Strangulated by the Cult and the Occupier

All the educational institutions of the world have a leader by whatever name called – President, Provost, Principal, Rector, Director, Vice Chancellor, Dean, Director General – the titles vary. But Management Development Institute (MDI) is unique that one ex-leader has pocketed this institution. This unique situation gives rise to many questions; why one of its ex-leaders developed into a cult force instead of a leader-for-the-time-being? Why this ex-leader needs puppets to survive and thrive? What’s the relationship between this ex-leader and the employees of the Institution? Why every successor to this ex-leader, from Devi Singh to Atmanand, needs to pay obeisance to this ex-leader and his coterie to survive as a Director of MDI Gurgaon?

There were many geo-political, physical and administrative factors inherent in the inception of MDI which gave rise to the occupying force state of MDI. Industrial Finance Corporation of India as the promoter and financier which later morphed into IFCI Limited is the occupant. With bulk of members comprising the MDI Society and majority of constituents of the Governing body of the MDI Society being its representatives, IFCI has autocratic control over the affairs of MDI.  To exacerbate the tyranny, the control by IFCI is effectively the control by Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer of IFCI. This puts MDI under the despotic control of one individual who has no stakes in MDI but enjoys all the freedom to exploit the institution without any accountability. This command and control structure makes MDI extremely susceptible to the mischievous mechanics of someone who is neither qualified nor competent nor even answerable for the affairs of MDI.

However, here we want to exclusively see the relationship between the cult of this ex-leader and the occupant.

First we need to look at the defining characteristics of the word, “Cult.” The word cult is defined as “a forged religion,” “great devotion to a person or idea” as well as “persons united by devotion or allegiance to any movement or figure.”

Cults are mostly destructive in nature. Psychology tells us that the three most common features shared by destructive cults are:

  1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power. That is a living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.
  2. A process [of indoctrination or education is in use that can be seen as] coercive persuasion or thought reform [commonly called “brainwashing”]. The culmination of this process can be seen by members of the group often doing things that are not in their own best interest, but consistently in the best interest of the group and its leader.
  3. Social, psychological, economic, physical, sexual or other exploitation of members of the group, by the leader and the ruling coterie.

There is a lot more common between the occupant and the cult of this ex-leader of MDI than what meets the eye.

By a stroke of luck, the cult-leader was on the selection committee of Executive Director in all public sector banks In India for a long time. He obliged candidates by ensuring their selection and then ensured that they become his personal followers and pets.

With such grip on the top-management of all banks, he did not hesitate in currying favours for MDI as well as for himself.

As Director of IIM Lucknow, he lobbied and hobnobbed with the politicians to bag the first Padma-Shri from the B-School fraternity in 2003.

Armed with the political and financial patronage, he started projecting himself as THE academic leader, fruits of which he continues to enjoy until today, even at the age of 77 years.

IFCI, the occupying force at MDI, always has leadership from the Banking sector. Influence of the Cult-leader over the leadership of IFCI ensures that it is his writ which runs large at MDI.

Any impartial seeker of truth will reach the conclusion that MDI is in the morbid grip of two destructive energies. Cult of this ex-leader and the occupation of IFCI are the double-helix strands in the DNA of MDI, with pliant directors, faculty, staff, bureaucracy, politicians, bankers and ex-bankers forming the rungs of the DNA ladder.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton’s seminal book “Thought Reform and Psychology of Totalism” explains this process in considerable detail.

There are a few warning signs of a potentially unsafe occupant or a cult.

  • Absolute authoritarianism without meaningful accountability.
  • No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry.
  • No meaningful financial disclosure.
  • Unreasonable fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophe, evil conspiracies and persecutions.
  • There is no legitimate reason to leave, former followers are always wrong in leaving, negative or even evil.
  • Former members often relate the same stories of abuse and reflect a similar pattern of grievances.
  • There are records, books, news articles, or broadcast reports that document the abuses of the occupier/cult-leader.
  • Followers feel they can never be “good enough”.
  • The occupier/cult-leader is always right.
  • The occupier/cult-leader is the exclusive means of knowing “truth” or receiving validation, no other process of discovery is really acceptable or credible.

