One-third of an MBA class should consist of non-engineers: IIM Lucknow director

IIM-L director Dr Devi Singh

In an exclusive interview with PaGaLGuY, Dr Devi Singh, director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow speaks about getting over the locational limitation of Lucknow, mentorship of IIM Rohtak and Kashipur and changing systems of admission at the IIMs.

IIM Lucknow is the oldest among the younger IIMs. How has the institute evolved?

We completed 25 years two years ago. We had started in a two-bedroom apartment and since then we’ve had two or three incarnations in term of spaces until we came here in our current campus. When it comes to establishing physical facilities, technology, resources, creating the right kind of environment to get things done or supporting a student body, we have done it well.

I dont look at achievements as something that necessarily stands out. If you look at the life of an institution, 25 years is a very short time. Its a continuous, sustained and focussed effort that creates great institutions. No one person does it. People come and go, some stay longer than others but as long as one knows where they are heading and you have the right kind of people around you, things happen. IIM Lucknow today is solidly poised to move to the next level in terms of its impact.

Earlier, we often felt constrained that although Lucknow was the capital city of a state, in the minds of people Lucknow was always the backwaters of Delhi, or not Delhi.’ Unfortunately Lucknow could not develop to the level of a Hyderabad, though hopefully it will now. This locational limitation was always bearing on the minds of people, especially when we were trying to hire the best possible faculty, who had the option of going to Bangalore or Ahmedabad or Calcutta. Lucknow was always the fourth choice. Also when we wanted to work with international partners, play a bigger role at the policy level or focus on research, location was becoming an issue.

That is when we decided to create something in Delhi and started the Noida campus. We decided that it wouldnt just be a little satellite place, but a full-fledged campus built over a fairly large 20 acres of land. We did that to leverage the location of Delhi to do what we were doing in Lucknow better. That is now bearing fruits. The Noida campus is today quite vibrant and its impact is growing. In the last seven years we have launched four new programmes like the agri-business management programme, the working managers programme, an expanded FPM programme and the executive programme. We are now launching a programme with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.

Throughout the process we have grown in terms of faculty. We have 85 now and the idea is to take it to 100 in the next two years. I believe that we should create knowledge, influence practice and integrate globally. Our Management Development Programme (MDP) practice is doing well and our portfolio is very large.So we have grown very fast and now are bigger than some of the older IIMs in terms of revenue, even though we have the same faculty size. Our revenue should exceed Rs 110 crores this year. We are completely self-sufficient now and have not taken any government grants since two years.

Is the PGP profitable, or are its losses covered by revenues through executive education like at the older IIMs?
No organisation of substance globally can fend for itself through tuitions alone. We need to have resources coming from research, executive teaching or consulting in order to support our larger agenda. PGP alone cannot support the faculty size of 100.

Some of the older IIMs have had difficulty opening up new campuses in India or abroad. Did you face opposition from the HRD ministry when you started the Noida campus?

The HRDs concern was rightfully that if we created a campus in Noida then we will have problems retaining faculty in Lucknow because everybody would want to be in Noida. We told them a few things. First, that we will not start a PGP in Noida. Secondly, we will stick with a faculty size of 25 in Noida. Third, whosoever is appointed in Noida will be required to spend one term in Lucknow every year. So yes, we had difficulties, but we overcame them. We even got the land on our own, nobody gave it to us. We paid Rs 15 crores from our pockets to get it.

Do you recruit different types of faculty for the Lucknow and Noida campuses?

We need to do some skill-matching in terms of activities at both campuses. We need to see to it that people with better experience teach at Noida since the students there have a work experience of six years. But we also have an understanding that before sending to Noida, a person spends an year or two in Lucknow first so that there is cultural immersion.

IIM Lucknow has mentored IIM Rohtak earlier and now it is mentoring IIM Kashipur. You have been working at three locations simultaneously. Has your organisation been getting extended beyond its bandwidth as a result?

I had made it very clear to faculty initially that it (working at Rohtak or Kashipur) was voluntary. If they didnt want to do it, then we would get outside help. In the first year we had 20 courses at IIM Rohtak, so 20 faculty out of 85 from here and Noida decided to go and teach a course each there. We put some people onto the new IIMs for administrative tasks. It was hard work but people had volunteered and I think thats fair.

Considering how fast IIM Rohtak was set up, IIM Kashipur seems to be taking time. It doesnt have a director still.

That is being handled and soon there will be a director for IIM Kashipur in the next couple of months.

Do you think IIM Kashipur has had it the toughest in terms of locational limitations?

See, the location of IIM Kashipur is not for someone like me or someone like you to decide, such things are decided in a larger matrix. Kashipurs location, how good or bad it is, is known to you and its known to me, there is no secret about it. But it will take time to come up.

As a mentor institution, what facilities has IIM Lucknow been providing to make IIM Kashipur more attractive for faculty?

See, they have been given the land and they have been wanting us to do their boundary wall, etc but I have told them that I dont want to get into that because my first priority is IIM Lucknow. What they have now is a couple of buildings from Ganna Sansthan, which is a fairly decent facility right now. The campus development is a long-drawn activity and we dont want to be involved in it. That is the job of the new director, ideally that is how it should be. If he needs any support except teaching, we will provide it.

