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Straight Talk: Put Merit First (Not Home Grown Degrees or Ethnicities)

A look at the malaise of ‘academic inbreeding’ born of the cliquish culture of Indian universities, and the need to put merit first.
BY Pushkar |   26-01-2015

In my previous column, I drew attention to the faculty recruitment process at Indian universities, noting that the academic qualifications of a potential faculty member matter less than his or her ethnic, personal or institutional ties to the head of the department, senior faculty members, or those in key administrative positions. It is not surprising then that Indian universities have been unable to raise their international profile (especially in terms of their research output) despite increased funding over the past few years. For the most part, they have simply not hired better-trained candidates for the job.

Here, I address a related issue, which is of both global and local/Indian import, but focus primarily on its relevance in the Indian context: the preference shown by universities in hiring home-grown candidates—those who have completed their terminal degree at the same university—over outsiders as faculty members, even when the latter are better qualified. Commonly known as “academic inbreeding,” the bias for home-grown candidates in faculty hiring decisions is different from that based on caste, religion or gender, since it privileges a candidate’s intimate ties to the home institution (usually via his or her PhD) over other considerations. Faculty members who have PhDs from the home institution but are hired after a fairly long period of work experience elsewhere are not generally counted as cases of ‘inbreeding’ since they are considered to have proved their worth elsewhere before returning ‘home’.

In India, the practice of hiring home-grown candidates for faculty positions sometimes competes with the preference for hiring on the basis of ethnic or personal ties. In cases where the hiring of inbred candidates prevails, ethnic and/or personal ties and other factors such as gender still play a role when it comes to choosing between two or more home-grown candidates. Merit is sidelined one way or the other.

Academic inbreeding is common in several countries worldwide. While there are some benefits of hiring one’s own, it is almost always harmful to universities and departments over the long run.

One of the big advantages of hiring internal candidates is convenience – departments do not need to cast their net far and wide to catch qualified candidates who will also ‘fit it’ easily. In cases where the university and/or department is not only confident of its capabilities and stature but is also considered thus by others, it is possible that academic inbreeding is useful to some extent or at least does not do harm as long as the best students are hired as faculty. Unfortunately, that is not what happens at India’s universities, where heads of departments, deans, vice-chancellors or others seek to hire candidates who are either their students or belong to their ethnic or linguistic group. It is shocking that heads of departments remain part of, or even head, faculty selection committees, when their own PhD students are applicants for faculty positions.

According to Dheeraj Sanghi, a professor of computer science and former Dean of Academic Affairs at IIT-Kanpur, “the selection process for an internal candidate cannot be completely fair” and even if it is, “there will always be a perception of unfairness.” Furthermore, inbreeding creates “a hierarchy of relationships within the department, which is not good for its growth.”

Sanghi’s views are confirmed in recent studies which find that inbreeding tends to ‘entrench the existing academic culture’, ‘solidify hierarchical relationships’, ‘enhance the power of senior professors’ and ‘perpetuate unfair power dynamics’.

There is also damning evidence against academic inbreeding in the context of research performance. Studies show that inbred faculty produce less research output than outsiders and the impact of their research tends to be significantly lower.

Whatever advantages or conveniences there may be in hiring from within, research performance is not one of them.

American universities strongly discourage inbreeding, as do some of India’s best-known institutions, notably most of the IITs and the IIMs. However, other prestigious institutions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University are not averse to the practice, as is true for several other higher education (HE) institutions. There are also instances where institutions that normally discourage inbreeding change their hiring practices under a new vice-chancellor or director. According to a former faculty member of IIM-A, India’s most prestigious management school, the institution hired mostly home-grown FPMs (Fellow Programme in Management, which is the equivalent of a PhD) over an extended period in the recent past with negative consequences for the institution’s research output.

Academic inbreeding tends to be particularly pernicious in the Indian context, because it not only discriminates against well-qualified outsiders, but often lends to further discrimination against meritorious insiders. This is because the faculty and administration at most (if not all) HE institutions is organized on ethnic lines, with caste, language and region-based groups as the most common. There are entire disciplines/departments at colleges, universities and research centres, which are either dominated by particular castes or linguistic groups, or are characterized by everyday conflicts for supremacy between two or three such groups. With each group engaged in a tussle to dominate, the process of hiring new faculty is rigged against those who do not belong to one or the other dominant groups.

With scores of new HE institutions coming up all across the country, there is an opportunity to minimize academic inbreeding. New institutions have no choice but to hire outsiders. Those who are in key administrative positions at these institutions can institutionalize the best hiring practices, of putting merit before everything else. The practices carried out early on in a new institution’s life are more likely to become routine. While there are early encouraging signs that this is happening at some institutions, it seems unlikely that a majority of India’s universities will bury the damaging practice of inbreeding, or of putting ethnicity before merit.

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