by Aroon Narayanan and Shilpa Menon
A Townhall Meeting, the first one after over three decades, was convened on 16th February, and aimed at narrowing the communication gap between the administration and the students on a variety of rules, procedures and policies followed by the institute. An online form was circulated for collecting suggestions from the students regarding the questions to be discussed, and offline forms were made available at the start of the meeting as well. Prof L. S. Ganesh (Dean, Students) Prof Mahesh (Co Curricular Advisor), Prof Gopalakrishnan (MMCC Chairman), Prof V. Babu (Advisor, Training and Placements), Prof Sivakumar (Mitr Chief Advisor) were present, while Prof Maiyya (Chairman, Council of Wardens) and Prof Chakkingal (Cultural Advisor), were unavailable. Other members of the panel, however, answered questions on behalf of Prof Maiyya.
Questions to Prof. Mahesh Panchagnula, Co-Curricular Affairs Advisor
The meeting started out with the Speaker laying down a set of ground rules for the meeting and Prof Ganesh delivering opening comments, which were followed by the sole question relating to co-curricular affairs being taken up by Prof Mahesh. He said that the decision to associate with core industries for projects were taken on students’ suggestions and that being in contact with the industry helps students in more than one way. He pointed out that while student-driven projects have no dearth of support from Alumni and Gymkhana funds as well, competitions, which are growing in number, will most likely have to majorly depend on industry sponsorship. He also remarked that infrastructural expansions, which include the current proposal of setting up a Mechatronics Lab at CFI, are also being aided by industrial support, thanks to growing exposure due to Shaastra and other competitions.
Responding to a question about the ease of getting support for projects, he added that CFI’s website has a ‘Propose A Project’ option, and the vast majority of the proposals are approved. Following up, he was asked to clarify on the negative impression that Shaastra has on the faculty, to which he retorted that this was a matter of perception, which can only be changed by taking steps to involve the faculty. These have already begun, with faculty judging some events and also being reached out to by events such as CFI Open House.
Questions to Prof. V. Babu, Advisor, Training and Placements
Next, questions to Advisor, Training and Placements, were taken up. When asked about the ‘reason for the dearth of Core jobs’, Prof Ramesh conceded that there had been a decrease in the number of students placed in core companies compared to last year, but, pointing to statistics on a slide, added that other sectors had made up for the slump. He further went on to add that while part of the reason might be an industrial slump, it had also been reported by many core companies that the students were found severely lacking in core concepts. He provided the example of a CS company which came on Day 5 (to recruit students with CGPA 8-8.5) with the intention of recruiting 4-5 students, but had to return empty handed since not a single student scored above the cutoff in their test, which was 25/50, and went on to add that half a dozen students actually turned in an empty paper! He mentioned that these companies were slotted by the students themselves, so it would be improper to say that students disliked the companies’ profile. Replying to the query on a set-up for second-year students to get internships, he said that there was no proper set-up for students of any year to get internships. Usually, departments take care of internships for their students. Lately, due to the increasing demand for interns, a need for a proper set-up is being felt, but the number of requests from second-year students is still quite low. As for the issue of Dual Degree students not being allowed to do a pre-final year internship, he said exceptions can be made for these students to start their DDPs from August 1 instead of July 1, provided they stay on during the following June and July for their DDPs.
Other issues that came up in connection with placements were the quality of teaching, the weightage given to course feedback and the level of teacher-student interaction afforded by B. Tech courses as they are conducted now. Many among the audience agreed when an appellant added that some professors, who may be top-cadre academicians, were lacking in communication and teaching skills. Professor Sivakumar responded by saying that skill development sessions were conducted for faculty, about twice a year. However, attendance cannot be made compulsory, since employees were subject to rules different from that of students. Apart from such sessions, incentives such as the ‘Best Teacher Award’ were instituted with similar aims. As for the question regarding the weightage given to course feedback forms, the Advisors were unanimous in their affirmation of its relevance. Prof. Mahesh summed it up by saying that poor feedback does indeed make it so that ’the people whom students perceive as bad teachers take a little longer to get promoted’. Research scholars are only permitted to take very specific modules of the course, covering about one-third of the total syllabus.
