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Ravi Matthai and His Many-Splendoured Institute

Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad by T T Ram Mohan (New Delhi: Rupa Publications India) 2011; pp xiv + 281, Rs 495.

Ravi Matthai and His Many-Splendoured Institute

Shreekant Sambrani

T
his review must start with a disclaimer: I have had the rare good fortune of being associated with Indian Institutes of Technology, Bombay (IITB) as one of its early students and Indian Institutes of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) as one of its early faculty members. Both these institutions contributed significantly to creating a warm glow about young Indian professionals from the 1970s onwards, when India was nearly written off as a basket case. I was recruited by Ravi J Matthai (RJM) in 1971. My association with him during my first year at IIMA (and his last as director) was only slightly more intense than that of a junior member of the faculty and the head of an institution. RJM remained at IIMA until his death in 1984. He grew increasingly close to my wife Rita and me during the rest of my tenure at IIMA until 1978. I went on to start the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) under the aegis of the National Dairy Development Board, with Verghese Kurien (who happens to be RJM’s cousin) as the chairman of the board and chief patron. RJM was on the IRMA board and I used my proximity to him often enough to learn first-hand the very delicate art of starting and building up a pioneering educational institution.

A Sense of Disappointment

T T Ram Mohan (TTR), an IIMA professor and a columnist for The Economic Times, wrote a piece on RJM in December 2007. I wrote to him suggesting that we could collaborate on an analytical biography of RJM. He readily agreed and says so in the preface of the book (p xii). He adds “Thereafter, I did not hear from [Sambrani]”. This is not correct. I suggested to him over email that we must meet and discuss the project before proceeding further. I wanted to tell him that I would necessarily bring in my perceptions, but was not sure whether

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 6, 2011

book review

Brick by Red Brick: Ravi Matthai and the Making of IIM Ahmedabad by T T Ram Mohan (New Delhi: Rupa Publications India) 2011; pp xiv + 281, Rs 495.

I was emotionally distant enough to be objective. We could not meet despite corresponding for a month. Neither of us pursued the matter further.

My pleasure in finding a long-needed book on RJM and IIMA is mixed with a sense of disappointment at TTR having missed out on an opportunity. He was at the institution RJM built up, which now enjoys a well-deserved robust reputation. He had access to all the relevant documents. Most of the dramatis personae – RJM’s old associates, colleagues and recruits, board members, government functionaries, key alumni – are still alive and of sound minds. The Matthai family extended full cooperation.

The author has well-established credentials as a thinker and writer, and above all, possesses the requisite distance. This could have led to a definitive interpretation and analysis of RJM’s monumental contribution to IIMA and a clear enunciation of its ethos. I read the book repeatedly and in detail in the expectation of finding significant insights. Unfortunately, these detailed readings have left me with increasing disappointment, caused mainly by the distinct feeling that TTR’s main concern was to fit current theories and wisdom to the history of IIMA’s development, when it should have been the other way around: how do current theories stand in the wake of the IIMA experience. In place of the desired distance and dispassionate analysis, the present (and unfortunately, the author) intrudes continuously.

I will set below my reasons for this

conclusion, but the purpose of this long

disclaimer is to steer clear of any possible

vol xlvi no 32

accusations of sour grapes at not having been a part of the project. I would most likely have recused myself for the reservations stated above and would have had no regrets for having done so.

Semantic Quibble

The TTR volume comprises nine chapters, besides a preface and an epilogue. The first two chapters discuss the groundwork in the late 1950s and the early 1960s leading to the establishment of the first two IIMs, at Ahmedabad and Kolkata (IIMC). The third chapter deals with RJM’s early life, up to the time he accepted the IIMA directorship in 1965. Chapters four through six are concerned with RJM’s stewardship of the institute and thus form the core of the book, covering 98 of the 261 pages of the main book. The seventh chapter, titled “Light and Shadow”, is mostly concerned with developments in IIMA in the last decade or so, long after RJM’s tenure ended and indeed well after his passing away, and is only peripherally and tangentially connected with the professed theme. The next chapter is devoted to RJM’s principal post-directorship activity, the Jawaja experiment which he himself dubbed – the rural university. Although IIMA was involved in this, it cannot be considered as either a continuation of RJM’s institutionbuilding phase or integral to IIMA’s development. The last chapter, “Style and Substance” is so anecdotal about RJM (as also about the author, TTR) as to add little to book.

TTR summarises his main thesis on p 178:

[RJM] not only led IIMA to greater (sic) heights in his time, he created what we might today call a ‘sustainable business model’. His model has four key elements. First, a clear sense of mission. IIMA would be not just a business school, but a management institution, meaning its ambit would be wider than business and would encompass important sectors of the Indian economy. Secondly, a focus on faculty freedom the key to unleashing creativity in an academic institution. Thirdly, the idea of a faculty-governed institute where decision-making rests primarily with the faculty and not with the board or even with the director... Lastly, the principle that the director is only first among equals, and not some super-boss.

