Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Diversity in universities

At this point, the discussion over at Abi's blog (and elsewhere) on the under-representation of women in IITs has gone all over the map. One of the essential questions is whether the IIT JEE is too difficult and unfairly biases admissions to those who can afford coaching classes (some say yes, some say no). Another related question is whether using the JEE as one of many criteria will improve matters (most people think that it will only increase favouritism, and certainly increase allegations of favouritism).

So I thought this link, an article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell on admissions in North America, would be of interest. (I have drawn no conclusions from it for the present context, but you are free to do so.)

The author's description of his own admission process in Canada is not very different from how one would choose among colleges in Delhi University. Meanwhile, he says, US universities like Harvard in the early 1900s relied on the College Entrance Examination Board tests for admission, but switched to a more diverse set of criteria within a couple of decades. The reason was not to increase diversity, but because too many Jews were getting in. And, the author argues, nothing significant has changed, to this day, in the way these universities admit their students. He extensively discusses studies on how well students that go to Ivy institutions, versus students who get comparable grades but go to other institutions, perform later in life. Read it for yourself: it's a fun read, no matter what sort of college you went to or what side of the argument you fall in.

I have to say, with some amusement, that this passage
Wherever there was one Harvard graduate, another lurked not far behind, ready to swap tales of late nights at the Hasty Pudding, or recount the intricacies of the college-application essay, or wonder out loud about the whereabouts of Prince So-and-So, who lived down the hall and whose family had a place in the South of France that you would not believe. In the novels they were writing, the precocious and sensitive protagonist always went to Harvard; if he was troubled, he dropped out of Harvard; in the end, he returned to Harvard to complete his senior thesis. Once, I attended a wedding of a Harvard alum in his fifties, at which the best man spoke of his college days with the groom as if neither could have accomplished anything of greater importance in the intervening thirty years. By the end, I half expected him to take off his shirt and proudly display the large crimson “H” tattooed on his chest. What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?

reminded me of my own alma mater -- St Stephen's College, an institution that (I say this while donning my flame-retardant vest) offers all the pretentiousness of Harvard with none of its accomplishments.


km said...

LOL@ the closing sentence :D

All entrance tests are biased. How *dare* they ask us things we don't know.

Tabula Rasa said...

hah yes i was thinking *exactly* the same thing as i read through that quoted paragraph!

Vivek Kumar said...

@rahul: glad to discover your blog (this debate has led to many such discoveries!).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

tr - I'm disappointed that no flames have come my way yet.

vivek -- good to see you here, and your blog is interesting too.

Anonymous said...

I was hoping you'd say some more some stuff about SSC. Once in a while I bump into old friends from there, and it's surprising how many of them still think of college years as "the best years of my life". I think SSC is one of the most over-rated educational institutions I've ever come across.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Most of the ones I run into seem to think the scrambled on toast in the college café were the best eggs of their life.

The place is overrated principally by itself -- I think others have a realistic opinion of it, which is "quite good by Indian undergraduate standards, but certainly no Harvard". It had a good syllabus (in physics, at least), for which it can thank Delhi University; a very good library; and a few good faculty (and, of course, many not-so-good ones). The ones that were good were not pretentious, and the ones that were pretentious were not good.

In retrospect, I'm happy for all of the positive things above. The rest was easily avoided.

Anonymous said...

The maths dept, unfortunately, was one of the worst. Bad library, out-of-date syllabus and a faculty which was incompetent but pretentious, with one exception.

There were only 2 good things about SSC for me. Residence - comfortable rooms and a place where one met a wide range of people from different parts of the country, and Hiking club - a nice introduction to travelling on a tight budget.

I think my biggest problem with SSC is the number of people who preferred to follow the herd and take up predictable and safe careers, rather than think for themselves. In that regard, SSC is quite a failure.

Anonymous said...

OK I usually avoid posting on old threads, but you are really asking for it here. So here come the flames. I think your assertions about the accomplishments of college are simply untrue. For one, comparing Harvard, a large research university to a small liberal arts college with only 1100 students is frankly quite ridiculous. Having said so, St. Stephen's does incredibly well at being a liberal arts college, more so than any of the fancier colleges of the west. I would even say that in terms of imparting a basic undergraduate education, it does far better than most of the great universities of the west that I've spent time at. Further, going back to your point about diversity, I think one of the most incredible aspects of Stephania is the incredible diversity of students with people from various ethnic backgrounds and religions, speaking different languages (in different accents) and holding very diverse views. Indeed, I would argue that St. Stephen's is a true mirror of the best that the country has to offer. It is perhaps not a true mirror of the country but then I fail to see how the representation of mediocrity adds to diversity. Moreover, the stephanian way of thinking has had, some may say a disproportionately large influence, on the very identity of the nation. I could go on, but I think I'll wait to see if you will rise to the bait :-).