For MDI to flourish, bloom and soar high, it has to get rid of both, the cult and the occupant. Otherwise, it will over time, get dilapidated in terms of capabilities and reputation, the two essentials which attract opportunities.


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Building a Potent Knowledge Area in a B-School

Most business schools organise themselves into a Matrix-like, cross-tabbed structure of the functional-knowledge domains and Programmes-offered. Programmes-offered are the specific customer-solutions offered by the institution which would draw upon the expertise of different functional-knowledge domains as per the programme-recipe. Functional-knowledge domains are aggregates of academics into clusters of common knowledge and expertise.

Functional-knowledge domains offer building blocks for Programmes-offered in the form of courses or modules. Programmes-Managers pick and sequence these courses or modules from different functional-knowledge domains, as per the design of individual programmes to construct the complete programme.

Functional-knowledge domain members create more universal usage modules and courses for staff-interchange ability to deliver the modules besides expert modules around individual capabilities and custom-module requirements for different programmes. The universal designed courses are usually called as core-courses while the expert-modules have different names like – elective courses, choice courses or programme-mandatory courses.

The job of leading an area (functional domain department) can differ greatly from one institute to the next and even from one area to the next within the same institute.

Usually area-chairs are merely first among equals — meaning they continue to teach but may be granted some release time from classroom obligations to handle scheduling and other administrative tasks. Some chairs play a major role in hiring and evaluating faculty, while others do little more than manage the paperwork.

During years of working at different b-schools in India and abroad, I have identified these five as the most universal and the most important of a chair’s responsibilities.

Advocate For the Area’s Faculty:

In my experience, the most effective area leaders see themselves as faculty first and administrators second. Their primary role, as they see it, is to be advocate for their area — for its courses and especially for its faculty-members.

Of course, faculty members are not always right, and the area’s needs don’t always supersede those of other areas or the institute as a whole. A chair who is not seen, first and foremost, as the area’s advocate with higher-ups will likely have a confused and perhaps difficult period in office.

Representative of the Administration:

It sounds contradictory but the fact remains that Area-chairs are administrators, even if they occupy the lowest tier. There will be times when you have to present some policy or decision to the faculty, on behalf of the administration, knowing it will not be well-received or when you are not thrilled with the latest diktat either.

I think its fine for a chair to say, in essence: “Look, I don’t agree with this either, but I don’t have any more say about it than you do. We’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation.” That sort of honesty generally earns the respect of the faculty who will appreciate knowing you are on their side, even if you are similarly powerless. At least you’re powerless together.

Orchestra Conductor for Harmony:

As chair, you will have very little control over whether your institution as a whole embraces shared governance. But typically, you will have a great deal of influence within your own sphere. You can employ the principles of shared governance within your area, regardless of what anyone else at the institution is doing.

It means making sure the committee structure within the area exists not just to perform the necessary “house-keeping work,” like selecting textbooks and making adjustments to the curriculum, but also to serve as a vehicle for everyone who has a stake having a seat (or at least a representative) at the table. And it means seeking consensus of the area on any decision that will affect the entire area.

Provider of a Safety Vent:

One of your most important roles as chair is to create a “safe place” where faculty members who feel that their voice is not being heard can speak out freely. That certainly includes adjuncts and other contingent faculty, who may feel that the only place they can be heard is at the area level.

That forum might take the form of an area-meeting. When I was a chair, I didn’t like purposeless meetings (I still don’t). I quickly learned, however, that just because I didn’t think certain topics were important didn’t mean others in the area had the same perception. And if just listening is the best you can do — well, at least faculty members will feel like they’re being heard by someone, and that’s often better than nothing.

