately, for a whole of things, such as entry into academia and so you should pay attention to them for that reason. Otherwise, you will be out of the reckoning for a whole lot of things.
– Find Part 2 of this enthusiastic Professor’s interview where he describes his work at Stern and gives valuable advice here.