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A question of timing

Premchand Palety 

Indian School of Business’ time could have come only in the late nineties and that too in Hyderabad. By then some of the alumni of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) had made it big abroad and wanted to play a role in India’s growth story that was unleashed by the liberalisation in the early nineties. Rajat Gupta, the IIT Delhi alumnus who graduated from Harvard, had peaked in his career as managing director of McKinsey. With his networking power he could bring the world to India, which he did, even if it meant bypassing some Indian laws.

For instance, the law at that time allowed only a society or trust to run a professional programme or give a professional degree. The Indian School of Business (ISB) is neither. It is registered under the Companies Act (though under section 25, which prohibits it from making a profit) and called its one-year programme a certificate programme, not a degree. The law was changed only last year to allow companies under section 25 to run professional programmes but professional degrees can be given only if the programme is either approved by the All India Council for Technical Education or run by an independent university

Chandrababu Naidu, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, had also matured beyond the insecurities typical of an Indian politician. He was perhaps the only chief minister then who understood the need for a world-class higher education institute driven purely by a meritocratic culture, and that a society needs excellence to elevate it to a higher level of existence. ISB was Gupta’s brainchild; its birth was facilitated by Naidu.

In his book, Pramath Raj Sinha, ISB’s founding dean, has chronicled the first ten years of the institution’s existence. It is an interesting narrative; about how the idea first started as a department of IIT Delhi; what made them change the plan to an independent institute; how they almost finalised the campus near Mumbai but backed off when Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray demanded reservation for the Marathis. It also explains the successes and challenges the institute faced, the building of its physical and academic infrastructure, the setting up of a second campus in Mohali and the story of its deans. Some faculty members and alumni have also been profiled.

The book acknowledges two important failures: one, not cultivating enough permanent faculty members who could reduce significantly the institute’s dependence on visiting faculty and, two, not being able to give a legal degree or its equivalent to the graduates. The author has only mentioned how the institute is trying to resolve the permanent faculty issue; he is silent on the degree part. Perhaps it’s time ISB’s governing board lobbied the government to elevate the institute to a university. The legal status of its degree will help ISB attract international students, which has always been one of its principal goals, as well as star global faculty on its permanent rolls.

ISB started with three permanent faculty members. It was only after Mendu Rammohan Rao took over as dean that the institute started hiring more. There are now 45 of them but most are into research; the teaching is being done by visiting faculty from top B-schools abroad. Sinha seems to justify this model. But an institute of excellence should be at the forefront of not only disseminating knowledge but also creating new knowledge; and the same faculty pool should be used in both activities.

Sinha often refers to ISB’s ranking by Financial Times as a great achievement. It is surprising that the first time, when ISB was ranked 20th globally, it was not even accredited by a reputed international body, which was the eligibility criteria for FT rankings. My big question is: why has ISB not been ranked by other international publications — such as The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek or US News and World Report? Is it because FT rankings give high weight to placements and career growth of some alumni? Are there other reasons? Ethics is one thing some of the key people behind ISB are not well known for — whether it is Anil Kumar, M R Rao or Rajat Gupta.

The book credits ISB with three innovations: the one-year programme; the visiting faculty model; and investment in the placement process by strong networking with recruiters. In my view, none of these can be called innovations, even in the Indian context. The one-year programme for students with significant work experience was started by the Delhi-based International Management Institute way back in 1986.

Similarly, many private B-schools in India run on the visiting faculty model. For instance, some faculty members of Delhi University’s Faculty of Management Studies at one time were known for teaching more outside campus in many private B-schools as visiting faculty. Many well-known B-schools in Pune thrive on this model, since it saves them resources. Instead of investing in faculty, many Indian B-schools spend a lot of resources networking with recruiters. That’s perhaps why they are often referred to as glorified placement agencies.

All in all, the book is a good read for those interested in knowing the ISB story and for those who want to gain an insight into the dynamics of setting up a business school. But many of its claims may not stand up to scrutiny.

The reviewer is chief executive of C fore

The Story of the Indian School of Business
Pramath Raj Sinha

Penguin India;
209 pages; Rs 499.

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First Published: Fri, February 24 2012. 00:25 IST