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Anyone familiar with IIMA would have was not present (nor were the adequately no issues with this summarisation, although and authentically documented), and in

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could well quibble with terming this as a “business model”. That implies considerable forethought and deliberate design of structures and processes. Many, if not all, of the above elements emerged and grew as IIMA itself progressed. They then became a model for newer institutions such as IRMA. IIMA was more a case of sui generis than following the path prescribed by a model. This is, however, only a semantic quibble.

Embarrassment of Hagiography

The reader faces a far more substantive problem in understanding how TTR arrives at this conclusion. The logical approach would have been to trace the development of IIMA either in a chronological order or according to growth of specific activities – the postgraduate programme (PGP), management development programmes (MDPs), research, faculty recruitment and development. What TTR does is a mix, which does not follow any clear pattern.

For example, Chapter 4, “Erecting the Edifice”, starts with the role of faculty meetings, quickly moving on to early problems with students, placement of students, budgets and grants, faculty recruitment and development, collaboration, the three-tier programme for management development and an early evaluation of IIMA, in that order, all in the space of 33 pages.

The next chapter devotes an equal amount of space to doctoral programme, case method of teaching and research, agriculture sector-related work, board-related issues, faculty recruitment again, internal administration and PGP, RJM’s stepping down, the doctoral programme yet again, and a summary of RJM’s achievements.

The sixth chapter starts with a discourse on Peter Drucker’s concept of knowledge workers and related generalisations, RJM’s thought processes, the role of sectors, faculty autonomy and governance (more by way of generalisations than specifics from IIMA history), more theories, with C K Prahlad now joining the Drucker Society, leading to the summary quoted above.

The recounting of actual events – which are too few to give a proper flavour to the reader – is mostly cursory and anecdotal, marred by TTR taking liberties to recreate conversations and scenes in which he truding in the narrative far too often, both of which would be unconscionable in a serious analytical work.

Given this nature of the presentation in the book, the reader may well be justified in nursing the thought that the author just put down all that he wanted to discuss/ describe about IIMA and RJM in the manner in which these things occurred to him, then put down some theories he felt could explain the developments. Since the author has not exactly walked the reader through his reasoning, the reader would most likely be in a state of wondering whether all this is in the realm of the author’s hypothesisation.

Indeed, TTR poses a question near the end of the main portion of his book: “Is this all some Utopian fantasy?” (p 176). He answers the question thus four paragraphs later:

[RJM] had to think through not only ‘what’ was to be done but ‘how’ it was to be done. The result was a system designed to bring out the best in that most difficult of knowledge worker, the academic. It was a system that had no parallel not only in India, but, perhaps, anywhere in the world.

When the reader gets over the embarrassment of this hagiography, the mystery of how one single person could achieve this unique feat in a relatively short span of seven years becomes even deeper. I have made below an attempt to provide a worm’s-eye view of one who was there, in the hope that participant observation and recall might demystify the IIMA phenomenon and restore RJM to a human, albeit a great good one, status.

The Peer Culture of the Faculty

The ethos and the autonomy of IIMA can be defined very simply: the main sentient group, the faculty, sets its own agenda and determines how it is to be executed. The agenda covers all aspects of its functioning: whom and how to admit, what and how to teach them, and at least in the early days, how to raise resources and set priorities for their expenditure, and how to monitor and correct the activities.

This was achieved through the mechanism of collective decision-making through committee structures and even more important, an iron-clad, disciplined commitment

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august 6, 2011 vol xlvi no 32

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on part of the faculty to all aspects, a factor that eludes TTR. Meetings of the entire faculty (they were called simply faculty meetings then, not the more serious sounding faculty council, the term TTR uses). The meetings were always well attended and documented. Decisions once taken were adhered to strictly. Getting a higher authority involved – in this case, the director – to adjudicate a difference of opinion was not an option. Hierarchy mattered little and neither did differences of opinion. The discipline existed because of mutual respect and peer group pressure and not because of any prescribed rule book.

These features of the peer culture were intrinsic and organic to the faculty. Yet several other factors, seemingly minor, but incorporated by design, reinforced the emerging ethos. These include uniformity of treatment and the prevalence of Nehruvian ethos, which frowned upon ostentation and flouting of one’s status, or any kind of chauvinism.

Incorrect Claim

TTR claims that Vikram Sarabhai and RJM “introduced into the country through the IIM system” (p 195, emphasis added) faculty governance and non-hierarchical culture. With all due respect for the careful and tireless nurturing the two pioneers of IIMA undertook, this claim is not entirely correct. For almost a decade before the IIMA efforts began, IITB had in place more than a kernel of this approach, under the not too enlightened leadership of the retired Brigadier S K Bose.

On p 157, TTR states that

...autonomy, academic freedom and faculty governance ...became part of the [IIMA] culture that Sarabhai and Matthai carefully fostered. And this culture is part of the explanation for the exceptional success IIMA has had in the Indian education system.

