We continue our coverage of Prof M S Ananth’s tenure. In this portion of the interview he talks about how he worked on NPTEL and the new ideas he wanted to introduce.

On IIT-Madras’s “Strategic Management Plan”:-

Basically the idea, sort of a theme, came towards the end when Prof Natarajan finished his term, which was when we began working on a strategic management plan. It was actually done by Prof Ganapathy and Prof Muthu Krishnan, who was the Deputy Director at that time. Prof Ganapathy was appointed to do this, so he was the one who spearheaded the thing. He conducted almost 35 workshops with various participants and came up with the strategic plan. It was actually initiated by Madhav Rao Scindia who was the HRD Minister at that time. He suggested that the IITs should have a strategic management plan. Most of the IIT’s didn’t take it very seriously, but Prof Natarajan did.

The plan wasn’t still quite submitted. I was in the project. The document was written by Prof Ganapathy. I noticed that it was full of management jargon! I told Prof Ganapthy that I was going to rewrite it in English, and I did. (Smiles) But Prof Natarajan gave up on submitting it because there were a lot of controversial points in it. Finally, I reconciled all the points. I got it ready just three days before the last board meeting with Prof Natarajan. I wrote the vision statement and it was approved by Prof Natarajan. By the time we published the document, I was the Director. I said, everbody’s objective is to be the best in the world, that’s like a corollary.

I said we should be in dynamic equilibrium with the society, environment, particularly because we have such a rich and beautiful campus, ecologically, socially and so on. As far as education was considered, it was the mandate of IIT-M. When Nehru set up the IITs, he said he was setting it to produce engineers and scientists who would help the country in its onward march, and the tongue in cheek statement was that he forgot to say which country. Actually the problem is that development is always lopsided. Education is easy in some respects. I’m not saying we haven’t done enough as a nation. But individual institutes have already been very good. Once you catch up with the West, the jobs here aren’t quite enough and you have to go to the West. Things have changed now but that was one of the problems. The mandate though was very clear. We had to do teaching and research, we had to do industrial consultancy. The last thing we need to do is to help technical education in the country and we thought that was lacking.

imagesOn the beginnings of NPTEL:-

In addition to the duties of a Director, I felt I also had to do a couple of other things which reach out to society. One of them was NPTEL. It really caught fire since faculty are always willing, you just needed to create a structure for them to contribute. I went to all the IITs. We had about 325 faculty members in the first phase. We had a peculiar problem. I persuaded MHRD to part with some money. We needed 26 crores. They were just sceptical. There was a Director in the HRD Ministry at that time. Nice guy, but he had no idea of how academics work. He came to a meeting in Kharagpur. He said he wanted to come. I said you’re always welcome. I like being open. It was the first meeting and a lot of strong opinions about each course since faculty were very professional. The only way to settle this was to listen to everyone and come up with a consensus. So the Director listened to everything and he told me that I was just too democratic, wanted to tell us what the MHRD wants. I told him to cut it out. “You don’t know how this works. We quarrel on all fronts but when the dust settles, we know what we have to do. I don’t follow up with anyone else.” Everyone in Kharagpur was very impressed on the way I told this guy off. I told him what MHRD wants is nothing. I had to persuade you for 3 years for this money. Actually, we were good friends. They were strong minded people.  When I became Director, he became the joint Secretary. I quarrelled with him on three issues so vigorously that people said my term was over. I said what nonsense. We became good friends. Coming back, NPTEL is now in its second phase. There are faults, of course. No system is without faults. I remember, the Vice Chancellor at Nagaland called me and wanted to thank me. The University of Nagaland was running only because of NPTEL. They already had shortage of faculty and they were on strike. So these things, they have their own values.

We had a lot of cooperation regarding the Research Park. But one of our main problems, again, was faculty. We had 350 professors when I took over and 150 were retiring shortly. In fact, there was a special convocation for the Alexander Humboldt Foundation President. The maximum numbers of Humboldt fellows are from IIT Madras, by the way. This was held in IC&SR. Our photographer has to be thanked for this. He took a photo from the back. There were about 250 people in the hall, and most were professors. The photographer came and showed us the photo and all the heads were bald! I told Prof Natarjan that it’s time to revive the place. I took it quite seriously. One of my main jobs as Director was to hire quality faculty. So these were the three things – the Research Park, NPTEL, and quality faculty recruitment.

On shortage of faculty in the institute:-

The faculty-to-student ratio must ideally be 1:20 but we were somewhere around 1:200. We were concerned about this shortage. There’s no way you can bridge this by producing Masters and PhD’s in India. My numbers are a little out of date, but we have only about 25,000 Masters graduates each year. As a thumb rule, you get 1/5th into teaching and you had 5,000 teachers and 1,00,000 students coming in. We were looking to manage 1:40 as a ratio which itself was very hard.

Hiring faculty was done every year. Every department did a lot of work. We did 8 hirings in the US. In fact at a Pan-IIT meet in Washington, I got permission from the board and I took 2 alumni professors along to join the selection committee. An IIT-B alumnus helped me. His daughter, 20 years old, organized it beautifully, sat like a receptionist and said this is where the interview is and gave them coffee. So we took hiring really seriously.

In 2000, is when the funding really increased from the HRD Ministry. I was really lucky. Things just fell in place. In our Golden Jubilee year in 2008, I did a report on what the IITs have done right and wrong. We’ve gotten a lot of younger alumni in and given them academic freedom. That’s a wonderful thing. You need academic freedom to excel as a teacher. Also, teaching and research need to go hand in hand. Only when you’re doing research on the same subject, do you get the enthusiasm to teach. You also learn new things. 20 years after I taught Thermodynamics, I suddenly understood Entropy at a different level and then I went back to what I had taught. You sometimes keep saying stuff without really understanding it, like you all know very well. (Laughs) Thirdly, you have to write proposals to get funding. The MHRD takes care of a large part of expenditure in terms of salaries and maintenance. Whatever is left is too little for research. So the bulk of money comes by writing proposals to various departments. This is something we did right. When I was here, 140 faculty were working under sponsored research projects.

On his idea of setting up “schools” of thought:-

I wanted to come up with schools that were based on invariant thought. The school of Newton, the school of Einstein, etc. I came up with 75 schools. I couldn’t implement it. I wanted faculty to be in these schools. Students would get degrees by putting credits together. I would have been in the school of Gibbs and Boltzmann. We teach 7 different fluid mechanics courses, and it is so in all institutes. Various departments claim that their fluid mechanics is different. Chemical engineering fluid mechanics uses closed pipes while civil engineering guys used open pipes. The only difference is that velocity goes to zero at the valve, as opposed to shear stress being zero at the surface. You talk to faculty and they’ll refuse. This should be avoided. They should know how to apply these schools in different areas. I had too much opposition from faculty. It’s probably too radical a change but then we’ll be truly presenting whatever we’re really good at.

Prof.  M S Ananth was our Director from 2002 to 2011. A revolutionary, he has been associated with IIT Madras for over 40 years. He is currently teaching at IISc, Bangalore.

If you wish to share an article, please write to us at chennai36@alumni.iitm.ac.in