som copyIn my previous post, I wrote about SOM or self-organized mediocrity, the unnecessary but seemingly inevitable fate of many academic departments in the country. Some colleagues wrote in, a few in agreement, but a few to express dissatisfaction with what I had written.

I thought I would take the chance to expand the discussion, with a little help from my friends.  On the face of it, there is little to disagree with the idea of SOM. Most cases of institutional decay seem to be nobody’s fault but those of the protagonists. But in writing on issues like higher education and other public matters, one challenge is to go beyond stating the obvious. While the problems are quite apparent, as are some solutions, their resolution seems to require near superhuman effort at least within the constraints imposed by the existing system.

As my friend SR said: Yes! Very nice to read. Then what……? What does one do about this? Accept that this is so? Do we see a change? Do we see a change in theory? In practice?

Many questions, SR, but the post was meant to provoke an individual reaction. What should you do? You too have been in a position of responsibility. If only I had a prescription for what we all should do! I personally don’t believe that one has to accept the inevitability of SOM, but avoiding it will only come with some hard work and harder decisions. Some of it is knowing, like the Red Queen, that one has sometimes to keep running as fast as possible to even just manage to stay in the same place. And as for how to make a palpable change, one that one can see, an answer was to some extent posed by another friend, AD. Of which more below.

Under-ConstructionOur Departments and Universities are to be seen always as works in progress, projects under construction. I think that point of view gets lost, once some success has been reached. But with the smallest slips – like a bad hire – one is saddled with a liability that does not go away easily. In fact, it propagates easily, as mediocrity breeds much faster than excellence.

AD’s diagnosis is that a major cause for SOM is hiring people who are less than top quality in both technical AND social skills. It is pretty easy to evaluate technical skills and thus to hire only A-level people technically. But, social skills are much harder to evaluate. People who lack the desire and ability to work together to build an organization will ultimately kill it. Such people are interested in building their own careers, groups, fiefdoms, etc., but not the organization.

The desire and ability to work together is an absolute essential when it comes to nurturing an academic institution, or perhaps any large enterprise as AD also wrote, This could also have been written about many academic institutions in the USA as well as businesses around the world. It likely true for almost all large government organizations.

Another friend, MP felt that I had deliberately pulled [my] punches which would have made this a telling piece. I don’t agree with your analogy because the sand pile retains its shape, but mediocrity digs bottomless pits! To which I kind of agree and kind of don’t. The only linen I would have to wash is predictably petty, and actually with the passage of time, I find the details less interesting than the broad brush-strokes. Sure, every department has its politics, and some of it’s denizens are cursed with a long memory for trivia, the griots who keep alive a list of past injustices, of academic and non-academic skirmishes and battles. But my concern was more that this story seems to get played out everywhere, with an occasional change of cast, but the same institutional ecosystem.  And MP is absolutely correct that the critical sandpile keeps its shape, but the mechanism of SOM ensures a flat and uneven landscape. The pits, in short.

ST-605The crab mentality also makes sure that nobody rises above the low mean. And the most recent instance that prompted my somewhat bitter comments had to do with trying to establish a department to study a major new discipline, only to find opposition on the most flimsy grounds. Each campus also has its Kaikeyis, who remember every past promise, and for whom a personal advantage overwhelms that of the group. But let me not say more on that- each of us has tales that are better told in convivial company. I’m not pulling my punches, MP, but there is just so much one can say. Without naming names, we do know that the landscape is littered with departments that had everything going for them have not stayed anywhere near their peaks.

Of course, the worry is always one’s own. The School of Physical Sciences at JNU started off in 1986, and now 30 years later, one keeps worrying about how it is doing… I had tangentially suggested (appealing to a comment of D D Kosambi) that some of our difficulties come from the challenges of trying to build alien structures without the requisite resources- the sad consequences of growing an expensive research enterprise in an under-developed country. But when I said “from the inside one cannot easily tell if the half-life has been crossed or not“, my friend KK pointed out that the job had to be done by oneself.

In a thoughtful note, he went on to say that measures of half-life can be gauged internally by asking some difficult questions. I’ve edited his note to share (here is a recipe, SR),

  • Rate of change: Lifespan of faculty, and how has the faculty strength changed over time. Is this competitive? Sustainable?
  • Average age of faculty retained for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years since inception. Many departments don’t have the freedom to hire as they choose, but it is possible to plan on keeping a desirable age profile.
  • Students: Are they generally getting better or worse in grades/skills/capability/employment?  Are teaching laboratories keeping up with the times, given the resources.
  • Process time: Is the university a faster or slower place to implement a decision compared to what happens in society? (Agility in making a purchase etc.).
  • Infrastructure: Are the basic facilities outside the university better than that inside? Why?
  • External connections: Are connections getting built with targets outside the University? University departments should eventually benefit some group, especially in industry or in different sections of society.

Frohawk_Dodo phoenix-logoThere may be more ways, but the basic point is clear: Look within. If you want to know how to avoid self-organized mediocrity, most of the answers are there.