TIFR

Disappointing a director

Print edition : April 17, 2015

The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy: TIFR

The exit of Professor Sandip Trivedi as the Director of the TIFR raises uncomfortable questions about the procedure followed in choosing the head of the leading scientific institution. Photo: By Special Arrangement

C.N.R. Rao, member of the Council of management of the TIFR. Photo: K. Gopinathan

K. Kasturirangan, member of the Council of management of the TIFR. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Srikumar Banerjee, former Secretary, DAE, who was part of the three-member search-cum-selection committee. Photo: P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The Centre’s rejection of the appointment of a new Director for the TIFR points to politico-bureaucratic meddling in the functioning of institutions, undermining their autonomy.

ON January 1, a notice was up on the noticeboard of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the premier scientific research institution of the country under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). It made a matter-of-fact announcement: that Professor Sandip P. Trivedi had assumed charge as Director of the institute succeeding Professor Mustansir Barma. This was signed by the institute Registrar, Wing Commander George Antony, who is also the Secretary to the eight-member Council of Management of the TIFR headed by the industrialist Ratan Tata.

Fifty-two-year-old Trivedi, a PhD from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), joined the TIFR in February 1999. Today, he is a front-ranking theoretical physicist specialising in string theory. But, on March 3, within two months of taking charge, Trivedi was asked to step down (presumably by DAE Secretary Ratan K. Sinha) on the grounds that the Centre had rejected his appointment. He promptly resigned. While the exact reasons cited by the government for the rejection are not clear, news reports have claimed that due process, including an open advertisement for the post, had not been followed for the selection.

This has been widely perceived as unwarranted interference by the government in the management of an autonomous research institution and as undermining the TIFR’s autonomy in selecting its head. But Frontline’s investigation has revealed that unlike many other public institutions where the apparent unnecessary meddling by the government bureaucracy has resulted in heads not being appointed for a long time no such accusation can be levelled in the TIFR case. It is entirely because of the DAE’s bungling that Trivedi finds himself in such an embarrassing situation. And, with that ignominious event, the TIFR’s name is mud now.

The seemingly straightforward TIFR notice did not reveal the important fact that Trivedi’s selection as the Director by the Council had not yet received the formal approval of the Government of India, the Government of Maharashtra and the Tata Trust, as required under the TIFR bylaws. Article 12 of the bylaws states: “The appointment of the Director shall be made by invitation by the Council with the approval of the Government of India, the Government of Maharashtra and the Trustees [of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust]” (emphasis added). So, according to the bylaws, while due process requires approval of the three entities concerned, it does not include a public advertisement to be issued for the premium post.

Since the Prime Minister is the Minister for Atomic Energy, the government approval has to come from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The other two parties figure in the approval process because of the manner in which the institute was founded in 1955-56 through a tripartite agreement between the government, the then government of Bombay (now Maharashtra) and the Tata Trust. Over the following decades, the financial support from these two other entities has declined to almost zero and today more than 99 per cent of the institute’s funding comes from the government through budgetary allocations of the DAE. The PMO’s approval is, therefore, of primary importance, and approvals by the other two entities, given their marginal role in the institute’s management, have become automatic and merely a formality once the former is granted.

In Trivedi’s case, however, the PMO’s approval had not come even on the day he was asked to assume charge. So, with the institute becoming headless on January 1, the proper course of action for the DAE and the Council would have been to appoint an interim acting director—as they have been forced to do following Trivedi’s resignation—until the PMO had taken a decision on Trivedi’s selection. When asked on whose directive the notice was put up, Antony said, “Well, someone with authority.” Logic would suggest that the decision must have been taken by the DAE Secretary, which must have been communicated to the Council Chairman and who, in turn, would have directed the former TIFR Director to issue such a notice.

What is curious is that—it is reliably learnt—Trivedi was not even verbally told that the PMO’s approval was pending. That would have at least saved Trivedi the humiliation of being rejected by the PMO for no fault of his. He had, according to sources, accepted the job very reluctantly under pressure from the selection committee. Now, he has every reason to feel let down by the institute and the DAE. The whole string of events leading up to this high-profile appointment explains the ham-handed manner in which the Council and the DAE went about their tasks.

The process

With the previous Director’s term coming to an end on December 31, 2014, the Council had, in fact, rightly started the selection process for a new Director fairly early. In January 2014, the Council Chairman instituted a three-member search-cum-selection committee comprising three eminent scientists: C.N.R. Rao and K. Kasturirangan, both members of the Council, and Srikumar Banerjee, former Secretary of the DAE. This is the process that has been followed in the selection of former Directors of the TIFR.