Anonymous said...

the food in the stephen's mess was good! (oh wait wait. "steven's". and not "mess" but "dining hall").

i chuckle at rila's comment. what's the "stephanian way of thinking"? do they teach some new cool way of thinking that the rest of the world is missing out on? do share.

Anonymous said...

it's not a cool way of thinking-quite old actually, but not very common, at least in most of the crammers peddling science and technology degrees in India. It is a culture that encourages secularism, respect for diverse views and opinions, an idealism really that is sadly lacking in most institutions of higher learning in the country. Indeed, these values: secularism, fundamental decency, and honest have shaped the vision of what we should be, both through the heavily Stephanian media and our best writers, novelists, and political thinkers. One may argue that we are far from reaching those goals, but indeed that we have this vision is indeed a big deal. I am sure those of you in Indian academia, split sharply down caste, regional, and lingusitic lines, will appreciate the true cosmopolitanism of Stephania. As for the "dining hall", I fail to see why you view innocent traditions as affectations. It is a gentle place which understandably tries to hold on to gentler mores, I don't see a problem with that

Rahul Siddharthan said...

rila - Thank you. I was beginning to feel a bit like George Mikes, who wrote a book about the Brits and, as he reported later, felt a bit silly striking a brave pose, sword and shield in hand, only to be patted on the shoulder and told: "Quite amusing."

Well, I never compared Stephen's with Harvard. I said it lacked Harvard's accomplishments (I don't have a problem with that) but has all of Harvard's pretensions.

Actual quote from an actual Stephen's lecturer (who also had a senior position in the admin), at the farewell party of our batch: "I met this person in London, and I said I was from St Stephen's, and he said 'Oh, the Harvard of the East!' And I told him 'No, Harvard is the St Stephen's of the west!'" (And if you haven't yourself heard a dozen similar quotes, either you haven't spent much time there or the place has changed beyond recognition recently.)

I admit the place has its good points and some good people. In fact, I already said so in my reply to bandafbab.

anonymous -- to be fair, "Steven" is the pronunciation of "Stephen" in English-speaking countries. Just as "nephew" is pronounced "neview" (look it up).

Anonymous said...

Well Rahul there is a fine line between humility and self-esteem issues. Sure, there is a certain swagger to Stephanians, but I would submit that it nothing out of the ordinary. People are surely entitled to some pride in the work that they do. I remember lecturing at a southern university in the US and coming across a visiting professor from Gorakhpur University who said said something to the effect of "but surely you've heard of the brilliant physics department of Gorakhpur University."

Besides coming back to the core issue of diversity. Surely, you would agree with me that there is a solid academic underpinning to Stephania and indeed the image of college as a finishing school for the moneyed elite is highly exaggerated. As the proverbial outsider (in about every way you can think of), I've felt more at home at St. Stephen's than in the supposedly liberal universities of the west.

Essentially, the point I am trying to make is that arrogance is not a Stephanian value. The core values of Stephania are surely liberalism, honesty, integrity, and a desire to engage with the world. The pretentiousness I would submit is simply a Delhi thing.

Anonymous said...

i love how the stephen's/steven's rib never fails to irk. i use it to test people.

i have another one too... if you introduce yourself by saying "oh i work in a consulting firm. it's called mckinsey, have you heard of it?" then you're surely to be avoided. if you say "i work at mckinsey" then you're cool.

come off it, guys. it's just another college. the kids who go there are smarter than average, the facilities are better (except when they're not), and there's a disproportionate number of famous people who have passed through its halls. alumni get nostalgic. some have good memories, some have bad.

end of story. next?

Tabula Rasa said...

"solid academic underpinning to stephania"? sorry. it's a touch better than other du colleges, and therefore other indian colleges, but that's about it (and that's a sorry comparison to be proud of, when one styles oneself as the harvard of the east or whatever).

what academic accomplishments can the faculty there speak of? does anyone apart from the odd exception as mentioned by bandafbab even do research? when i was there we had a senior lecturer who'd come to class and copy his notes onto the blackboard - notes written on pages from the back of a six-year old calendar. he was below average but not by much.

stephanians tend to do well in later life because the college gets first pick of the better students.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

rila -- as tr says, what accomplishments? I don't even agree with TR that it's better than other Indian colleges. Ask any good graduate physics department in the country and they'll tell you the best students come from Kolkata. And not just from one institution there -- from Presidency, Xavier's, Jadavpur, and often the "lesser" places like Ashutosh too.