My contention is that rather than being a part of the explanation, this culture is indeed all of the explanation of the success. One might argue that other factors such as provision of resources, quality of student intake and receptivity of the environment have also contributed to the success. Perhaps. The fact that other IIMs and all IITs have also enjoyed the other advantages to the same extent as IIMA and have not quite

Economic Political Weekly

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august 6, 2011

reached its level of pre-eminence, suggests that it is the culture that is the principal force behind the IIMA success. It was this culture that brought out the best from the faculty.

And what made this culture flourish at IIMA? TTR says that

The decentralised structure at IIMA was, of course, an import from the west, as were notions of autonomy, academic freedom and faculty governance. Sarabhai and Matthai, both men with considerable experience of the Western university, could appreciate its merits and embraced its features whole-heartedly. Matthai’s genius was to go beyond the Western model and make adaptations on his own (p 164).

Sarabhai and RJM were not the only ones exposed to or impressed by western universities. RJM’s leadership had able and extensive support from caring, nurturing seniors, such as Kamla Chowdhry, Ishwar Dayal, G R Kulkarni, S K Bhattacharyya, D K Desai, among others, most of whom had as great if not greater exposure to and understanding of the western university system as the two pioneers.

The IIMA culture was not so much an import or an imposition from the top by a considerate leader as an organic transplant, initiated by visionary leaders, and sustained and nurtured by their senior colleagues who were equally concerned about the future. RJM would have been the first one to accept this and would have likened his role to that of a gentle conductor leading an orchestra of talented players to great performing heights. TTR would have us believe that RJM was composer, conductor and featured soloist all rolled into one.

All this recedes into the background by the final decision of RJM as IIMA director. Nothing quite became him like the act of renunciation. TTR is at his best in discussing this (pp 140-142, 253). As TTR says, this unique decision leading to giving up office, not seeking other positions and not influencing the choice of his successor set a precedent for IIMA, which ensures a most desirable and healthy turnover of institutional leadership. If RJM had done nothing else, this alone would have assured him a place in the annals of not just IIMA but Indian academia in general.

Other Issues

The volume does not do justice to a number of other issues. A brief list would

vol xlvi no 32

include IIMA’s unique architecture, which represents a stunning confluence between conceptual foundations and physical facilities, the great and early contribution by the Centre for Management of Agriculture in creating a research platform for IIMA and great goodwill in government and international agencies, and significant achievements of early alumni who have risen to the top of their professions. It does not even touch upon the flip side of the faculty-centric IIMA culture, namely, the treatment of all other staff as second-class citizens and a sense of isolation and institutional ego, the responsibility for which must surely rest with RJM.

TTR’s treatment of the last phase of RJM’s working life – his wholehearted commitment to the Jawaja project – is as dewyeyed and naive as was RJM’s own perception of the conditions then. The practical, ex-corporate executive RJM read the environment right and helped build up a quality institution that continued to flourish even after his departure from the helm of its affairs. The idealist, romantic ex-director RJM tried to conduct a Utopian experiment that did not survive his demise.

All of these could form the subject a detailed essay, but not a book review.

The book raises two concerns about such works. The first is financial support for the effort. Extensive research and study of available documentation, interviewing as many people as possible, and preparing draft after draft of manuscripts requires assistance from research staff, travel and freedom to concentrate on tasks at hand are all resource-intensive. Had such support been available to him, TTR could have at the least interviewed many more people, which would have improved the book.

The second is the need for a dedicated and often ruthless editor working with the

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author throughout the writing. This would have helped identify clearly the intended audience, either travelling executives who read how-to books while waiting for their flights or on the planes (and forget them soon thereafter), or serious readers and scholars, who prefer research and erudition. TTR seems to aim at both the groups simultaneously and ends up satisfying neither.

A rigorous editor would have ensured minimum use of anecdotes and incursions by the author and fact-checking, as also avoidance of nudge-and-wink glimpses into personal lives and excessive adulation of people who were peripheral at best to the

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-main theme, no matter how influential they may be otherwise. All of these are among the book’s shortcomings. Professional editing would have led to a more impressive physical appearance of the book, more exhaustive indexing and proper endnotes.

Finally, the editor would have advised against over-the-top hagiography descending into bathos:

A Ravi Matthai is a miracle that happens once in the life of an institution...Matthai was unique; he is non-replicable (p 253). We had the likes of Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, J R D Tata, V K R V Rao and R K Talwar. In that constellation of institutionbuilders, Ravi Matthai shines brightly (p 254).

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I peer over the heads of the [convocation] gathering...I am startled and have to stifle a gasp. In the opening between two trees, a face has appeared. Ravi Matthai is watching intently. It is the Matthai of the younger days, his thick mop of hair is jet black and he is wearing his trade-mark smile. Slowly, his gaze moves over the gathering below and then on to the stage. Do I glimpse a touch of anxiety in his eyes? It must be my imagination. “We are doing okay, Prof. We can’t possibly let you down, now can we?” (p 261).

Shreekant Sambrani (samman@sify.com) was on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad in the 1970s and was founder-director of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand.

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