Embankment to Check Digression from the Vision:

Over the years I’ve been amazed to observe that — no matter how independent-minded individual area members might be — the area as a whole either lacks a vision or tends to take its cue from the chair. A chair who is generally positive fosters optimism among faculty, whereas one who is negative generates pessimism.

It is not necessary to have an area mission statement, but questions like the following should be considered by the group:

  • What are our core beliefs and values?
  • What are our most important functions?
  • What do we want this area to be known for?
  • How do we accomplish that?
  • What are our professional standards and expectations?
  • How do we fit into, and complement, the larger institution?

Many have observed that the area chair’s job is probably the hardest in all of higher education, caught perpetually between administration and faculty, neither fully one nor fully the other. I’ve certainly experienced that in my career. But it is also the most personally rewarding job I’ve ever held, in that I felt I had the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives, both faculty members and students, every single day.

Despite its inherent difficulties, the job becomes more manageable once you understand why, mundane tasks aside, you’re there. And that is, ultimately, to serve faculty, students, and the institution — in that order.


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Printing second-rate MBA degrees

A degree mill is a school that grinds out people into graduates with pieces of paper. The focus is on how many pieces of paper they issue. The process is not as important as the end goal. An MBA mill is any college, university or institute that has the earning and issuing of MBA degrees as its core value; and there are not hundreds but thousands of them spread all over the country.

Some of these mills are scams posing as legitimate schools, taking money in exchange for a worthless degree. Some of them are actual colleges or universities that offer degrees, but with no accreditation and no real academic experience. Still others are colleges or universities, more interested in money than in quality education, which is essentially selling degrees.

Many MBA degree mills depend on universities that issue degrees for a price, but without academic rigour or evidence of actual student learning. There are also degree mills that make things quite hard for students. They add rules and academic hoops. They might have challenging tests. They require papers and projects. They might even offer good and valuable learning experiences. Yet, in the end, they or the students they serve see them mainly as steps toward getting that coveted piece of paper called the MBA degree, at the end.

Scan advertisements, off-line and online, and you will read grand promises of earning your degree which gets you jobs through campus placements. There is a drive to get jobs, thereby removing time for education, reflection and deeper learning. Unfortunately, even the top-rated MBA schools do not talk about what they teach or what the students could expect to learn. They are all promising high paying jobs and a cushy life as the end. There are ads that place a prominent image of a student in an academic robe, crossing the stage with the degree in hand, since that is the goal in a degree mill.

The paper, on which the degree is printed, is not without value. Companies value it when hiring. Certain pieces of paper from colleges are required to even apply to some jobs. The paper adds some level of prestige. It serves as a signal of achievement and progress in a person’s life. Recipients and their families often beam with pride. This paper however is quite fraudulent. The degrees are being granted by State Technical Universities but the deliverance of so called education is by private parties whose purpose is sustainability of student enrolments and profits. Purely of illustrative purposes, one example for the discerning is Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Technical University, Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow – most MBA degrees have an essential requirement of a project report based on summer internship (like a dissertation) to be submitted, evaluated along with a viva-voce exam.

The exam is conducted by a nominee examiner of the Technical University along with internal staff of the delivery college. The nominee examiner is a faculty member from another college which is also the affiliate of the same University. No one can estimate but informed-guesses from worthy and well meaning faculty members have pointed out that nearly the entire project reports are plagiarised from old ones, downloaded from websites like slide-share and scribd. There are paid services online for writing dissertations. The owners of the delivery college bring undue pressure upon examiners to ignore such blatant academic fraud. No one wants to rock the boat of corruption since each stakeholder has a mean self-interest in the process and has a personal axe to grind as a participant. This malpractice is spread right from the colleges in Agra and Greater Noida in the west of its jurisdiction to Varanasi and Gorakhpur in extreme east. Similar voices murmuring identical wrong doings are heard from other technical universities in the country.