A few good students do come out of Stephen's (and other DU colleges such as KMC and Hansraj) as well, but it's perhaps a fifth as many as come from Kolkata.

No department in St Stephen's has ever had anyone of the eminence of A K Raychaudhuri, who was world famous in his field and spent all his life at Presidency, Kolkata.

(Note that I am not a bong and have spent a total of 4 days in my life in Kolkata. Just telling things as they are.)

And from what I'm told, the scene in economics is even more dismal. (I mention it since you called the place a "liberal arts" college.) In physics, at least, the syllabus is quite good (thanks to Delhi University), and importantly, it doesn't prescribe texts -- only recommends (multiple) texts per course, which are usually well-known international books. And an interested student has scope for learning outside the classroom. It helps that the library is good. It helps, also, that the good books aren't much in demand, which tells you something about the quality of students. And it helps that DU physics dept is right next door.

In economics, I'm told the syllabus is dreadful, and the students emerge totally lacking any background in mathematics. As a result, the ones who cross the road to the Delhi School of Economics get creamed by their classmates from Kolkata.

anon -- pronunciation is a question of correctness; ignorance doesn't make you cool, any more than correct pronunciation does. And I don't see the relevance of McKinsey. Certainly more people have heard of McKinsey than of St Stephen's.

Anonymous said...

"St Stephen's College, an institution that offers all the pretentiousness of Harvard with none of its accomplishments"... what a load of crap!!! Rila sent me the link and I can't help commenting. Tabla and you obviously suffer from some deeply internalized form of self-hatred. (the flame-proof vest may come in handy). For a post that started talking about diversity, I note that you have countered none of Rila's points. All those other crappy places down south and in kolkata treat women as intellectual inferiors and from what I hear (I am not a scientist) physics departments are the leading culprits. So while an upper class Hindu male student studying science may have nothing to gain by going to Stephen's, for a woman scientist, the intellectual freedom is quite precious and quite unlike what is found in any other institution (I am married to a Bong, so trust me I know all about the Kolkata colleges). I also don't know if you ever lived in college, perhaps your ignorance of how unique and precious that atmosphere is arises from the fact that you never really experienced it.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

manasi -
Tabla and you obviously suffer from some deeply internalized form of self-hatred.

Ooh, that hurt -- to suggest that St Stephens is part of my inner self. More seriously, I don't think I or TR wrote anything above to suggest we hate either St Stephen's, or ourselves. Perhaps one day you will learn that ad hominem comments aren't really productive.

Colleges down south are crappy, judging by their output: I don't disagree at all. I think if we are going to compare St Stephens with such places, the argument is already over.

As for Kolkata, I'm judging purely by the output. I have known many excellent women physics students from there, none of whom seemed to feel intellectually inferior to anyone, or to hold any resentment against their college.

As for diversity, I didn't counter the point because I agree with it -- I should have said so. But I don't know if it was very different from neighbouring Delhi colleges in that respect. I know things like caste-consciousness and discrimination are much worse in many engineering and medical institutions, perhaps because of the increased competitiveness.

Tabula Rasa said...

a) thanks for the psychoanalysis; i'd appreciate it even more if you could specify exactly what form of self-hatred, instead of "some", as i may then be able to act on it and improve my life.

b) to use your own metric, i note that you haven't countered my point about academic accomplishment.

c) i am a bong but i don't claim to know very much about calcutta colleges. i did however say i thought ssc is superior.

d) insofar as ssc is a part of the du system, where all that's important is the ability to cram come march-april, i'm not sure what intellectual freedom you're talking about.

e) finally, i had a fun time in college. most of the fun came from long afternoons chatting with classmates in the labs and playing tennis-ball cricket afterwards, and from shakesoc and the qc. while i have great memories of all these activities, i wouldn't quite suggest they're unique even within du.

Anonymous said...

I lived in residence for all three years (and for a few months after graduating as well). Residence was an eye-opening experience because of the diverse body of students, but I'd be hesitant in calling it unique. There are a lot of other undergrad institutes which have students from different parts of the country. Any decent engineering or medicine college would testify to that.

But, if anyone had closely observed social tendencies, it was suprising how many people formed blocs, and tended to stick to each other throughout their time in college. Different parts of the residence halls had nicknames - Punjabi Bagh, Little Calcutta, Doon area, etc.
Even during elections, a lot of students sided with candidates based on their background. (Of course, in the 1997 election, there was one exception, who stood for president asking for zero votes).