On January 28, Rao and Banerjee sought to meet about 10 senior professors individually—it is not clear on what basis they were chosen—to inform them of the start of the selection process and also get to learn about the major issues the institute faced and their views about the kind of new Director they expected. Some of them suggested that it would be better for the committee to speak to the entire faculty, and not just a few selected professors. Apparently, Rao and Banerjee did not accede to this request but asked them to pass on this message so that the rest of the faculty could communicate their views to the Council. The proper way for the two, the professors felt, would have been to address the faculty collectively and request them to send in their views and not have the message couriered to the others in this indirect way.

Since this did not happen, a couple of professors from the chosen few called a general meeting of the TIFR faculty on January 29 in the institute lecture hall and briefed them about their interaction with Rao and Banerjee the previous day. They conveyed the message from the Council eliciting the views of the faculty members and also circulated the email addresses and telephone numbers of the two scientists. It is not clear, however, how many of them made use of this method of interacting with the Council but some definitely did, and their views included the suggestion of names for the new directorship. But subsequent events would suggest that Rao and Banerjee did not take cognisance of those views.

On February 26, they called the same few selected professors to meet them in Bangalore. According to someone who had been called, each person was given barely three to five minutes for interaction. The discussions were apparently not greatly different from what had transpired in the Mumbai meeting. By mid-April, the committee seemed to have zeroed in on Trivedi despite his apparent unwillingness. In the second half of April, three ostensibly shortlisted people, including Trivedi, were summoned to meet the committee. Kasturirangan was also apparently present at this meeting.

It was at this April meeting that Trivedi, given his much greater academic standing compared with the other shortlisted candidates, was apparently coerced into accepting the directorship. The other two, to their great surprise, were told that the Council had selected Trivedi for the post and asked whether either of them would like to serve as the Deputy Director, a hitherto non-existent post. This was done, it is widely believed, to make up for Trivedi’s lack of administrative skills. This suggestion was apparently rejected outright by the two. Nevertheless, the Council seems to have gone ahead with its decision to appoint Trivedi totally ignoring the suggestions and issues that had been brought to its notice by the faculty through Rao and Banerjee, as is evident from the news report of May 25, 2014, in Loksatta, a Marathi daily.

Letter to Prime Minister

Some of the faculty members sent a letter to the Prime Minister on September 23, 2014, after having failed to draw the Council’s attention to the outstanding issues and problems confronting the institute that they had raised. The letter said: “We had hoped to turn the tide over with the appointment of a new Director, due to take over at the end of this year. Many of our colleagues gave detailed inputs on the expectations from the new director to the Search Committee…. Our inputs comprehensively emphasised the need for a leader with a high degree of administrative capability in addition to good academic accomplishments. Unfortunately, these inputs were completely ignored. We now understand that the Search Committee has chosen a colleague who has neither displayed the ability nor the inclination to share any administrative responsibility in his entire career [at the TIFR]…. In our collective view the Search Committee took this important decision in a very short time frame…. In doing so, and in rushing through the process, the Search Committee followed a procedure that was completely ad hoc, not based on broad consultation, and did not respect the needs of the institute community.”

“This is not true at all,” Rao said when asked about this statement in the letter. “We had two sessions of open discussions with the faculty members and any one was free to come and talk to us during this open consultation.” But, as described above, these consultations were allegedly far from being broad-based and across the entire faculty. One of the major issues raised in the letter was with regard to the new TIFR campus in the Central University of Hyderabad, which was sanctioned by the government in 2008-09 to provide the much-needed expansion for its experimental facilities and to produce highly qualified scientific human resource. The new campus opened in 2010, and according to the letter, the government had mandated the necessary capacity build-up to enable the institute to produce hundreds of highly qualified postdoctoral fellows, doctors and postgraduates every year to meet the competition from the West and China.

“It is sad for us to note,” added the letter, “that very little has been achieved in the last seven years to meet this challenge, mainly due to lack of foresight and complete absence of governance on the part of the present administration. The last decade has, in fact, demonstrated to us that we undeniably need a Director who combines scientific accomplishment with sharp administrative acumen, particularly with respect to setting up the institutional structures.…” But interestingly enough, Frontline’s enquiries have revealed that at the time the PMO received the letter, it was yet to receive the file on the appointment of Trivedi from the DAE even though the selection had been done in April itself.

It appears that the file was received only in the second half of December 2014. If true, it must be said that the PMO has taken whatever action that it deemed proper, right or wrong, fairly quickly. According to Rao, following this, the Council did receive a letter from the PMO in mid-January seeking clarifications on procedures adopted for the selection of the Director. “The queries were satisfactorily answered, I think,” Rao said. “You could not have asked for a better person. Trivedi is India’s best particle theorist. But then this rejection came on the grounds that the vacancy had to be advertised, and so on, which is not the practice,” he added.

