Academic Reputation

28 Mar

What is Academic Reputation and does it matter?

What are academics expected to do? Read? Think? Write? Teach? Consult? Socialise? Build networks? All of the above? If so, then how much of each should they do? Some of them are expected to build and manage institutions too. Academics have a range of deliverables, prime among them being thought leadership. They are given the luxury of being able to step away from the hurly burly of traditional production activities to be able to think deeply and built intellectual capital for their communities. They build and capture learning for all of us to use.

But how do we know what learnings are useful and can be trusted? It is not possible for each of us to verify their findings before using them. Thus we rely on their reputation and the reputation  of the institutions that they are associated with. Most academics derive their credibility from their institutions and thus have the responsibility of holding up that reputation. Others, such as Peter Drucker, seek to build their own reputations regardless of institutional affiliation.

This reputation is built on many factors including the range, quality and impact of the work done. It is recognised by awards and grants – so, often in  the public eye, it is the funding and the plaques that work as a proxy for reputation. But most importantly, reputation is built by networks, and within peer groups. And these peers are informed by both the work that is done within an institute and by the effort it makes to communicate such work. In fact the best institutes often share the journey of discovery with their peer group, forming and refining theories through a series of seminars where peer feedback is co-opted into the final product.

There is very little that can destroy reputations in these cases. If the quest is one of learning or discovering a truth about life, then mistakes can be made along the way and are a part of the process. The better institutes make less mistakes as they try to work on more rigourous intellectual processes – and yet the great ones have no qualms about indulging in self doubt or calling out gaps in theories- for this is how learning is enhanced. The one thing that is unforgivable in this arena is lies. If data is fudged or work plagiarized then there is no redemption. Reputations are destroyed by dishonesty.

Not having a reputation at all is almost as bad as having a negative reputation for it makes the institution irrelevant to the community of ideas. One needs to be known or networked in order to build on the work of others and to benefit from their critique and support. It is entirely possible for people at different ends of the world to create the same theory or product while being ignorant of each other – this has happened occasionally in history and is such a sad waste. So much more could have been achieved in collaboration. Not having a reputation worth remarking upon means that you do not get invited to the intellectual party of the world.

Sadly, this is the case with India. In the recently announced 2012 reputation rankings based on peer responses to relevance in research and teaching, not a single Indian institute figured in the top hundred. Indian Institute of Science had scraped into the 90s last year, but slipped out in the face of stiff competition. It is scant comfort to note that even Russia does not have an institute in the top 100, thus indicating its relative isolation in academia. IIT Bombay features somewhere in the 300s, much like the University rankings based on output where Delhi University was the only pure University to even be ranked.

Indian Universities have proved to be irrelevant or not good enough for the rest of the world. We may be churning out the largest number of engineers in the world, or have millions of graduates each year, but till our universities perform better and create a reputation for themselves, the degrees do not carry much value. An Indian degree is still seen with suspicion across the world, for the awarding institution is not a known entity. While a simple letter from a professor at Harvard or MIT will open doors to research grants and admissions, it is a rare professor from India who commands such respect globally.

What would be very interesting is to track the reputations of individual academics to be able to learn lessons on what an individual can do to enhance their reputation and that of their own institution.What would be interesting is the national classification of such academics. Many hold double nationalities, many others have migrated in their youth and are feted by both countries when they are successful. It would also be an interesting academic exercise to map these individual reputations against the institutions – thus analysing the impact of star performers. Academic institutions building is a team game, though a bit like cricket, where a single star performer can have a disproportionate impact on reputations.

It is sad to see that the reputation rankings have created barely a ripple in India. Academics and institutes seem to be complacent in their relative mediocrity and anonymity. It is as if the will to create excellence has been eroded by structural pressures, or indeed by a lack of rigour in academic life. We either do not now how to create intellectual capital for value creation, or we are unwilling to break down the barriers to working with our ideas and intellect. It is a sad day for the nation when ideas dry up.



This was published in the Times of India blogs on March 21, 2012


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