It might not be based on caste and religion, but I think it's as close-minded.

Tabula Rasa said...

chapbe chutiye.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Substitute a few words, and this fits...

Anonymous said...

manasi's comments brought back good ole gender studies circle memories :-). I will leave the social critiquing to her, I am sure she has lots more to say.

"I don't even agree with TR that it's better than other Indian colleges. Ask any good graduate physics department in the country and they'll tell you the best students come from Kolkata." Oh puhleez, I dont when you guys graduated, certainly in my class and for the batches immediately before and after, the best science students went to cambridge, oxford, or the US. The next best students went into consulting, management, or banking, and a few went to DU so they could at least live in college. So only the dregs will land up at the graduate physics departments you are talking about. I for sure would have rather left science than study at an IIT or IISc. Good friends of mine got into IITK and did not take admission once they figured out what the atmosphere was. Everyone I know who studied physics and chemistry at college can certainly hold their own against the best in the world.
As for accomplishments, I've never heard of this AK Raychoudhuri but college has boasted of people of the caliber of CF Andrews, Mohammad Amin, and more recently Upamanyu Chatterjee and Tanika Sarkar. Finally, what you guys dont seem to get is that it is a liberal arts college, faculty are not supposed to be at the top of their field in research, they are supposed to be competent teachers. If indeed you want to make a comparison with a Western institution, I would say Dartmouth or Amherst College would provide a good benchmark.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I just made a snide comment and deleted it. This is now the most-commented-on blog entry I've ever made and it would probably be merciful to stop. But this deserves a response:

I dont when you guys graduated, certainly in my class and for the batches immediately before and after, the best science students went to cambridge, oxford, or the US. The next best students went into consulting, management, or banking, and a few went to DU so they could at least live in college.

Oh puleez, as you say. All the top institutes have summer student programmes, and we know where those students tend to come from and how good they are, too. We get a few Stephanians, and they are good, but certainly not the best in India or anything like that. And please don't tell me that today's Stephanians do summer projects in Oxford or Cambridge or internships at Citibank.

As for me, I graduated in 1994. There were precisely 3 students in my class interested in higher studies in physics. One (me) went to IISc, two went to Cambridge. Of those two, one did his PhD there and is now a faculty member in India; the other did his PhD in the US and has now left academia. In previous batches, the numbers were much the same.

Thanks for your insights about the IITs and IISc. As it happens, I spent six years (post-B.Sc.) as a student at IISc and am still in close touch with the place. It is not Harvard, and does not pretend to be, but the better people there are very good indeed; and remember, not everyone at Harvard is a Nobel laureate, and not every Nobel laureate makes a good thesis advisor. Some of my contemporary students from IISc are now at some of the best places around the world, and if they choose to return, they get snapped up by other institutes in India.

Anonymous said...

Most of the faculty doesn't do research, and the ones who do, would be close to the bottom tier (at least in the maths dept). I wouldn't even compare them to faculty at Dartmouth or Amherst. Even as teachers, they were incompetent and their entire focus was on preparing students to cram for the year end DU exams.

Yes, it's an undergrad instt, and not a research university. But, I think it leaves most students woefully underprepared (especially in mathematics) for postgraduate studies, or a career in research.

The ones who went to Oxford or Cambridge, went for a second bachelors degree. After 3 years at the *best* liberal arts college, surely it must be a humbling experience to be taking classes with students 3-4 years younger than you.

The only people who go about proclaiming its greatness are people who either studied or taught there. Sometimes, it shows a lot about small their world is. If they were in a profession where after college they didn't have other Stephanians around them, or people who'd never heard of SSC, they'd be more objective about it.

It was a fun place to be in for 3 years, but I don't think my identity or way of thinking was profoundly influenced by it.

Finally, google some of the people who went to the best universities after college, and you'll be surprised at how many of them dropped out or ended up as fairly average researchers.

Anonymous said...

to the anon guy with pronunciation problems: may I suggest elocution lessons or in the words of G.H.W. Bush, What are you? An Idiot?

Tabla: I don't know but try Oedipus, usually works well. Also, approps "shakesoc and qc arent even unique in du." Sure, I can picture the fair maidens of Kalindi College menacing the rugged men of Deshbandhu with
"So shalt thou show me friendship. Take thou that: Live, and be prosperous: and farewell, good fellow."

bandafbab: I think tabla doth answer you well. Well of course people will hang together in groups, just at stephen's such groups are based on common interests and not ethnic divisions. Moreover, the point Rila and I have been trying to make, there is room for all in college.

