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Ravi Matthai and IIMA: A Response

 Ravi Matthai and IIMA: A Response T T Ram Mohan I am grateful to Shreekant Sambrani for the detailed treatment he has given my book on Ravi J Matthai (RJM) and for a highly readable review (


Ravi Matthai and IIMA: A Response

T T Ram Mohan

am grateful to Shreekant Sambrani for the detailed treatment he has given my book on Ravi J Matthai (RJM) and for a highly readable review (“Ravi Matthai and His Many-Splendoured Institute”, EPW, 6 August 2011).

I must confess I read the review with some bafflement. Sambrani faults me for not covering things that are, in fact, covered at length; ascribes to me conclusions I do not arrive at; and appears disappointed because the book does not conform to some format he may have had in mind. Let me respond to some of the points he makes.

Sambrani says at the outset that the book lacks a clear enunciation of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad’s (IIMA) ethos. This is an astonishing statement to make, given that the book devotes a whole chapter to the institute’s culture, processes and governance mechanisms (Chapter 6). By way of compensating for this supposed lapse on my part, Sambrani proffers a “worm’s eye-view” of important features of the institute’s ethos – decisionmaking through committees, the absence of hierarchy, peer group pressure, etc, every one of which figures in the chapter!

Towards the end of Chapter 6, I summarise the key elements of the IIMA model. Sambrani quotes this summary at length and goes on to wonder how I arrive at this “conclusion”. He is unable to see how the two earlier chapters, in which I describe the growth of IIMA under RJM, lead on to this “conclusion”.

Well, it should be apparent that there is no “conclusion”. The founding fathers of IIMA thought through the model from first principles. I have outlined the beliefs under lying the IIMA model, often in the words of Matthai himself.

However, there is no line that connects the various activities of the institute – the postgraduate programme (PGP), executive training, the doctoral programme, faculty recruitment, placement, etc – with the culture that Sarabhai and Matthai put in place. The culture is a wholly independent construct.

In more than one place, Sambrani puts an incorrect construction on what I have said. He cites the following paragraph:

[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.

Sambrani calls the above paragraph “hagiography”. The characterisation is completely misplaced. The first sentence in the above paragraph is from an earlier paragraph and is a quote from Matthai himself. The last sentence is intended as a statement of fact, although it may sound like praise when detached from the context. Let me explain.

In the paragraphs preceding the above quote, I describe adaptations to the western model that Matthai made: a chairman of a department or activity without any powers; chairmanship that goes strictly by rotation so that a faculty member can become chairman within a year or two of joining the institute; the absence of written rules for many matters; a focus on selfregulation, etc.

When I say that the IIMA system had no parallel, there is no value judgment implied in the statement. I am only stating that the adaptations that Matthai made were unique to IIMA. If Sambrani is aware of any other institution in India (or abroad) that had these features at the time, I am happy to be enlightened.

Sambrani poses the question, “And what made this culture flourish at IIMA?” He reproduces what he claims is an answer I provide, namely, that Sarabhai and Matthai had imported the model of the

August 27, 2011

western university. I do nothing of the kind. I merely narrate what happened. That this is the reason the culture flourished at IIMA is entirely Sambrani’s construction.

Nor do I suggest that it is a feat that Matthai pulled off single-handedly, as Sambrani claims I do. Indeed, in discussing why faculty governance turned out to be as strong as it was in Matthai’s days, I state clearly that one reason was that many faculty had previous international exposure. I add, “Thus the leadership and the faculty reinforced each other” (p 196). My meaning is clear enough.

Sambrani says that culture is the whole of the explanation for IIMA’s success. I happen to think that culture is primarily, but not solely, responsible; I would go along with some of the other factors that Sambrani himself cites. The role of leadership in ensuring that the culture took root in such a short time is impossible to ignore. That is why I have thought it necessary to devote a chapter to Matthai’s leadership qualities and style of management, something that Sambrani believes adds little value to the book.

Sambrani declares that I “had access to all the relevant documents”. Not true, I am afraid. I sought but was not given access to RJM’s correspondence and the minutes of board meetings of his time. He says I could have done a better job had I been given financial support and had an editor with me throughout. This is, of course, true just as it is true that one is better off being a millionaire than earning a few thousand rupees. For the record, let me say that IIMA refused me sabbatical leave to work on the project.

Finally, Sambrani says that I should have been clear about the intended audience for my book. Let me clarify that I set out to produce a serious book that would be accessible to a wide audience. I wanted the IIMA story to be read widely as it holds valuable lessons for institutions in general, not just academic institutions. Sambrani should be pleased. I have left the field open for an academic treatise on RJM and IIMA.

T T Ram Mohan ( teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

vol xlvI no 35

Economic & Political Weekly

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