On classroom interaction, the general opinion among the audience was that ‘a few students in the front desks’ got all the attention in the often huge classes. In response, the panel members spoke about how they, as professors, encouraged students to come and speak to them personally, or in small groups, as it wasn’t realistic to address all doubts in one large class. This practice, as Prof Mahesh pointed out, would help develop a culture of questioning and intellectual curiosity, but is lacking as of now.
Further questions regarding quality of teaching were set aside as the panel members requested the audience to stick to matters concerning IIT Madras as a residential campus (‘the living part’) as opposed to topics such as these that have already been discussed at length, and could be taken up in another session.
Questions to Prof. Sivakumar, Head of Mitr
The first question asked to Professor Sivakumar was about the meditation sessions conducted by Mitr in the Himalaya lawns a week before quizzes. He responded by first clarifying that these sessions are meant to teach ‘relaxation exercises’ with the aim of equipping those who attended with stress-busting techniques that they could practice during quiz times. An awareness session had to be conducted in the Himalaya lawns to attract more attendees. The remaining sessions, however, were held in SAC. The second question on the agenda, ‘Why are student suicides handled quietly? Everyone can be informed in a healthy manner’, led to a long discussion. Prof. Sivakumar was of the opinion that such matters must be handled with due respect and discretion, with counselling being offered to the students closely involved with the case. Professor Ganesh clarified that he does send out mails informing the student body of the unfortunate incident, and that there are condolence meetings with limited attendance. He also touched upon the legal limitations of releasing information before medical reports are out. Professor Mahesh added that the law is very clear about releasing confidential information to none other than relatives of the person.
Next to be taken up were the queries on the Life Skills course. Prof Sivakumar informed that seven modules were fixed for the course after holding multiple rounds of consultations, with the objective of developing the skill to understand and cope with emotions, and communicate well, among freshmen. On being asked whether students were involved in this process, he said some of the Mitr members were consulted. There were no external organisations involved, but guest lecturers were invited to deliver specific modules. He added that some of the content was well received, but efforts are on for fine-tuning the course, given that the students opined that the course being held every week was a distraction. One proposal for the same, he said, was that the course should be spread over a year, instead on one semester. At this point, a student suggested that modules on ‘spirituality’ be added to the course, which Prof Sivakumar refuted by saying that it was easier said than done, but other optional courses are slowly being introduced. To the question of freshmen being lodged separately from their direct seniors, Prof Ganesh pointed out that this was a Supreme Court directive, which IIT-M does not have control over.
Questions to Prof. Gopala Krishna, Chairman, MMC
Mess-related questions were addressed to Prof. Gopala Krishna. In answer to the question about the weightage given to mess feedback, Prof. Gopal Krishna and Prof. LSG stressed upon the need for all students to sign in to the online portal and give honest feedback. They added that one of the caterers had indeed been relieved of their services owing to the poor feedback received. Poor feedback, they said, is also a cause of concern to the caterers as this also reflects in IITM’s recommendations when other institutions that hire the caterers after their tenure contact the administration. The students were requested to avoid rushing through feedback in order to register quickly. The panel rejected the idea of shortening the minimum rebate period from 10 days to 3–students could simply avail of rebates across weekends, and this would result in losses for the caterers.
(Note: Mess rebate is a refund of mess charges if the student does not use the mess for ten days or more. This can only be availed if the student informs the caterers at least 3 days in advance of his/her absence.)
The isolation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian messes was another matter that was brought to the attention of the MMCC Advisor. In connection, a member of the audience spoke of his experience where the same rice was taken from a non-vegetarian rice dish and served to students. The panel members earnestly requested students to lodge formal complaints immediately, no matter how discouraging the caterers are. They stated that this would be taken quite seriously (later, forms were sent via smail to gauge student response to the setting up of a new pure-vegetarian mess).