As for the rest of you MEN here, I am sorry that you are unable to appreciate your good fortune. Perhaps more patriarchal casteist vernacular institutions would have better met your educational needs. Well, I shall not flog a dead horse anymore. I have a feeling that it may be difficult for the audience of this blog to differentiate between an education and the acquiring of technical skills.

"I'm disappointed that no flames have come my way yet."-happy now.

Tabula Rasa said...

keep it coming. you don't realise how you weaken your argument by picking the comparisons that you do. why kalindi college? kmc's players with keval arora were and continue to be a fantastic theater group. there was a lot of mutual respect amongst the two groups, and a very productive rivalry.

okay, so you don't want to talk about research. let's talk about teaching. just as there were some good teachers at ssc (e.g. a brilliant gentleman who died soon after my time there due to his refusal to get his cancer treated), there were some atrocious ones as well. i've already given one example, and i do not wish to name names, but i'm happy to go out on a limb and state that they were all *male*. i don't see where your "patriarchal" is coming from.

and finally: I have a feeling that it may be difficult for the audience of this blog to differentiate between an education and the acquiring of technical skills. you know, i'd be interested in knowing your credentials. rahul has already stated his. i have an ivy league phd, am currently a faculty member at an institution that is top-5 in my field, and moving this summer to a university that calls itself the best social science university in the world. your name-calling, of me and of others who have commented here, certainly doesn't match up to the stephanian standards you tout.

ps. thanks for the kind words about tanika sarkar. she and sumit sarkar are close family friends.

Tabula Rasa said...

ok sorry, i just realised some of my responses were to rila and not manasi.

Tabula Rasa said...

oh and while we're on the whole patriarchal thing, i wonder if either of you has ever sung the blacksmith's song.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

kmc's players with keval arora were and continue to be a fantastic theater group.

You beat me to that. As a matter of fact, many of my friends, whose abilities and talents I respect greatly, are from KMC. (I may be meeting up with one of them today.)

you know, i'd be interested in knowing your credentials.

You beat me to that too. Never mind credentials -- it was bothering me that I was the only one posting with my real, full name. Are none of the brave defenders of the Stephens faith willing to associate their names with the place?

(I know TR's and bandafbab's real-life identities, which helps me take them seriously.)

Anonymous said...

"The blacksmith said before he died, there was a man with an xxx so wide, he cud never be satisfied. Satisfied! Satisfied!" Satisfied? Probably not the version you're used to, but hey it worked for us. Nuthin much patriarchal about it. In fact I dont even think the version u'r used to is patriarchal at all. I should start a blog and maybe post about it, I've prob taken up more than my fair quota of Rahul's space. I am guessing you were in college in the pre womens-rez days.

(I know TR's and bandafbab's real-life identities, which helps me take them seriously.)
and I know Rila and she knows me.
I do not have any ivy league degrees at all tabla (what a wasted life), indeed no phoren stamp though I am temporarily living abroad. I did however serve as a councillor for 2 years in MCD (the municipal corporation of delhi, for those who might have trouble with such humble acronyms), and fought but lost elections to the west bengal assembly from guess where, the great city of kolkata. I also serve on national committees of a major leftist political party.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

I am guessing you were in college in the pre womens-rez days.

Just before. There were campaigns for it in my time, opposition from many senior admin people, and various snide comments from male students that you would be horrified at.

You seem to be rooted solidly in the real world, which makes your comments about the theatre skills of non-Stephen's colleges quite... surprising, let us say.

As for your "men" fixation -- my wife (who is rather far removed from St Stephen's) was reading the above yesterday, and the main remark she had was that Rila's repeated comments on the "diversity of views" allowed in St Stephen's don't seem to apply to views about St Stephen's itself. If you don't join the party line, you're a self-hater.

Anonymous said...

*i have an ivy league phd, am currently a faculty member at an institution that is top-5 in my field, and moving this summer to a university that calls itself the best social science university in the world.*

sadly, that sounds a lot like most stephanians obsessed with rankings and prestige.

Tabula Rasa said...

exactly. the discussion petered out after i demonstrated i could be as pretentious as anyone.

Anonymous said...

looks like this post has a life of its own
Jacob Matthan, a distinguished alumnus, has his take on it at


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Yes, TR sent me the link... Personally I think all this fuss by SSCians, over the last 5 lines of a longish post that otherwise had nothing to do with SSC, rather confirms my opinion that some SSCians spend too much time navel-gazing.

(Note that I said "some".)

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