In the flurry of higher education innovation today, with its growing praise of massive enrolments, we would be wise to not lose sight of the dangers associated with becoming a degree printing mill. Such mills are devaluing the essence of great higher education by churning out certified to have been educated but incompetent to be employed graduates. Additionally, the more colleges see themselves as mainly selling verification and degrees, the more that they set themselves up for disruption. Things might go well for them in the short- to mid-term, but that will change.


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Hello B-Schools! This is your Wake Up Call !!

The World Development Report 2019, of which a draft has now been placed in the public domain, is focussing on ‘The Changing Nature of Work’ and contains some uncomfortable truths.

It is true that in some advanced economies and middle-income countries manufacturing jobs are being lost to automation. Workers involved in routine tasks that can be “coded to machine language” are most vulnerable to replacement. However, technology provides opportunities to create new jobs, increase productivity, and deliver effective public services. Through innovation, technology generates new sectors or tasks. The forces of automation and innovation will shape employment in the future.

Innovations are changing the basis of competition in many markets. This is also changing the business-critical roles — jobs which enable businesses to be differentiated for their competitors and deliver success while executing the business strategy. Businesses will be forced to rethink the talent they will need to play these business-critical roles in the future.

Investing in human capital is the priority to make the most of this evolving economic opportunity. Three types of skills are increasingly important in labour markets: advanced cognitive skills (such as complex problem-solving), socio-behavioural skills (like team work), and skill-combinations that are predictive of adaptability (e.g., reasoning, self-efficacy). Building these skills requires strong human capital foundations and lifelong learning.

For business schools, the implications are huge. If these changes are to take place in less than a decade, the challenge for business schools is to develop courses, programmes and initiatives that will align with business needs. Following decades of enthusiastic support, business schools now find themselves under attack for being irrelevant, inconsequential or of little real value in developing business leaders who can make a difference.

India’s complex economic environment, rising social expectations and fluctuating ideological shifts in the political space coupled with changes in student demands, technological advances and a cumbersome regulatory environment, and it’s clear that business schools are hard-pressed to structure a coherent formula to address all of this. Understanding the role of artificial intelligence in the future of work and creating flexible options for students with careers is not easy and makes the task of developing courses that adapt for these rapidly changing demands is daunting.

By positioning themselves as a partner for inclusive development, business schools could enhance their social licence among citizens and societal stakeholders. The business community views some of the business schools, unfortunately only a few of them, as beacons of excellence. A concentrated, coherent and thoughtful engagement with society and the business community could yield favourable results. Other challenge includes dealing with the “commoditisation” of management education through “Micro-specialised-Masters” supposedly designed to address “specific” needs. Unless business schools manage costs in a leaner way, adopt more efficient delivery models, examine educational-tourism as a potentially lucrative revenue stream and form strategic collaborations, they will find it harder to fashion a winning strategy to address the long-term needs of business.

Expect the ‘pecking-order’ and the face of business schools to look very different indeed by 2028.


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No More the Quality of Education, It’s the Calibre of Students that is Making the Institutions Premier

What is the probability of an aspirant getting admitted in to a top IIM or a top IIT? No marks for guessing – it is less than one percent. Stated in other words, assuming (suspiciously) that the entrance exams JEE and CAT are capable of evaluating what is being sought to be evaluated, the probability that one who has been admitted to a top IIM or a top IIT belongs to the positive outlier zone of the mean calibre of the applicants.

Unfortunately, the same is not true for the calibre of the faculty who teaches at a top IIM or a top IIT. The education and teaching imparted is nearly as good or as bad as it is at the other top-ranked peer institutions. [this ranking of institutions as premier, tier-I, tier-II etc., is a caste system leading to an interesting aberration in the job market where employers end up hiring institutions rather than individuals; but more on this institutional caste-system some other time]. Not many would have the courage to acknowledge it in public, but many stakeholders associated with these so called top-rung institutions do acknowledge in private about quality-problems with the process of imparting education at their institutions.