The nature of admissions at the IIMs has changed a lot. There are efforts to bring in diversity but the methods are proving ineffective.

The world is changing, the corporate scenario is changing, business is changing. Its more global and multicultural now. Diversity was always an avowed objective of any good MBA programme, even when I was studying in IIM Ahmedabad. During my time too, there were vets or former Indian Airlines staff in the class.

You have to go back in history to understand this. Earlier, for a long time we did not even give CAT scorecards. The admission weightages we gave then were internal matters known only to us. Then things started changing and the Right to Information (RTI) act came into being and we suddenly had to disclose everything.

At the same time, some of the schools who were earlier getting 70% engineers suddenly started getting 85-90% engineers and that started hurting the programme. I dont have anything against good engineers, but diversity is the strength of any good MBA programme. There has always been a debate on gender balance, working versus freshers or engineers versus non-engineers in the boards of all the IIMs. The concern has been that it doesn’t make sense that we have 90% engineers in an MBA class. There should be some balance.

But in an environment where everything has to be upfront and put in the open domain, each IIM is trying to juggle with the criteria and get the right mix. Since its difficult to reach this ideal state, these are experiments and they will continue happening. As long as they are all kept in the public domain and known a priori, you can criticise what I am doing. But on my part, I am going to let you know right now, today itself (as to what criteria we use).

So that is how the changes have been happening. Of course, the world also says that we should only have people with work experience as thats what the best MBA programmes of the world have and so in our programme too 60-70% of the students are now experienced. So as the world changes, we have to change too. The diversity factor was always there but we have not been able to succeed beyond a point. If you look at the pool of candidates, that pool itself is not diverse.

So youre saying that the debate on bringing about diversity was always there inside the IIMs but because of RTI and the obligation of making things public, the debate has now come in the public domain.

Yes, thats exactly it.

In your view, what should be an ideal mix of educational backgrounds in the class?

I am okay with 60-65% engineers, but the remaining one-third have to be from other backgrounds in my personal view.

What is the industry telling the IIMs about diversity?

Why is that suddenly a lot of companies are recruiting in bulk from Lady Shri Ram College or a Shri Ram College of Commerce or Hindu College? One sees news stories about the high packages and good quality of profiles they are getting. Thats an endorsement that the industry is looking for people who are bright and can think somewhat differently. Its not just diversity as an objective but the fact that you cant see every situation through a straitjacketed mathematical model or data analytics that engineers are conditioned to do.

Since the current methods of tweaking admission criteria to ensure diversity dont seem to be working much, will the IIMs at some point have to completely revamp the admissions process?

First the diversity in application pool too has to change. At some point even the IIMs have to worry that student should be able to complete the programme, meet the learning objectives and be the right person to be put out in the marketplace. We are trying to bring about diversity but if 90% engineers are applying, then how can you make it a 60-40 mix?

Will greater autonomy give you additional freedoms required to tweak the admission processes?

We have always had these freedoms, nobody has bothered us when it comes to admissions or academics. Autonomy will only give us the power to manage more things at the board level, create and dispose of physical assets, appoint the director or chairman ourselves or manage finances more freely.

The IIMs have also been increasing the weightage given to past academics, which is causing disconcert among CAT applicants. Your comments?

Even at the IITs they are saying that CBSE marks and IIT-JEE will have 50-50 weightage. There was an impression at one time that you could just crack the CAT and get into one of the IIMs. As a result, the coaching industry flourished. For a long time, one of the objectives of the IIMs was to see how to beat the coaching industry. We used to come up with a surprise element every time in terms of the CAT pattern or marking strategy. The surprise element was on top of the agenda because the system was solely focused on one component.

Now were saying that the CAT is just one of the components. If you have been a good student in the past, then Im sure that you will also have a good score in the CAT. On top of that we are looking to know whether youve worked hard in past assignments, have a leadership streak in you and your ability to communicate, articulate and impress. We are looking at you as a whole person, and I dont see why anyone should complain about it.

There are concerns that marking systems across Indias numerous boards and universities aren’t the same, so it is unfair to compare past academics of people from different regions of India.

I think there is some effort happening there. Rationalisation and normalisation of marks is being done. I dont know the formula they are using, but it is definitely being done. Its certainly not a flat comparison.

What is the progress on the IIMs organising roadshows abroad to attract foreign students and becoming a university?

Getting foreign students is an absolute must now, because you cannot remain isolated anymore. People need global experience and getting foreign students is something we are all trying. One of the chairmen of the new IIMs has been put onto the task and we should have a meeting about it soon.

As for the IIM University, there has always been a psychological issue that the IIMs dont give a degree, but a diploma. So to address that, there have been talks about a university system but the issue is still being debated.

What does this debate constitute?

The only issue is that while the IITs were created through an Act, there is no IIM Act. Each IIM is a central government society. There is an impression among some of my colleagues, and that does not include me, that if we came under a common system then there might be issues of autonomy and freedom to take decisions, or that the University Grants Commission may bother us. It may not be well-founded, but it has to be debated nevertheless.

Read Next