Institute Soapbox (Day 1): Research Affairs Secretary, Institute General Elections 2018

By Tony Fredrick and Kaushik Viswanath

The Institute Soapbox series began on the 6th of March 2018 with the soapbox for the post of Research Affairs Secretary (RAS). It was a fascinating debate between Sudharshan R (research scholar, department of Electrical Engineering) and Manjeet Keshav (research scholar, department of Mechanical Engineering), the two contenders for the post. Tony Fredrick and Kaushik Viswanath report.*

As per standard soapbox procedure, it began with a ten-minute presentation by each of the candidates. This was followed by a cross-questioning session between the candidates and a round of questions from the members of the current Executive Council. Eventually, the floor was thrown open to the GSB (General Student Body) for asking questions. The soapbox was moderated by Chaithra Navada of the SECC. The soapbox video by the Student Election Commission can be viewed on Youtube here

Presentation by Sudharshan R

Sudharshan mainly stressed on his vision to create a conducive atmosphere for research scholars by simplifying and streamlining the procedures, and creating greater opportunities in terms of career growth. He addressed the major issue of the hostel room crunch by suggesting that the RAS must be included in the Hostel Accommodation Committee to ensure the allotment of single rooms to research scholars on a case by case basis. He proposed a new means of communication exclusively for the post-graduate (PG) students for the publication of important news through monitored google groups and WhatsApp groups which he believes will be more effective than smail. He also said that he would organize preparatory workshops on software essential for research in the months of January and July to facilitate the new students. With the guidance of senior students, he plans to conduct informative sessions on written comprehensive tests.

In order to boost placements, he wants to look into the process of regularly updating the core Bluebook with the help of the International and Alumni Relations Team. A key point that he mentioned was the development of a mobile application to relay information on time. As a move aimed at increasing the number of placement opportunities, he expressed his desire to pitch the importance and credibility of the post-graduate programmes in IITs through the All IIT Placement Committee to recruit post-graduate students for their job profiles. Sudharshan also proposed the creation of an Institute level grievance cell to address the issues faced by all research scholars for concerns apart from academics and research. He intends to create a complete inventory of all central and departmental facilities and maintain an online portal for the same for booking these facilities. He also proposed having a mechanism to track purchase orders to avoid unnecessary delays in research work.

Presentation by Manjeet Keshav

Manjeet Keshav began by introducing the idea of ‘Research Buddy System’,  a guidance platform for the new scholars by senior research scholars. He proposed the creation and maintenance of an online portal integrated with the IITM workflow website for the tracking of purchase orders. He also promised to improve basic amenities available to research scholars at their workplace, such as improving cleanliness, seating arrangements, and so on. Manjeet Keshav proposed the idea of modernizing the department websites and updating them with complete details of the research scholars, i.e. their research work, achievements etc., so that companies will be able to have a better picture of their credentials while recruiting them. He also proposed the idea of creating a new feedback portal for the Campus Café (CC) and Food for Thought (FFT) through the IITM Students App.

He stressed on the need to restructure and strengthen the placement team to boost placements for post-graduate students. He intends to work on the branding of the MS programme to increase its credibility and recognition so that it is treated on par with the M. Tech programme. Manjeet also proposed the need to channelize a ‘Lead Tracking System’ to improve placements and allot a Point of Contact (PoC) to a company as a scholar working on the research area as the company itself. He too, brought up the issue of hostel room accommodation and proposed the inclusion of a tab in workflow to know the status of quarters allotment.

Cross-questioning between the candidates

The moderator then invited the candidates to ask each other a maximum of three questions in an alternate fashion, and they were as follows.

Manjeet Keshav asked Sudharshan R about the feasibility of the mobile application for the placement process. He said that this was a manifesto point of the previous RAS too,  which had not been implemented. Sudharshan replied that last year, the application wasn’t developed due to the lack of funds and a severe time constraint. This year, however, talks are in progress with a third-party vendor for the creation of the application and that they had a rough estimate of the cost. On being questioned by Manjeet, Sudharshan conceded that the idea of creating an application wasn’t originally his own, but that he intends to enforce its use. His reasoning was that walk-ins were the primary source of interviews for research scholars, and often, the research scholars could not get the information about walk-ins on time, and hence it was essential to use the app to benefit research scholars.

