Appointment Of A Vice-Chancellor: Professor Surappa, An ‘Outsider’, Can Bring Back Anna University’s Glorious Days

Chinnu Senthilkumar

Apr 10, 2018, 03:41 PM | Updated 03:41 PM IST

College of Engineering, Guindy.
College of Engineering, Guindy.
  • Going strictly by Prof Surappa’s academic pedigree and teaching background, he is best qualified to head Anna University.
  • The recent appointment of Professor M K Surappa as Anna University Vice-Chancellor (V-C) has stirred up a storm and a major controversy erupted on social media and TV debates. While political parties in Tamil Nadu are entitled to have their own views, I am making an attempt by collating the opinions of key stakeholders of Anna University – current and past faculty members, alumni groups spread across different geographies and major technology hubs like Silicon Valley, Bangalore etc, and reminiscing my own memories dating back to the late 1980s. Thus, this reflects a collective view with a profound sense of responsibility as an alumnus of this university.

    The V-C’s appointment should be seen and judged from multiple perspectives – an ability to create a healthy academic and research atmosphere, an ability to look after student community welfare and his/her experience in effectively spending tax payers' money.

    Timeline Of The University

    What is known as Anna University today was formed in 1982 and was named after late Tamil Nadu chief minister C N Annadurai. To the uninitiated, Annadurai was an erudite scholar, both in English and Tamil. He scripted a powerful narrative woven around federalism, Tamil identity etc, and went on to head the first non-Congress state government in Tamil Nadu in 1960s. The university’s main campus, College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG), popularly known as the Guindy Engineering College traces its origin well before India’s Independence. It is the oldest technical institute in India and was founded by the British East India Company as “School of Survey” in 1794, and later rechristened as CEG in 1859.

    The triumvirate – CEG, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee (1847) and College of Engineering, Pune (1854) – formed India’s equivalent of ivy league technical institutes. When formed in 1982, Anna University consisted of only four colleges: CEG, Madras Institute of Technology (late president Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was an illustrious alumnus of MIT), AC Technology and School of Architecture and Planning (SAP). Overruling the opinion of leading academicians in 2001, all Tamil Nadu engineering colleges (more than 500) were brought under one umbrella, into a single affiliate university. In the mid-2000, it was split into six universities (based on region), and in the recent past, have been merged into a single affiliate university, clearly suggesting political considerations starting to outweigh academic priorities over the past 20 years.

    In the recently released National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranking by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD), Anna University, Chennai marked its presence by making it to the overall top-10 list. In tune with its rich educational heritage, Anna University campus alumni have played key roles in all spheres, helping build modern India. Notable among them include – Dr Kalam (scientist), Prof Raj Reddy (Dean of CMU), Ravi Ruia (Essar Group chairman), Krishnamachari Srikanth (cricketer) etc. In addition, scores of its alumni are successful technology executives in Fortune 500 companies, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, with an expansive footprint in the global technology community.

    Tamil Medium Education

    In the 1960s, the Tamil youth of my father’s generation were mesmerised by Annadurai and took great pride in their Tamil identity. They ensured that their children received education in Tamil. I studied in a rural government school, setup during the Kamaraj era, in Namakkal District and received my primary and high school education in Tamil as the medium of instruction. I would like to emphasise that these schools thrived to offer the best quality education with all-round skills – leadership, character building etc. TATA Group executive chairman N Chandrasekaran, who received education in Tamil medium rural government schools up until his Class X in Namakkal is a testimony to the effectiveness of these schools.

    Receiving education in Tamil has its own challenges and I have realised it the hard way, when I appeared for IIT-JEE in late 1980s. Even if you have the best innate skills, one is severely handicapped because switching languages and getting tuned in a short time frame is difficult. But, my two years of IIT-JEE self-preparation in English didn’t go in vain, as it eventually helped me. But looking back, I can say it was a “blessing in disguise”. In hindsight, I can say with conviction that receiving early education in your mother tongue brings out the best of your creative skills. Various scientific studies also conclude that using the learner’s mother tongue provides a strong foundation by developing better cognitive skills and deeper comprehension of the academic content from day one. Even today, I enjoy reading Tamil literature, one of the longest-surviving classical languages of the world. Also, it helped me to understand other South Indian languages – Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu.

    I missed out on my IIT-JEE, but did quite well in my Class XII and eventually got into CEG, an equally prestigious college. Life is full of twists and turns and I stumbled upon a major hypocrisy, when I met so many Anna University fellow students belonging to political families. Villagers and people from my father’s generation sincerely believed in Tamil identity ideologies. They “walked the talk” and imparted education to their children in Tamil medium, but political classes which preached to the masses, hardly practised it. To my disbelief, many of these children belonging to political families were quietly receiving education in English medium convent schools.

    Fond Memories At CEG, Anna University

    V-Cs in the initial days of Anna University – Dr V C Kulandaisamy (PhD from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Dr M Ananthakrishnan (PhD from University of Minnesota) – were distinguished academicians of international repute and brought in their well-rounded experience gained during their earlier stints at the United Nations and various other international assignments.

    In the university's formative days, they set a robust institutional structure and academic culture. They believed in keeping Anna University as a unitary institute (with its four core constituent colleges) to compete with the IITs and passionately worked hard for it. Apart from their contribution to technical education, they were known for their passion for Tamil, Tamil literature etc. They were well respected by the Tamil diaspora in different continents for promoting Tamil language suitably for the technological era. To the credit of political administration of that time, Anna University was largely insulated from mainstream day-to-day political debates. V-Cs enjoyed freedom which contributed to promoting a healthy academic environment.

