Saturday, February 16, 2008

Alumni and their institutions

It is hard not to be impressed by the philanthropic contributions of alumni to the universities they have attended, particularly in America. Most universities routinely raise millions of dollars from former students, who contribute towards setting up new ventures, establishing resource centers or labs, endowing professorships or scholarships and so on. In addition, the various alumni associations remain in close contact with the parent university, being involved in just about everything from football and basketball games to campaigns and expansion efforts. In contrast, the involvement or philanthropic contributions of alumni to academic institutions in India remain relatively miniscule. There certainly are a number of bureaucratic or legislative reasons for that, as is typical in India. But I think there might be something more (at least for me).

I started thinking about it after I received an email recently from the center for alumni affairs from my old undergrad institution. It was a typical email written in the typical style of an Indian bureaucrat. It started by calling the present vice chancellor of the university a “great visionary”, and then claimed how wonderful an education and research institute the university was, and then pointing me towards an effort to get the alumni more involved with their contributions towards the university.

There’s nothing wrong in that. Except that, upon a little reflection, I don’t think I would particularly want to do anything for my undergraduate college. In stark contrast, if I do reach a stage in my life when I can make a philanthropic contribution or contribute otherwise to my old high school, or to my graduate school or any other institution I’ve been associated with, I am very likely to do so. But why is that?

I have fond memories of college. I didn’t love every moment of it, but it certainly was a fun time during some very important years in my life. While growing as a person, I made some good friends, found a few good faculty mentors, and managed to acquire some knowledge in the process. But, as I think about it now, those were things I would have had in any university. Those friends or the handful of faculty who influenced me remain important, but while I associate them with my time in the university, I don’t associate the university itself with them. Somehow, as I thought about this email I received, I started to realize why.

Let me explain. Those college years are very important to most people. They are right in those formative years, where knowledge is acquired, horizons and perspectives broadened and important life and career choices are made. Students have just emerged from high school, and are now young adults with the government given right to drive, drink or vote in the next general election, using their own discretion. They are full of energy and purpose, looking for encouragement and direction. At least that was how I looked at it.

But unfortunately, at least in my old institution (which was typical of most government/state institutes in India, which are the “top” universities in the country) provided everything but that. Instead of a world of knowledge and ideas, I went to a world of rules and bureaucracy, full of petty minds and narrow thoughts. The general attitude of a large section of the staff and faculty was largely unhelpful, and one of extreme hierarchy and authority. To get the smallest of jobs done, one would have to beg, flatter and plead repeatedly over weeks or months sometimes. Instead of giving the students the freedom to attend the classes they wanted to, there was a strict, mandatory attendance policy (of 90% of the classes each year). This was irrespective of whether the student learnt anything in class or not. Failure to attend class (even if you aced the tests) would mean having to repeat the course. That of course had nothing to do with class participation, since many faculty hated students who dared to question. Many courses were extremely uninteresting, and were taught by incompetent lecturers incapable of thinking beyond the textbook (or with lecture notes that hadn’t been updated for 20 years). What’s more, some faculty remained particularly narrow minded, and the rules would put some military schools to shame. These rules would range from attempted “dress codes” through faculty taking offense at students chatting outside their classes in the hallway, to “bans” on cell phones or rules discouraging people of opposite sex from any sort of interaction (yup, in college), or denying use of university computers or the internet. At the end of the college years, students would have to run from pillar to post to get their academic transcripts (sometimes pleading with the staff to issue them one), and would be required to get this ridiculous document called a “character certificate” (which is still required when applying for graduate school or government jobs in India. The purpose it serves remains a mystery). At the end of four years of college, the student receive everything but a broad, liberal education, in spite of being amongst the brightest and most self motivated students in the country. While most students would miss their college friends and life, I think only a few would actually miss their college itself. There may even be a slight feeling of bitterness against the college as they leave.

Cut to ten or twenty years later. Many students who have passed out are now extremely successful. Some have managed to reach fairly enviable levels of affluence. At this stage they are quite ready to make some philanthropic contributions. But even if they do want to support students in their old institutions, they know that they will have to go through that wall of bureaucrats or faculty who will continue to treat students like little children, throwing about their rules and ideas. The very thought of interacting with those old staff or professors who made their lives miserable years ago is distasteful (at least for me). I wouldn’t want to, say, contribute to a research center knowing that it would be under the control of these people. So, while it may seem a little petty on my part, those are my thoughts. I just wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way, and many of these reasons remain intangible.

But perhaps I’m completely mistaken, and this reason, this subconscious holding-back, isn’t really a common factor at all. Any thoughts?


Anonymous said...


I agree with you completely. I think that most schools in India, even the IITs, do not introduce students to the process of thinking independently (there are a few teachers who do, though). Instead, one often sees extremely dogmatic people running these schools. Add to it all the stupid stuff about banning this and that. At the same time, I feel guilty in one sense: I would want to introduce students to independent thinking, but I do not think I have sufficient motivation to do it and even that has to do with the fear of becoming a square peg in a round hole. I feel no emotional attachment to any institution I have attended in India, simply because I felt all the time I was there that they were not helping me to grow intellectually. I had to seek out opportunities myself for intellectual stimulation. It was the core of my emotional experience in those days, there was little possibility of forming a bond. I would give to the institutions only if I saw that the very few people who encouraged my intellectual curiosity were running the institution, which almost never happens.
BTW, read Watson's Avoid Boring People? He vividly describes his memories of the University of Chicago's system of education. I feel that I would have formed a great bond with that institution, for example.
On the issue of banning things, there is one interesting counterpoint. One of the 2007 medicine Nobel laureates prohibits people from listening to music while doing an experiment in the lab and I am afraid I have to agree
with him: it often takes the mind away from the actual process of doing the experiment. I have personally learned the most from messing with the procedures I was doing, it led to many interesting insights into how machines work.