Sudharshan then asked Manjeet on how he intends to restructure the placement team and why there was a need to do so. Manjeet replied that he wishes to introduce a Lead Tracking System(LTS). He wants to assign PoCs to companies in such a way that the assigned scholar does research in the same area as the company’s specialization. Manjeet also stressed on the need to look for placement opportunities outside the campus, and said that he would construct a dedicated team for the same. Sudharshan clarified that, in his experience in the placement team, the PoC allotted was usually from the same department, and also that coordinators prepared a list for walk-ins beforehand, based on the resumes, and he did not understand what was new with the LTS proposal. Manjeet clarified by saying that he was not going to introduce this measure, but channelize it.

Manjeet inquired if Sudharshan had done background research on the creation of an online inventory of experimental facilities. Sudharshan answered in the affirmative and went on to add that he had discussed this issue the Dean of Academic Research. He said that the Dean also wants this to be done at the earliest and has also said that a proportional number of teaching assistants will be allotted for each department to compile this inventory.

Sudharshan then asked Manjeet about his committee to oversee the allotment of personal computers to research scholars. Manjeet replied that they intend to have a rating system based on the need for a computer by each scholar, and the data would be shared with the department to allocate department funds for the same. Sudharshan replied by saying that the computers were purchased by the guides from the project fund, and not from the department fund and that there was no department funds allocated for computers. Sudharshan further inquired that besides allotting the existing computers on a preferential basis (which was already being done), where Manjeet would like to draw funds from for new computers. Manjeet said that he had no idea as of now, but the committee would search for alternate sources.

Manjeet then expressed his concerns over the fact that the Research Affairs Council (RAC) was already burdened with work, and that the online tracking system would only add to the workload and inquired how Sudharshan would put a mechanism in place so that the RAC can handle the burden. Sudharshan clarified by saying that the mechanism would be to intimate the scholar by smail at each stage of the purchase of the order and if delayed, the scholar could directly go to the last updated stage and inquire about the same. He clarified that the RAC was only mentioned because the mechanism wasn’t devised by the manifesto deadline

Sudharshan retorted that the grievance tab in the Students App would be pointless, if there was no separate committee to deal with the greivance. Manjeet said that the greivances would go through the RAS, who would then further the complaint to the authority concerned with the complaint. 

General Questions

The outgoing RAS, Ashok Kumar S, opened the questioning by asking Sudharshan how he would establish academia as a career option during placements and how he would address problems regarding inter-disciplinary programme students. In reply, Sudharshan clarified that due to fewer number of students working in a particular domain, colleges were hesitant to come for placements in the previous years. To remedy this, he said scholars would be made aware of opportunities outside. In response to the inter-disciplinary programme problem, Sudharshan admitted that he had not done enough groundwork, but assured that he would work on it as soon as possible and reach out with a solution.

Ashok then proceeded to question Manjeet about the state of his feasibility report, and how it had escaped his notice all this time. Manjeet clarified by saying that he had noticed the errors only recently, and that he would take it up with the SECC as soon as possible.

Ashok then asked both the scholars about their stand on the recent administration decision to vacate married scholars who have extended their stay more than 5 years. When Manjeet replied that it would be done on a case to case basis, and added that the work and semi-annual reports of the scholars would be taken into consideration, Ashok followed up by asking what policy level changes were to be made. Manjeet suggested that the research staff could be moved to a leased building near the campus, which Ashok said would be pointless, since the research staff were never allotted quarters in the campus anyway. Ashok then asked Sudharshan for his response to the same. Sudharshan remarked that the re-allocation process could be streamlined by asking out-going students to submit a no dues certificate and the keys to the Estate Section so the quarters could be allotted quicker. In addition to that, with the new faculty quarters coming up, Sudharshan assured that he would speak with the administration to allocate any vacant old quarters to the PG students on a priority basis.