Dining charges are included in charges for all persons staying in hostels, be it students, long-term or short term guests. This is a matter of convention, as the Institute is ‘duty-bound’ to provide meals to students, and in extension, other guests too. It could therefore not be made optional, even for guests.
On the issue of a pay per meal system, the panel clarified that it was sought to be implemented with the introduction of biometric scanning. Until that system is set up, the practice of paying fixed semester-wise charges will have to continue. When the question regarding making mess entirely optional was asked, the panel settled the issue by pointing out the fact that mess services are part of the Institute’s responsibility to its residing students, and not a commercial service that could be terminated by choice.
Questions to Prof. L.S. Ganesh, Dean (Students)
When asked about outside traffic regularly using Institute roads as thoroughfare, Prof Ganesh stated this was illegal and prompted students to report such incidents. The issue of street lighting, however, was brushed aside with a passing reference to a new lighting system being tried out by the Institute in the roads near Durga Peeliamman temple and Fourth Cross Road.
In response to a query regarding the irregular timings of operation of cycle repair shops, Professor Ganesh informed that a new shop is being proposed to be set up on the path from Narmada to Cauvery. Including this one, there would be three, which he hoped would mean that students would get more choices, but refrained from promising betterment in services of the existing ones.
The topic of barring female entry to male hostels was also brought up. Once again, the usual points about there being enough and more meeting spots apart from hostels, and the provision of visitor’s rooms being sufficient, were brought up in response. In connection, the matter of students’ rights as adults was also discussed — a question directly addressing this was on the agenda, but could not be discussed owing to time constraints. The law of the land was cited once again, and the Dean of Students clarified that this was legally a ‘grey area’; being a residential campus places additional responsibility on the Institute to protect its students. Moreover, the Institute has to negotiate between parents’ and students’ opinions regarding regulation, especially in this case, where most parents strongly support the barring rule. It has been left to the wardens because they are held responsible for most issues at their respective hostels. In relation, it was clarified that hostels are allowed to have separate rules that do not override CCW rules.
The question of why there wasn’t any moderation on wardens’ regular visits to their hostels was indirectly dealt with as part of other questions. The panel made it clear that the post of Warden was a voluntary one, and hence duties are taken up as per the discretion of the persons holding office. They would, however, be held fully accountable for anything that may happen in hostels in their absence. This led to a discussion of the common incident of security guards not even allowing female relatives into hostels citing the rule barring entry of female students, and the student being unable to contact the Warden for a resolution of the issue. As a solution, the panel members suggested that in such a situation, students contact any member of the faculty holding a position of responsibility to settle matters.
When questioned about the idea to scrap ‘Ice Cream Nights’ and other such events in hostels, the panel justified it by saying that there was a greater likelihood of ‘audit problems’ with such events; accounts could be meddled with. In addition, it is the administration that is held responsible for such lapses, and not the student office-bearers.
The members of the panel seemed unaware of the arrangement wherein guests have to charges of Rs.300 per day for a full 2 days if they stay in student rooms beyond 12 am. They assured the audience that this rule would be looked into. However, the Dean of Students did add that the charge for outsiders was as high as Rs.300 per day (as opposed to the Rs.200 per day charged from long-term guests such as those who come for conferences) as a disincentive; the Institute does not wish to encourage outsiders taking up rooms when they’re duty-bound to give adequate space to students and long-term guests.
According to Prof. L. S. Ganesh, the purpose of the meeting, more than the resolution of issues, was communication. As far as this goes, the townhall meeting was indeed a success, with quite a few things being brought to the administration’s attention. Although the student attendance was quite low, most of those who attended stayed on for the entirety of the four-hour meeting. The discussions proceeded quite amicably, even for those topics where heated exchanges were expected. The Advisors and the students parted fairly satisfied and on good terms, with the SAC Speaker assuring the attendees that another meeting would be set up to discuss the remaining questions on the agenda.
Photo credits: Surajram Kumaravel