Part of the quality problem is due to a low level of requirements in many subjects and the below average capability of the faculty engaged in such delivery. For the most part, the only, crucial, form of evaluation is assessments of student, which are more an expression of student satisfaction rather than a reflection of the quality of the education provided. There is an in-built incentive for mediocre teachers to use less-demanding course content or not be strict or demanding in assessments of performances of student. If the students are paying substantial fees there is an additional pressure to ensure that “the customers” are satisfied and to avoid reducing the market by failing students with weak results.

Institutions, programmes and courses that have low standards achieve a high student completion rate and are rewarded accordingly. Courses, specially the electives, that have a reputation for being demanding may also be less appealing to students and lead to fewer applicants.

It might be supposed that many institutions want to maintain high standards in order to improve their reputation with employers and ambitious students. But “student satisfaction” is not the same as high standards in terms of qualification output. A study of students’ ratings of lecturers’ show that people on courses assessed to be easy rather than difficult gave higher scores to their lecturers.

Another problem is lack of motivation amongst student to acquire knowledge. Their motivation for hard work at the pre-admission stage is in seeking the admission. Once admitted, failing in the programme of study need more delinquencies than the inadvertent effort put in here and there that suffices to succeed. The students in the institution are motivated only to grab the crème of job-offers that flow in quite unaffected by a limited study-input of many students but by the momentum of ranking and reputation.

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A Question Mark on Business Education

In their book “Academically Adrift” published in 2011 by University of Chicago Press, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa followed 2,200 US students over their college years, using tests designed to investigate critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving and writing. They report, “an astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills.”

Traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Those majoring in the liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications and other new practice-oriented majors. The students who scored the LOWEST and improved the LEAST were the BUSINESS STUDENTS.

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Beneath the Mask of a B-School

The majority of students in MBAs and similar degrees come to university or institutions, with no particular interest in their programmes and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. Their sole motive seems often to improve a CV and get a better-paid job. The choice of a university or institutions is based on its “reputation” which is measured through campus placement records and compensation packages.

Many students spend modest time studying. The average time spent on what is supposed to be full-time higher education has been observed to be as low as 14 to 15 hours per week. This is in addition to spending, on average, 14-15 hours per week in class. Balance of their discretionary-time is spent on socialising with friends, using computers for fun, watching television, exercising, and in pursuing hobbies.

When one asks these students in informal settings why they had chosen to do an MBA, usually there are only two responses: either “to earn as much money as possible” or “don’t know but everyone is doing an MBA”. These two answers seem to illustrate two major problems for contemporary business students more broadly.

One is an instrumental and opportunistic attitude to higher education among many while the other is that many students are drifting through higher education without a clear sense of purpose.

Business-education in particular has become increasingly market oriented. The idea that students are to be regarded as a customer, even in supposedly strictly non-commercial contexts, is becoming increasingly common. This has resulted in a high level of expectations and at the same time has probably contributed to the erosion of work and study morality. There are other pieces to this puzzle as well, including shortages of funding, students working part-time, research-focused academics viewing teaching as something to minimise, large and anonymous factory-like institutions, and expensive accreditation leading to managerialism, standardisation and much “box ticking”.

In a consumer culture, market fundamentalists sometimes believe that consumer satisfaction drives quality but this may lead to a less demanding workload, fairly easy course content, entertainment in class and generous grading plus the allocation of resources by universities and institutions to non-educational arrangements (sports, counselling, career advice and so on). At many places more resources go into “Placement and student service” and administration than teaching.

Business education’s claim to be a competence-raising institution can, like many other things, must be understood as partly illusionary. The expanded business-education sector can be seen as an arrangement of doubtful substance but high on symbolic and signal value. It is a legitimising structure that gives some credibility to the knowledge society’s claims and protects such claims from careful scrutiny.


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