Ashok Kumar then went on to question Sudharshan about what was new in his proposed grievance cell. Sudharshan clarified that since his proposed grievance cell would be common for the whole institute, it would be less biased towards the professors as opposed to departmental cells which have a higher likelihoodd of bias, and that it would also be more student friendly. Ashok then said that any such committee shall comprise of only professors and therefore there would be no difference in his idea and the existing mechanism. Sudharshan replied by saying that the new committee will have the Dean of Academics as a head and will contain a student representative, and that the RAS would just decide if an urgent case would need the committee to convene immediately.

Ashok then questioned the need for a new feedback portal in the Students App for CC and FFT, and Manjeet clarified that this would be only a complaint box and not a feedback portal.

On being questioned about the branding of the MS programme, Manjeet replied that promotional videos would be made, research lab facilities would be publicised, information brochures would be distributed through various platforms and through such means, awareness about the programme would increase. In addition to this, on ground approach towards colleges would also be done.

The outgoing SGS, Sai Kiran GL asked what could be done to hold the CCW accountable to accomodate the research scholars’ requests for single rooms. To this Manjeet replied that though the CCW was an independent body, it was a part of the institute, and that they could be worked with and convinced to provide rooms on a case to case basis. Sudharshan proposed that a PG member, possibly the RAS, could be made a part of the Hostel Allocation Committee, since the HAS would not know the intricacies of the problems faced by research scholars.

Sai Kiran then asked the candidates what plans they had to take care of the mental health of the candidates. Manjeet replied that they would coordinate with bodies like Saathi, Mitr etc, and that the majority of mental health issues could be dealt with by streamlining most processes for research scholars as described in his manifesto. Sudharshan replied by saying that the systems in place did not have awareness among scholars and needed to be publicized. He assured that more research would be done about this subject in order to serve the research scholars better.

When questioned about LitSoc, sports participation and inclusion of PG students into institute activities and about the PG orientation, Manjeet replied saying that while organizing a PG orientation would be done, awareness about the existing opportunities must be done to encourage participation. Sudharshan said that he would ensure that the PG orientation would be conducted. In addition, a plan would be drafted to ensure that the participation of PGs would be encouraged and improved.

The Speaker, Nikhil Namburi Bharadwaj then questioned Manjeet on his proposal to give “equal representation for all legislators in SLC”. The speaker first clarified by explaining the structure of the PG positions in SLC and then asked Manjeet to clarify the same. Manjeet clarified that the voting power of the vacant posts should be shared among the existing legislators. The Speaker then retorted that there was no constitutional basis to do so, and the only way a legislator could be appointed was by elections or by nomination of the HoD for an interim position till the next election takes place. Manjeet then questioned the Speaker about positions being nominated based on preferences, and Nikhil clarified by saying that only the HoD had the power to do so, and hence there was no question of bias. Manjeet said a discussion regarding this point could be held in the SLC and any issues that propped up could be discussed there.

Nikhil then asked about the point regarding promoting participation of the RAC and research legislators in the SLC. Failing to get a proper answer, Nikhil moved on to question both the candidates about academia as a career option for PG students and why it was not featured in either of their manifestos. Manjeet clarified by saying that he had included a point regarding meet-ups with other universities and stated that it could be a method for students to get contacts for academic career options.

Nikhil ended by questioning Sudharshan about his idea for Bluebooks for PG students, given that Bluebooks already existed for most departments, apart from an institute wide Bluebook. He also asked about the involvement of the I&AR team in the same. Sudharshan replied by stating that core Bluebooks were not updated regularly and that he would update and increase awareness about the same. The I&AR team would be consulted to understand the structure of a Bluebook in order to write a proper one.

The outgoing I&AR Secretary Vineesha Badhabagni then questioned Manjeet on the proposed University meet-up. She told him that she was working on the same programme (International Fair) with the current RAS and that they were putting in a lot of effort without much progress. She wanted him to outline the plan that he had chalked out for implementing the same. He agreed that he was not aware of this and that he hoped to work in tandem with the I&AR team to bring this plan to fruition.

