In the late 1990’s Per Bak, a vastly talented theoretical physicist, wrote a book titled How Nature Works: the science of self-organized criticality. The title of this blogpost is more than a little inspired by him, and could well be How Universities Work: the process of Self-organized Mediocrity.

GW307H338Sadly, there is really no attempt on my part to be tongue-in-cheek. The process of self-organized mediocrity is all too evident in department after department in institution after institution in the country, especially the less endowed ones.

As for self-organized mediocrity, or SOM, once one has give the phenomenon a name, what more is there to say? But like T S Eliot might have said, giving it a name is a difficult matter, it isn’t just a holiday game… And like the wonderful idea of Gross National Happiness one might equally well say that there is not much more to the concept than the name, but indeed there is…  It makes sense to draw attention to the fact that a country benefits more from the happiness of its people than what it produces for others.

Nevertheless, SOM will bear some elaboration even though the “effanineffable” name itself conveys much of the basic concept. There is a long-standing in-joke among academics,  that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Variously attributed to Henry Kissinger, Woodrow Wilson, Wallace Sayre and others, the basic sentiment apparently goes back to Samuel Johnson, in whose times, the universities had very different structures. But in some sense the joke rings somewhat hollow these days, particularly for the Indian university. The stakes are not really all that small at all, and the internal politics at most academic institutions can be vicious. Regrettably, its also not just the internal politics- the world outside the campus walls has a way of sneaking into academic affairs and in many of our institutions, the (external) political positions inform and guide the internal.

This is a particularly difficult time for higher education in India. There is not enough money, the resources are stretched almost to breaking point, and there is little appreciation of what higher education truly entails. In some sense, the old model has exhausted itself: it is simply not possible to educate the large numbers of students (at present and in the future) with the tools and techniques of the 1970’s and 1980’s, which is what is extant at most institutions at present. And the style of the 1980’s differs too little from that of the 1950’s, while the youth of today are light-years apart from those of the 1980’s or the 1950’s, in mentality, in preparedness, and in motivation. Apart, not ahead.

Universities tend to succumb to inertia, and public universities inevitably succumb to an inertia fueled by public cynicism and low expectations. The demand for high quality higher education at negligible cost is a hangover from colonial times, regardless of how it might be dressed up as a state responsibility to provide good education to its people. This has resulted in our country creating small enclaves of privilege where a few can indulge, at state expense, in scholarship without having to pay for these privileges by having to teach others. Some find asylum in such enclaves (and then proceed to educate others on the need to respect “merit”) while others who gravitate to universities find the environment plagued by excessive political interference and few resources.

And what little is available is bitterly fought over. The crab mentality in academic institutions is well known the world over – one does not mind not having something so long as one’s colleague also does not have it, and one can do a fair amount by way of machination and petty politics to ensure that nobody does better than oneself. Except that in pulling others down, the only denouement that is ensured is that all are at a uniform low level: this is the self-organized mediocrity. And Departments will do the same to other Departments when it comes to space, students, or any other resources, gradually driving institutions into mediocrity…

crab[I should here acknowledge the inspiration behind this nomenclature. The theory of self-organized criticality or SOC has been around and quite influential for almost three decades now. It deals with systems whose dynamics – without external impetus – drives itself to a critical state and maintains it there. The archetypical example is a sandpile depicted in the charming illustration above: adding more and more sand beyond a point leads to a sandpile that maintains it’s shape by letting off sand in avalanches. The picture is, of course, incomplete without another denizen of the beach, the crab.]

I recently found  that one of my heroes, D D Kosambi said something to the same effect in an autobiographical piece he wrote towards the end of his life.  In the early 1960’s, K. Satchidananda Murthy and K. Ramakrishna Rao of the Department of Philosophy at Andhra University in Waltair invited a number of thinkers to contribute articles on their personal philosophy as researchers. This collection eventually appeared as Current Trends in Indian Philosophy, a book that was published in 1972 by Andhra University Press. One of the articles therein is by DDK, titled Adventures into the Unknown. This essay  runs to some twenty pages and has been excerpted, bowdlerized and re-published as Steps in Science in the DDK commemoration volume, Science and Human Progress.

D D Kosambi in his mid-twenties

Both versions of the essay were published posthumously (Kosambi died in 1966) and they largely overlap, except that the more widely circulated commemoration volume, Science and Human Progress, has been somewhat sanitized. The wit of Kosambi is largely missing in this autobiographical piece, and given that the original is very articulate on some of the more difficult aspects of Kosambi’s life, it is a pity that the editors of the latter felt the need to remove these bits. (I hope to discuss the articles and the changes in a  subsequent post on this blog; I have my theories…)

One bit that was not excised in the second essay was on Kosambi’s perceptions of the working conditions for the scientist in India: The greatest obstacles to research in any backward, under-developed country are often those needlessly created by the scientist’s or scholar’s fellow citizens.  The passage of time has not done much to change the appositeness of this observation even if it was deeply coloured by the personal tribulations that Kosambi had faced towards the end of his life.

One of the sadder aspects of self-organized mediocrity is that it is both not inevitable and is really quite unnecessary. And at the same time, the academic landscape is littered with universities that were great, departments that had seen better days, all described with more than a tinge of “what might have been”, and regrets for what was not achieved.

I have been mulling over the present post for some time now. In part it is occasioned by responses to an earlier post on the Department of Chemistry at IIT Kanpur. A comment made by more than one of my friends was that successful examples of institutions in India were uncommon enough that one needed to analyze just why they were successful while others were not. But that would require the efforts of a gifted analyst of the sociology of institutions, or maybe an institutional historian and archivist.

When the School of Physical Sciences was just established at JNU, well-wishers told those of us who were there at the time that twenty-five years was the half-life of most departments in the country. Its been nearly 30 years now, but from the inside one cannot easily tell if the half-life has been crossed or not. But one thing that has become obvious in recent years is that the present funding pattern of the UGC makes it very difficult for universities to achieve any kind of excellence. In fact, carrying out the routine tasks of teaching and research (at whatever level) can take all one’s effort-

But to get back to Chemistry at IIT-K, one of the things it seems to have done was to evolve with the times. As an IIT, the institution was also insulated, by and large, from the sickness of poor funding. And regardless of what the internal dynamics might have been, the Department has always stood as one. Regrettably, this does not happen in most other academic departments, and the consequences are out there in plain view for all to see…