Interview with Prof. Gautam Sinha

The Scholars’ Avenue bids adieu to Prof. Gautam Sinha, Vinod Gupta School of Management. He’ll be joining Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management as Director. We caught up with him for a final chat.

TSA: When did you decide to join IIT Kharagpur?
GS: I was working in the industry (steel). Late into my forties, something I guess clicked about the bucolic surroundings and I came here against all kinds of wisdom, including financial wisdom. I must say that it has been more than worth it. I really enjoyed teaching, I’m known to rave and rant in the class. I tell my students that after spending a quarter of a century in the steel industry, we are not very polite people (laughs), the onus is on them to keep me in good humour. What I enjoyed most was the interaction with students, in the class and beyond the class.

TSA: You’ve judged a lot of events too..
GS: Yes, I thought that I was the only fall guy. (Laughs) I was one of the staple judges for elocution, debating. Of course not to forget, my cinematic career was started in IIT Kgp, I’ve starred in two movies…

TSA: How’s the experience of judging events, considering their length etc.
GS: It’s fun, its fun. It’s actually fun. Except for the fact that you guys tend to spring a surprise, one day in advance, “Sir are you free at 6 o clock tomorrow”, that was quite irksome. Otherwise, given some time I always enjoyed it very much. Good thing about hanging around young people is you forget your own age, I don’t know whether that’s good or bad, but you do forget your own age.

TSA: How was your experience as TnP head, you were Tnp Head for almost four years.
GS: That was a great challenge because I was stepping into Professor Bhaskaran’s shoes, and it was a big pair of shoes. I had just come in from the industry, so I knew nothing about placements. So, I went back to the basics and said I don’t know anything about placements, so nothing is sacrosanct for me. I looked at the basic structure, the infrastructure and the physical facilities etc. I realised that there was no way that we could continue to handle placements the way they were shaping up. We had to try something new. Till then student participation in placements was zero. We could clearly see that the way the numbers were increasing, there was no way we could run the placements as an office based thing. We asked ourselves, who were the beneficiaries – the students. So we decided to involve them. So from 2-3 companies a day to 10 companies a day. It’s been possible only because of the involvement of students.
Slowly over time this system has matured. First I remember it used to be Arindham (the then-VP), then Rathee (VP, TSG – 06-07), then we had 6-7 volunteers, then 10 students and then a whole structure evolved.

TSA: Placement is hard work then?
GS: Placement is different from every other thing. Here, students are our customers. If they come here for an education, one implicit expectation is a job at the end of it. You may think otherwise, but let’s face it. Professors may not like to talk about placement. Yes there is value-addition in terms of education, but in practical terms – placement is important whether in MIT or Harvard.

TSA: How was it, as Chairman of B.C. Roy Hospital?
GS: Ah! The problem with B.C. Roy Hospital is – it’s been 50 years and we’re still not sure what we want this hospital to be. Every hospital has a Charter.

TSA: That’s a concept that you introduced, right?
GS: Yes. A charter is basically a statement that lists the services that the hospital can provide. So that people are clear as to what they can and cannot expect from the hospital. I had put it up before the Board of Governors and I think now Dr B. Mishra is working on it. Without a fixed objective we cannot proceed. You can’t be different kinds of things to different kinds of people. Once we lay it out – other things fall into place. You have to mention whether you are primary health centre, secondary care or tertiary care. If you know that this hospital has this – this capability you don’t expect anything beyond that. Let the capabilities be known.

TSA: As of now, what standards are the hospital meeting?
GS: I had put up a kind of white paper when I had joined. A concept paper with projections of the number of students and the number and types of doctors that we will need till 2018 and certain other things.
I think that Dr Mishra is taking a lot of care, and we are slowly inching towards the numbers that we predicted we should have, so that’s a good sign. The pathology lab is running, you don’t have to go anywhere for your tests. The isolation ward is functioning. One good thing that’s been started is public health. I think we should attack the source which is basically water, sewerage and food. This is again the dirt underneath the nails of your cook and the water quality supplied to the kitchen.  If we can’t maintain water quality or the bare minimum required hygiene parameters, then I think we don’t deserve to be called the Indian Institute of Technology.

TSA: Would it help if we got exclusively administrative people for this task, outside of the academia?
GS: Of course! Professionals would definitely know how to handle the job better. Somebody from the hotel business – I’m sure there’d be a few of them willing out there to just do it as a favour even.

