Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
It seems to be the season for top-level resignations from blue-chip higher ed institutions. Soon after the highly respected public intellectual Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Dr. Arvind Subramaniam, former chief economic advisor of the BJP/NDA government, put in their papers at the ambitious, privately-promoted Ashoka University in Delhi NCR on March 15, Dr. Anju Seth, the first woman director of the vintage top-ranked Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C, estb.1961), sent her resignation letter to the prime minister’s office and IIM-C’s board of governors. The board is chaired by Shrikrishna Kulkarni, the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and former managing director of Panasonic India and founder-president of Fanuc India.
In her resignation letter dated March 21, Seth accused Kulkarni and the board of “maligning and denigrating her publicly.” A highly qualified alumna of Delhi University, IIM-C itself and awarded a Ph D in business strategy by the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, Michigan University, USA, Seth was recruited from Virginia Tech (USA) where she is a tenured professor of business management, in Novermber 2018 for a four-year term.
“I am deeply anguished at not being able to fulfil this mandate and help turn around IIM-C to a world-class institution with a distinctive Indian heritage. This situation has arisen because of a breakdown in confidence escalating over the past four months between me as director and CEO and you (Kulkarni) as chairman of the board. To the best of my ability, I have been conducting my responsibilities as director and CEO in the best long-run interests of the institute with a focus on urgent reforms, forward-looking decisions and in the interest of all stakeholders,” wrote Seth in her resignation letter accessed by the Economic Times. Although Seth’s resignation letter went viral on social media, Kulkarni, members of the board of governors, and faculty have maintained a studied silence on the issue.
Nevertheless, according to off-the-record conversations with faculty and alumni it’s clear that Seth swiftly transformed into a new broom in a tearing hurry to sweep this essentially faculty-run institute clean. She discerned “open breach of government guidelines in matters of procurement and recruitment of personnel” and “legacy issues related to lack of transparency or accountability, misuse of public funds, a weak financial situation,” and charged Kulkarni and the board with “undue interference” which impeded her reform initiatives.
But Seth’s aggressive reforms agenda not only cheesed off the board of governors but also the faculty of this vintage B-school which is routinely ranked with IIM-Ahmedabad and IIM-Bangalore as the best B-school in India.
Quite clearly neither this widely respected B-school’s board nor its faculty believe that IIM-C needs urgent and radical “urgent reforms”. Last December 60 of IIM-C’s faculty wrote to the Union education ministry complaining that under Seth’s leadership, there was “decline in academic and research environment” and “systematic undermining” of the academic council, the institute’s principal curriculum framing and governance body.
Evidently, the board and faculty have no regrets about Seth’s resignation a year before her term which was scheduled to end in January 2022. On March 24, the board of IIM-Calcutta named Subir Bhattacharya, the senior-most faculty member, as the director in-charge and promptly constituted a search committee to recruit a new director.
“One hopes that this time round, the board won’t recruit an academic from a foreign university, no matter how eminent. Most of these imports tend to be tenured professors in American universities where there is no retirement age. They take leave of absence to make an impact in India in a hurry. They have little understanding of local conditions and culture of institutions that hire them and like bulls in a China shop, recklessly disrupt well-established institutions,” says a retired senior board member of IIM-C who has been monitoring the “big dust up” in IIM-C with “wry amusement”.
That’s useful advice IIM-C’s newly-constituted search committee would do well to bear in mind.