Vineesha then asked about how they were planning on increasing awareness and participation in the JDP and GSP programmes, to which Sudharshan replied saying that he planned to organize a University Fair every year for incoming research scholars to acquaint them with the opportunities available, akin to the one being organized this year during RSD. Vineesha clarified that an I&AR orientation was conducted for the same purpose. Manjeet answered saying that most scholars aren’t aware of these opportunities and that university talks could be organized at department specific levels to promote the same.

A member of the GSB asked the candidates whether they had done an analysis of how much time it would take to implement each of their manifesto points. Sudharshan replied that he had done so for most of his points. He added that some new mechanisms can only be initiated in his tenure and that their full success would be seen only in the coming years. When inquired about the time frame of the feasibility report, both candidates agreed that they had not performed an analysis.

A GSB member asked Sudharshan about the feasibility of his tri-monthly checks and the people who would be in charge of the check. To this, Sudharshan clarified that the checks would be once in three months and would be done either by the Facility In-charge or the vendors, and that these would be signed off by a student using the equipment.

When questioned on what constitutes a strong recommendation to the DC, Sudharshan said that it would be the time requested by the student for completion of his course. For the frequency of DC meetings, Sudharshan said that an agenda had been passed in the Board Of Research Affairs to convene DC meetings in the middle of the duration of the course of the research scholars to evaluate the situation. Manjeet, however, replied by stating that he had never used the words “strong recommendation” in his manifesto and that he agreed with the GSB member about the irregularity of the DC meetings.

When questioned about the branding of research programmes not being on par with that of the M.Tech programmes, especially with regard to placements, Sudharshan said that special attention was paid to this issue with open companies and that the placement statistics revealed an equal percentage of placements for MS and M.Tech programmes. He further said that it depended on the placement team and their pitch to the companies, and assured that the effort would be kept up in his tenure, should he be elected. Manjeet said that if his ideas, which were explained in the discussion with the RAS previously, were implemented, the effort required by the placement team would decrease.

Manjeet’s LTS was questioned again by a GSB member, in addition to an inquiry about how the Yearbook by the RAC could be used for the same. Manjeet replied that he would channelize the leads using the LTS, and that it was not a new initiative. Manjeet admitted that he did not know of the exact application of the Yearbook. The GSB member then clarified by saying that the Yearbook had a detailed profile of research for every scholar and was maintained and updated digitally for the past 6-7 years, and sent to companies for placements. He further said that this rendered the LTS useless, especially considering the small size of the research placement team. Manjeet accepted his lack of knowledge in the same topics, and assured that if elected, he would learn about it.

Both the candidates were questioned on the need to conduct exclusive soft-skills training sessions for the post-graduate students when such sessions were already being conducted for all students of the institute. Exclusive sessions would only lead to the wastage of funds. Manjeet stated that he did not know about the mechanism of sessions conducted about the placement team, but he planned on conducting special sessions, which did not answer the question posed. Sudharshan replied that the awareness and effectiveness of the sessions was reduced due to the large number of students and that an exclusive session would help in increasing the effectiveness. When questioned about the other soft-skill training opportunities in the institute, and how funding would be obtained for exclusive sessions, Sudharshan replied that he had no knowledge about the matter, and that funding would have to be looked into.

A member of the GSB then inquired about Manjeet’s point of structurally transforming the placement team and introducing “professionalism” in the team. Manjeet replied that the answer was the same as the one he had given to Sudharshan and reiterated that the structure of the team would remain the same, and when he stated that a new team for off campus placement would be created, he was informed that such a team was already in place.

Sudharshan was then questioned about sources of funding for the computer purchases. Sudharshan admitted that he hadn’t noticed the problem during the writing of his manifesto, but had consulted a lot of people on the same. Though a feasibility check had not done, Sudharshan proposed that new computers could be purchased either by using alumni funds under the I&AR team or purchase the computers and reimburse them in installments later.

The moderator closed by asking Manjeet about the status his feasibility report, and how it lacked in many areas. 

With this, the soapbox for the post of Research Affairs Secretary came to an end. The moderator dissolved the session by thanking the GSB and the candidates for their participation.

*This is the edited and expanded version of a previously published report of the RAS Soapbox. 

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