The letter from the TIFR scientists to the Prime Minister too may have influenced the decision to reject Trivedi. The rejection probably may not have come if the appointment had been intimated soon after the selection process was over. In any case, whatever lacunae the government saw in the selection would have been probably intimated to the Council and the DAE well before December 31, saving Trivedi and the institute this unnecessary embarrassment. It is indeed curious, therefore, why it took eight months for the letter intimating the PMO of Trivedi’s appointment to be forwarded by the administrative machinery in the DAE Secretary’s office.

According to sources, the Joint Secretary (R&D) in the DAE, belonging to the Indian Administrative Service cadre, who apparently is responsible for forwarding intimations of appointment to the government for approval, not only delayed matters but also added his own adverse remarks on the file, including the non-issuance of an open advertisement for the TIFR Director’s post and the DAE Secretary not chairing the search committee. But, given the bylaws of the institute, neither is required, and the Joint Secretary’s alleged notes were obviously off the mark. Notwithstanding this, the PMO may still have been led by the remarks given its recent bid to enforce certain standard procedures for top-level appointments in autonomous institutions as is evident from incidents in certain other institutions as well.

JNCASR

According to Rao, who is the Founder-President of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, selection of the head (called President, and not Director) for his institute too had run foul of the government. A new President for the JNCASR, an institute under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), had apparently been selected by an eminent search committee—as has been the practice at the Centre—about a year and a half ago and the name had also been sent to the government for approval about 15 months ago. But the earlier government had left it to the new regime to take action on it. The new government, however, rejected the selection on the same grounds as in the case of the TIFR.

Following this, the JNCASR issued an open call for nominations/applications, and a search committee approved by the government is on the job to select the new head ab initio. Even the constitution of the search committee now needed the government’s approval, says Rao. But unlike the JNCASR, which prudently appointed an acting head, the DAE messed up the whole thing by taking things for granted. Since the governments in power at the Centre had never turned down Director appointments in the past, the TIFR administration assumed that the approval would come through and asked Trivedi to take charge with full administrative and financial powers. This would be seen as taking autonomy a bit too far and has hugely backfired. However, in the wake of the TIFR imbroglio, and to avoid a similar controversy, the DAE on March 24 issued an advertisement for applications for the Director’s post at another autonomous institution under it, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai.

Appointments in limbo

Appointments of the heads of many other institutions, where selections had been either completed or are under way, are similarly in a limbo awaiting the government’s approval. But if the government does intend to mandate a standard procedure for selecting heads of institutions, it should have issued a notice or circular specifying the procedure to be followed and asking institutions to change their bylaws/rules and regulations accordingly within a specified time frame. The standard procedure, right or wrong, may be enforced subsequently and selections could then be struck down if the prescribed procedure was not followed. Recent events suggest that the new mandated procedure would include open advertisements or call for nominations/applications for all top positions and government approval of the search-cum-selection committees being constituted for the purpose.

While it may be questioned whether there was a need for the government to change the established process in autonomous institutions when things had been working reasonably well, issuance of an advertisement itself may not be a contentious issue. And in no way does it compromise the autonomy of the institute. However, it is debatable whether it would help in identifying the best person for the job. Some scientists point out that at least an advertisement or open call for nominations/applications will alert and inform the scientific community that the selection process is on and will help in casting a wider net. It would also lend transparency to the whole process. But others argue that people who have a name in the community and whom you would ideally want to assume the job will never apply in response to advertisements. Search-cum-selection committees have to talk to such persons and convince them to take up the post.

Consider, for instance, the recent case of the appointment of the Secretary to the DST. For the first time, last July, the government issued an open call for applications and nominations for the Secretary’s post. While the case is not strictly comparable to the appointment of institutional heads, the experience may be relevant to the discussion here. Responses to the advertisements included all kinds of people, including those who were not appropriate for the job. The names in the final shortlist, it turned out, were only from the nominated lot, and none of the direct applicants was found suitable enough to be considered. The final selection thus effectively boiled down to the usual process of a search-cum-selection committee identifying capable people.

But the requirement of government approval of the selection committee would certainly amount to unnecessary politico-bureaucratic interference in the functioning of institutions, thus undermining their autonomy. As one leading scientist said, why is the government meddling in such matters when there are issues of far greater importance in the country’s higher education and research sectors that require its immediate attention?

The issue that has arisen in the TIFR context (and in the past in many other institutes) is one that needs to be addressed through a broad-based consultative process with the institute faculty. A selection process that incorporates this aspect has to evolve from within the institute. This would require the institute Council to have open discussions with the institute faculty and eminent alumni with the best interests of the institute and its reputation in mind.

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