Volume 2 No.5                                                                                                                     September 1999

Cover Story

Achieving Academic Excellence : A Quest for Values

Construing Excellence

Excellence connotes the quality of being very good, distinguished and outstanding. Academic institutions of eminence dealing with higher education would have this quality in abundant measure in the main spheres of their activity, namely, teaching and research. Their good name and standing enables them to attract capable and illustrious faculty and students. Their academic programs are relevant, varied and challenging. The syllabi are not stagnant. There is continual change in response to developments taking place. This is especially true of institutions dealing with science and technology such as IITs. There would be many active research groups in these places. A distinguishing feature of such institutions is a high degree of interdisciplinary interactions among its faculty and students. In these institutions good teaching and good research go hand in hand. Rigid, ineffectual hierarchies are shunned. There are frequent visits of scholars and researchers from elsewhere. Interacting with these visiting scholars, listening to their seminar talks and learning about their work, first hand, is an attractive feature of the academic life in these institutions. In a similar manner, faculty members from these institutions are invited to other institutions. It is exciting to be a member of such an academic community. It is common to see in these institutions widespread feeling that important things are being pursued and achieved. Institutions of academic excellence know that a good strategy for promoting overall excellence is to nurture high peaks of outstanding achievement. Thus, they take special pains to attract eminent scholars and researchers to join them as faculty members.

A Self-directed Community

Academic community is, by and large, self-directed. Each faculty member has, of course, his assigned duties to carry out. They are, basically, teaching assignments, advising research students and some amount of academic administration. Apart from this, he is pretty much on his own.

The passion and commitment a faculty member brings to his profession depend on factors in his personality that motivate and drive him. The values and ideals he has imbibed in his life govern these factors. The impelling force that governs his dynamism is the urge to make his mark in a competitive environment. It is difficult in the recruitment process of faculty to gather information about the personality traits and maturity of individuals under consideration, apart from their professional competence, and use this information in decision making. However, good academic institutions attach much importance to this exercise and do use the information gathered in deciding about offers of faculty positions.

Interacting Value Systems

A young faculty member not only brings his value system to the institution, but also comes under the impact of the culture and ethos of the institution. If the institution, for example, is not very concerned about the quality of performance of its academic personnel, then, in course of time, it may not be totally unexpected to find the individual members lowering their standards of performance. Safeguarding standards and discouraging substandard performance are of paramount importance to these institutions.

For many young faculty, a disconcerting aspect of their early careers is that they have to be self-directed. Many are confused regarding what choices they should make and what their long term and short-term commitments should be. People without a clear focus drift and fritter away their professional lives. And given that generally bright, young persons are selected to faculty positions, failure to perform well is mostly due to this lack of focus and commitment. Such persons can get increasingly frustrated and unhappy as time passes and may cease to be of any value to the institution or to themselves. The earlier young faculty members realize this, the better it is for them in building successful careers. The commitment may be, for example, to develop a new course, to write a book or a research monograph, to develop an instructional laboratory, to study the background material and the published work in an evolving area, to secure research funding and execute a research project, etc.

Competitive Outlook

Generally, competition promotes academic excellence. Competition to attract the best students and faculty, in securing projects and research funding, to win awards and honours and to be known as institutions with outstanding achievements, generates an outlook which promotes excellence. These institutions attach great importance to the professional development of their faculty as good teachers and researchers, and would assist, through formal and informal ways young faculty members in their development. They would have systems for evaluating the performance of individuals, departments and research centers, and the institution as a whole. They would take steps to identify and overcome the limitations. Only the meritorious would be rewarded. These institutions would exert to provide proper infrastructural support for the activities of its faculty and students.

Closure

The character of an institution evolves over time. There is no doubt that the aims spelt out in the charter of the institution, for example, the IIT Act in the case of IITs, influence and guide this evolution. It is also the case that competitive environment is crucially needed for development of excellence. However, in the final analysis, the most important factors that decide academic excellence are the values and ideals of the academic community, past and present.

Prof. S.S. Prabhu

Department of Electrical Engineering

Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur

Kanpur - 208 016

e.mail: sprabhu@iitk.ac.in


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