    We were fortunate to have many good professors and I am naming a few – Dr K P Zacharia and Dr G Ravindran – who are role models in their own ways. Dr Zacharia taught us the insights of electronic circuits, which immensely helped me later on, to innovate and file several US patents when I was employed as a young engineer at Intel Corporation in Silicon Valley. Dr Ravindran guided us in a technical project for which we received National Technology Award from former president R Venkatraman. For someone like me, who hailed from a small remote agricultural village, it was a huge transformative experience.

    Degeneration Process

    After relocating to India (around mid-2000), I made several visits to top technical institutes – IIT campuses, including Anna University campuses – CEG and MIT etc for hiring. To my disappointment, I could see Anna University losing its shine. While it continued to attract top students, the quality of V-Cs and faculty appointments were subjected to major criticisms. The rot has started to set in so much that in the last 10 years corruption charges against former V-Cs have become a routine affair. These are not unsubstantiated allegations. A former V-C was convicted of corruption, received rigorous imprisonment by a special court. The outgoing V-C’s family members were raided by Tamil Nadu Police Anti-Corruption Wing and unaccounted wealth was recovered from their residence.

    Meanwhile, faculty members were forced into a vicious cycle of ignoring academic affairs and focus more on administrative affairs of more than 500 engineering colleges. It is a great let down from the bright days of Dr V C Kulandaisamy and Dr M Ananthakrishnan, former gems of Anna University. Over the years, the situation has become very bad, but the university is able to retain a semblance of its past sheen only due to the bright students who get enrolled every year.

    Prof Surappa’s Appointment

    I read through Prof Surappa’s background. He received his PhD from IISc, one of the top-ranked technical institutes in India, and he spent more than two decades at IISc as a professor. Until recently, he was the Director of IIT Ropar for consecutive three-year stints. As expected of IISc professors, he has 150 research publications and several patents to his credit. He is also a fellow of the Indian National Science Academy and a fellow of Indian National Academy of Engineering. If we strictly go by Prof Surappa’s academic pedigree, teaching background and administrative experience, prima facie, he is qualified to head Anna University. Over and above, the search committee to choose Anna University V-C was headed by retired Supreme Court judge V S Sirpurkar which adds more credence to the search process.

    IISc Bangalore has been repeatedly placed among top-100 technical universities in various global surveys and according to India’s latest NIRF ranking, it retains its positions as the overall best institution in the country. In today’s context, IISc is head and shoulder above Anna University in technical education and research, and we can infer that Prof Surappa’s academic pedigree and background should help to turn around Anna University back to its old academic glory.

    In fact, many of us from the Anna University alumni groups strongly feel that only an outsider can stem the rot and eliminate the years of overgrown nepotism. To the argument, given the backdrop of Cauvery issue, looking from a political perspective, a V-C from Karnataka may have been avoided. But Prof Surpappa is from a technical institute (IISc), largely funded by the government of India. Education is supposed to have no boundaries and shouldn’t we set aside our political ideologies to attract the best talent to head our universities?

    Creative Cross-Pollination Trends At Universities

    Looking from an academic perspective, top-ranked American universities and other global academic institutions constantly encourage creative cross-pollination between departments, and faculties are inducted to enrich the academic environment. The best universities of the world go after real talent, and as a result, several Indian origin academicians are deans, heads of departments in reputed universities in Harvard, UC Berkeley, Stanford etc.

    Back home, leading technical institutes – Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and IITs are starting to encourage this healthy practice. For example, IISER Pune, IISER Bhopal etc have numerous faculties with their teaching or post-doctoral fellowship experiences abroad or at least outside of their own institutes. If an academic institute has to maintain its edge, it has to shed its parochial views and encourage creative cross-pollination, periodically experiment lateral inductions from outside to foster creativity.

    Outsider? Not The First Time

    While there have been many points, arguments, opinions floated about Prof Surappa being an outsider, these fears may be unfounded. Meritocracy should precede over popularity contests or narrow political opinions. It is not the first time an outsider is appointed to key posts in Tamil Nadu and in many other states. Chief justices of India’s 24 high courts, including the Madras High Court, are always from other states. It is an age-old practice, following Union Public Service Commission cadre allocation methods. Frequently, out of domicile bureaucrats are appointed as chief secretaries, police directors general of police in several states, including Tamil Nadu.

    Unemployable Engineers: A Growing Social Concern

    Looking from a larger social perspective within India, Tamil Nadu is home to the highest number of engineering colleges. Very recently, All India Council for Technical Education, the national council for technical education, stated that as many as 200 sub-par engineering colleges have applied for closing down and many of them happen to be from Tamil Nadu. I know of many poor parents, who took student loans, mortgaged everything they had to send their children to engineering colleges, only to find out later that many of them are unemployable.

    In the last 25 years, throughout India, a lot of engineering colleges were opened flouting many norms, and Tamil Nadu has the lion’s share among them. Across Tamil Nadu, thousands of unemployable students and their parents are going through major financial hardship because of the mismanagement in our technical education system. When such a larger issue was slowly building up for years, impacting the student community and parents, critics of today looked the other way and never offered any meaningful solution.

    Opinions From Students, Parents And Alumni Groups Matter The Most

    A section of our media suddenly woke up and started focusing on opinions from popular actors etc, who are remotely connected to the academic world, and turning this important discussion into a popularity contest. The need of the hour is that the opinions from the student community, parents and alumni groups should be channelised to course correct Anna University’s way of functioning. After all, students and parents who pay education fees, citizens who pay taxes to maintain these universities, and alumni groups who contribute back to Anna University must have a bigger say in its affairs.

    Chinnu Senthilkumar is a Partner & CTO in Exfinity VC fund. Chinnu held senior Management roles in Intel, SanDisk in US and India and holds 9 US patents.

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