High quality faculty, as any academic administrator/thinker knows, is the key that will determine the quality of the Institute. Attracting high quality faculty, and then nurturing them, is undoubtedly the main challenge in an academic Institution – the rest will all happen if top class faculty is in place.  If good faculty is there, good quality education will take place. And when education is good, given the paucity of such options in India, good students will come to it. Hence, the central challenge for building a high quality academic institute is attracting high quality faculty.

Soon after joining as Director, one of the first policy proposals I made to the Board was about faculty compensation. We argued that as the Director was being paid more than an IIT Director, faculty should also be paid more than the IIT faculty, particularly since the Institute will have to compete with all the new IITs that were starting. I was fully clear in my mind that there is really little point in being a better paid Director of an average Institute, which an Institute will be if it cannot attract good faculty. And better pay was clearly an advantage that was needed in a very difficult recruitment situation.

The Board was very supportive of this idea and backed it fully. This one decision itself marks a major shift in academic Institutes’ management – even though the salary difference from IITs was not too high, the “govt salary” bonds were broken. For long, academics have argued that Govt salaries are on the lower side and need to be made more competitive to the private sector. This one bold decision by the Board took the Institute in the domain of proactive management.

It was, however, also fully clear to me that while better compensation is necessary, it is far from sufficient.  I have always believed that in quest for better compensation for academics, the academic fraternity in India has not given sufficient attention to other factors of the academic environment that are important to attract good faculty. Almost by definition, good quality potential faculty members want to make an impact first and foremost through R&D, and will join an Institution if there is a possibility of doing so. Hence, an exciting environment that will allow them to reach greater heights is as necessary as good compensation. So, we adopted a few measures for creating such an environment – travel support, summer sabbaticals, initiation grant, liberal consultancy, etc.

We put in advertisements, I started talking to graduating students and other leads I could get, and we held our first selection committee in Oct. Thankfully, we were able to get three decent candidates, who we made offer to. Out of these three, two did not finally join.

We were clear that nimbleness was the tool that we had to use to compete with the established institutes. So, we decided to hold selections every three months or so. Thankfully, in the second round of selections itself we stuck gold – we had many good candidates, out of which the selection committee selected six, and out of these five candidates accepted within two weeks of making the offer – a record of sorts in India.  Meanwhile, two faculty member I knew from before (Veena Bansal from IIT Kanpur and Astrid Kiehn from IIT Delhi) agreed to spend a year or more as visiting faculty in IIIT-D, which provided a much needed minimal base to get started. Key dates here are:

  • Advertisement for faculty posts: September, 2008.
  • First selection committee: Oct 18, 2008; three offers made
  • First  visiting: Nov 3, 2008 (Vikram); Dec 15, 2008 (Astrid); Dec 23, 2008 (Veena)
  • Second selection committee: date: Jan 31, 2009
  • First regular, tenure-track, faculty joining: March 3, 2009 (Mayank and Richa)

From here on, the focus for me has remained largely on faculty selection, and academic program. It is interesting to note that, even though we had no management bandwidth, it was this period that I got maximum time to think and strategize about both of these. Later, as we grew, management tasks took far more time and precedence, leaving little time for strategizing and thinking. Thankfully, I instinctively ensured, and still do, that I am not fully swarmed by the daily, and that the long term agenda got some time share – at least in nights and weekends.

It is worth noticing how the “bar” for faculty has naturally risen as time has progressed and as Institute has gained strength. Once you cross into double digits, the initial desperation is over and you know that you can keep your program running. (I keep reminding myself that when I joined CSE/IITK, the faculty size was just about a dozen, and the Department considered itself stable, though not large.) The bar then naturally rises, as it has for us, and we are now forced to reject many good candidates. In fact, there are some candidates, which we initially were rather keen to get, but by the time they applied, the situation had changed so much that we were not able to accept them. Another pointer: in the last recruitment we did, out of the 25+ candidates we had in our A shortlist (containing candidates with PhD from highly reputed institutes across the world), we made offers to only 2 candidates, even though more than half of them were PhDs from overseas. Earlier, we would feel happy if we had half a dozen candidates in the A shortlist!

For prospective faculty, this brings me to a very pertinent point. Opportunities like IIIT-Delhi come rarely. So, while one may make plans about when to “shift” to academia/India/…, opportunities do not always work according to the plans. My advice to prospective candidates will be: if you have a good opportunity that you are satisfied with, take it. Don’t delay it for other short-term/ temporary plans that you might have made.  An Institute like IIIT-D offers unique possibilities now of, for example, hiring a group of 2 or 3 faculty together to build an area. This opportunity may not arise easily anywhere – even in IIIT-D once it matures and has groups since then it will be hiring incrementally for each group.