TSA: What do you think about VGSOM currently? How is it doing?
GS: It’s time we went to the next level. With about hundred odd students, I think we should jump to the next level. But no, I don’t think the facilities provided in campus can support that. We need a separate hall; the students need to be in the same hall.

TSA: Do you have adequate freedom as VGSOM?
GS: The model as I know about it, is that VGSOM is financially independent. The money circuit goes through the IIT funds, it is an independent cycle. It goes through the IIT systems checks and balances. But this fund is separate. This is the IIT standard. Both go through the same financial control systems with different threshold. And it’s supposed to create its own assets, which we did. If you look at the financials, we probably generate 2/3rd of the cash surplus of the IIT system.

TSA: And money definitely matters a lot right? If you have enough freedom in terms of spending power, then…
GS: Yes it does. Probably one of the problems is that the engineering paradigm is the overriding paradigm, and everything we do is seen in that light.  For example in any B school every teacher has at least one or two teaching assistants for things like quizzes and attendances, classroom evaluation. We need them, we don’t need them in engineering but in management we do. No IIM professor takes attendance, he does not mark students based on class participation. There’s one TA is sitting in the corner and marking students on class participation, keeping track. It’s there in Harvard, in the IIM’s, ISB.
If you put the engineering paradigm on to VGSOM, it doesn’t work. We can’t have 55 minute classes. We need either 75 minutes or 90 minutes.

TSA: Do you have 55 minute classes now?
GS: 75 minutes.

TSA: Ok
GS: We need more electives, so we can’t have a 3 credit course, we probably should have a 1 credit course. Get an industry specialist who can come for two weekends, take 20 hours of classes and go away.  We have the system of an adjunct. An adjunct can only teach a class of 49 percentage classes. It is ridiculous, think about somebody in some exotic area of banking, we are light years away from that. A banker can come here and spare us a weekend, two weekends, but he can’t come here 15 times! Those are the kind of freedoms we need.

TSA: Do you approach the institute and ask them to relax their norms?
GS: We can ask them to change their norms at least and slowly their acceptance is near. At least for Executive MBA we’ve said that we have terms, they are absolutely different from semesters, and we have only 4 subjects, we don’t have 50% weightage for end semester examination. See, it has to be different for the undergraduates and the postgraduates.

TSA: Why did you choose IIT Kharagpur to come back as an academician?
GS: I liked it. Logistically it was easier for me. I was in Ranchi then. Geography was definitely one of the reasons. I was trying to fit two things into the frame. It was a low cost solution as well.

TSA: Considering that you are a motorcycle aficionado, what do you think about the ban on students with respect to keeping motorbikes? You were here when the ban was enforced?
GS: Yes I was. Before that we had gone with 16-18 bikes to Shankarpur with students. As adults, students are expected to run the nation. So basically, you are good enough to decide the fate of this country but you don’t know what’s good for you.

TSA: What about poetry? How did the whole poetry thing arise? We came across your blog..?
GS: I don’t know. I know I don’t look the type. But I’ve been writing for quite some time now. Have been published since 1985. I had a full page in “Telegraph “. I’ve published with the who’s-who of Indian Poetry. Tabish Khair, Makarand Paranjape – we all started publishing at the same time. I just didn’t pursue it.

TSA: Did you have some bucket-list of sorts, before going out of campus?
GS: Not really, but my wife has been pestering me that she wants to go to Cheddis and have a tinku burger. My daughter made me do it at 4 30 a.m. one fine day.

TSA: You are now moving to Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management as Director. How do you feel about it?
GS: The only thing that bothers me is the date – April 1st.

TSA: How do you feel about that? I suppose you have a lot of freedom?
GS: Yes, yes. That was one thing I had insisted upon. See I have nothing to lose.

TSA: So how come it’s just 2 years? Why have you just exercised it for 2 years?
GS: I didn’t know better!

TSA: Do you plan to come back?
GS: As of now, yes, obviously, otherwise I would have put in my papers.

TSA: So you do like this place.
GS: Yes! I feel strongly about this place. Given what we have we can do a lot more things a lot better.

TSA: You’re going to watch the match today? (India vs. Pakistan – semi-finals Cricket World Cup 2011)
GS: I think so… I don’t know if I will have the time to… has it started?

TSA: Yes it has… It’s been a pleasure taking this interview, Sir.
GS: Good to see that somebody’s reading poetry haan? Please do leave comments! Thank you.

Prof. Gautam Sinha can be found in a poetic mood on http://www.karmaon2wheels.blogspot.com/.

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