Wavefunction said...

The problem as I saw it was that there was no other way for these people to satisfy their egos except by torturing the students. Since their other achievements in life were usually close to zero, that was the only way they could derive sadistic pleasure.

Anonymous said...

quite agree with you, although I had the advantage of studying in a fairly liberal college, by Indian standards. Part of the problem, I think is, except for a few colleges, in most cases, teaching is the resort of the most poorly qualified/unmotivated people, plus, even good teachers lose their motivation when confronted by our bureaucratic systems..

Sunil said...

Aniket.....thanks for your well articulated comments. I agree with most of them, and it isn't always a good idea to listen to music while working. Those things of course are work related issues. But what is more worrisome in India (in colleges) is that there are few individual liberties (from what to dress to what to speak, and whom to speak to) students are allowed in college. I don't think that is the same as avoiding music while working, isn't it?

Ashutosh.......the sizes of some of those sadistic egos could probably fill football fields. What was that saying again? The smaller the achievement, the bigger the ego or something like that?

Apu....absolutely. Which comes back to the point. Why on earth would I want to make a philanthropic contribution to a school run by incompetents?

Siva said...

Came here from DP. Nice blog.

The contributions by alumni in US is not entirely philanthropic. There is a paper that analyzed the contributions and showed that the contributions increase when the kids of the alumni are in high school and almost stopped after that. I am not able to find it now.

But I can relate to your experiences in college.

In The Shadows said...

I guess you are talking about MS University Baroda !! My friends there described it as you have :-)

Anonymous said...


I meant it more as a joke after realizing that my comment sounded too ardent. Yes, banning music in the lab is not that big a deal, but I know many students who are inseparable from their ipods at most times of the day and was imagining how they would feel if such a decree was passed in my lab.


Rachit Chandra said...


I can very well relate to the travails of a student in an Indian University because I am currently attending one of them.

BITS Pilani is pretty liberal. We can interact very freely with members of the opposite sex. We have no attendance whatsoever.

But yes, it has failed miserably to tap into its pretty decent alumni pool. I heard one of our alums say that he still gets mails from his Grad school but we have failed to keep in touch.

Sunil said...

siva....alumni and alumni kids certainly are one part of the picture, undeniably. But within an Indian context alumni and alumni kids would be a much smaller factor (given the size of the country and the insane and competitive demand for admissions). I think your experiences in college will go a long way in reinforcing or weakening a long term association with the college.

in the shadows....I've actually never been to baroda, though I thought (without any first hand source of course) MS was quite a good place to be for a student. :-)

Aniket....i don't think your comment was too ardent, and I got your point. I just distinguished that from "rules and bans".

rachit..... from what I know about BITS (a very large group of my friends are BITSians), it is one of those schools in India probably best poised to tap into its alumni. Most BITSians not only retain their own personal contacts from college, but also particularly cherish their time there. While the school may not have done enough to tap into its alumni, when the time comes (and conditions in India are slowly changing) schools like BITS will do much better than most in tapping into their alumni sources.

Anonymous said...

Late comment - but agree with most of what you say. IITs have somewhat managed to use alumni resources. Rekhi and Vinod Gupta have made immense endowments. Not sure how much philanthropic versus business decision that was, but most of the alumini get-togethers are more used as networking opportunities than anything else.

Also wanted to add that draconian discipline, insipid teaching etc happen not only in college, but often at school levels too.

Wavefunction said...

During my MSc. practicals, students had to ask for permission to pee

Sunil said...

ashutosh......likewise. Which was why I would try to finish off my practicals in an hour or so :-))

Bongopondit.......I think we'll all agree that the educational environment in IIT is far, far better than most other schools (though most IITians might say IITs sucked as well). IITs, like BITS, will do much better in attracting alumni support.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sunil.

Sorry for the "off-topic" comment; I couldn't find a "contact" link on your blog.

I'm preparing an online blog directory of blogs being maintained by Indians and people of Indian origin. Whenever you get some time, please submit a few details at

Anonymous said...


I should say, "My Sentiments Exactly". Inspite of spending close to four years in my undergraduate institution, I have no sense of attachment to it.

On the contrary, Even though, not very different from any other school, I have a great deal of love and respect for my high school, and to this day would consider it an important part of my success.

The draconian authority, the sheer mindlessness of existence during my undergraduate years have made reflect rather spectacularly on my more ordinary formative high-school years,

Sunil said...

thanks Amrit......I've done so.

Vishnu....."mindlessness" captures it all quite appropriately.

Huzefa Mukadam said...

I discovered your blog today. My experience with my undergrad college and my views on it are so eerily similar to yours that I wonder if we attended the same college. That sounds unlikely though as you seem to be a life sciences student.

Its such a sad feeling whenever I think what I lost in those four years.

Sunil said...

huzefa, welcome to balancing life. Where did you study? I may be a biochemist now, but I did study "engineering" in Chennai. Where did you go to school?

I won't call it all a loss was fun, and i did learn something.

Bala said...


>>mandatory attendance policy (of 90% of the classes each year).

to avoid the dreaded I, we had a 80%
policy. with 5% condonation available sometimes. That was a AU wide policy, or did IBT have a different policy?

(i was a couple of years behind you in college. so we are talking about the same time period)

Sunil said...

Bala...damn! It was only 80%? I lived all those years thinking it was 90% (and since my classmates were so sincere in attending the boring classes, barely missed a single one).

What a wasted four years :-(

Huzefa Mukadam said...

Hello Sunil, Sorry for the slow reply. I went to SGSITS in Indore. Chances are, you have not heard about it. I am ready to graduate myself- with an MS.. :)

Bharat Rajawat said...

i liked your blog