Sunday, June 06, 2010

Universities and cities

Via Abi, here's a recent (well, nearly a month old) article by Sanjeev Sanyal arguing for better integration of universities with urban communities in India. Sanyal's argument is that walling off the campus (as the IITs and IIMs do) causes them to have no impact on their surroundings: to benefit the city, the university system must be integrated into it.

I couldn't agree more. But from a purely selfish point of view, Sanyal's other point -- that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect entire families to live in a remote walled-off location, and unproductive to supply schools, medical facilities, etc at that location simply because the city is too far away -- is equally important.

I just spent two days in Cologne. The university is in a pleasant campus-like space with academic buildings separated by green parks; but the "city" is a couple of minutes walk away, the hotel where I stayed was a five or ten minute walk away, and the main railway station was a 20 minute walk from the hotel (I timed it this morning). There is an extensive tram and underground system but I simply didn't need to use it (but my hosts and I used it once, under time pressure).

Previously, I spent my postdoc time in Paris and New York, and it was a hugely positive experience to be living in the middle of the city and not in a walled-off community. The academic part of my university was indeed walled-off, but New Yorkers will know the special atmosphere that the unwalled New York University contributes to its neighbourhood, the Greenwich Village.

And I grew up in Delhi University, which has lots of small walls but no all-encompassing wall; I think the student and faculty community had a positive influence on the area. Certainly it is one of my favourite parts of Delhi (perhaps the only part of the city that I like).

But the mania for walls is not confined to academic campuses in India. The papers are full of new housing developments that are located an insane distance from the city, but come equipped with school, hospital, clubhouse, and whatnot. Of course, those who can afford these will also have air-conditioned chauffeur-driven cars to transport them. But what is the ecological impact of all this?

Why are our Indian cities often somewhat unpleasant to walk around in? My theory is that the common Indian mindset of separating "shopping" from "residential" areas contributes to it. The newspapers in Chennai are full of complaints from residents in "residential" localities (like Besant Nagar) that shops are infringing their space and causing crowds and noise. But what they don't see is that the commercial activity also contributes to safety. In Cologne (at least in the city centre) you feel safe walking on the road at midnight because there are people around. In Indian residential areas you often don't feel safe after dark. Meanwhile, the "commercial" areas are overcrowded, noisy and dirty, and navigating them becomes an unusually unpleasant obstacle course. A better mixture of commercial and residential activity would, I feel, be beneficial all around: shoppers can avoid the madness of T.Nagar, residents can feel a little more secure (at the expense of putting up with a little more noise). Of course, in addition the usual urban requirements like clean sidewalks, cleanliness, sanitation, are necessary.

Gated communities, academic and otherwise, are an escape from the urban chaos, but I think they are based on a false premise -- that such isolation is desirable. It is not, either for the residents or for the rest of the community.


gaddeswarup said...

I think that this a difficult question but worth pursuing. I have seen both type of universities in USA and France (Toulouse, Orsay for example are isolated). Moreover relative isolation of places like ISI in Kolkata helped develop generations of scientists who put India on the research map (travel, accomodation are tough in cities). Even in villages there are community pressures on teachers for various sorts of help, and sometimes caste pressures. I remember my father travelling often for admissions to colleges and jobs for students and relatives. But there is the old model of agraharas which ave to some extent served dual purposes (of centres of learning and serving the community) in some places. My impression is that in some areas, if the king wanted to populate and bring the land under cultivation, they would start with a tank, temple and an agrahara with the brahmins educating people on agricultural technolgy, seasons etc and I think that is how large portions of Telangana came under tank agriculture. I do not know whether such models are possible now inside populated areas with high land values. I find the more worrying aspect is that many academics have developed tastes in a way that they do not seem to be aware of the problems of rural India and much of their research goes towards publications in western journals ( even in social sciences). This is just an impression ( from the lack of progress of projects like Honey Bee), possibly because I am more familiar with the western media and journals.

Kapil Hari Paranjape said...

One can give arguments in both directions I suppose, but one's opinion
largely boils down to experience.

The IIT Kanpur experience was not only not possible in any of the
city universities, it was also not possible in IIT Delhi or even IIT
Bombay (which are essentially inside the city). The isolation from the
country as a whole (not just the urban landscape) gave us a sense of

For most students it is important to be away from their family members
in order to be _allowed_ to think independently. For the organisation,
it is important to be outside the public eye so that you can do things
differently without questions being raised in the Parliament or the
Supreme Court.

Those of us who were students at IIT, Kanpur know that it was
certainly not considered, either by us or by our teachers, as a
"utilitarian place to teach students". The latter phrase (used in the
article by Sanyal) is far more applicable to most of the colleges that
dot our cities; where students come (if at all) for classes and leave
for the rest of the day.

There are places where the article misleads by juxtaposition or by
eliding data that contradicts its premise. People don't think of
"great city" in conjunction with names like Oxford, Cambridge, Boston,
Pasadena or Princeton. It is true that Paris, Chicago, New York, Los
Angeles and other such great cities have great universities in them.

Could the IITs have done more to transform our society? Certainly?
Was it necessary to be so far removed from society? Perhaps not? Was
the remoteness a source of problems for families of staff? Quite
often. However, for all their failings, the IITs _have_ been a source
of emormous positive change in the country and in most of the people
who lived there for any length of time.

The precise distance one needs to maintain from society in order to
"think outside the box" and yet have enough influence to change it,
is yet to be determined.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Gaddeswarup, Kapil - about the argument that isolation helped scientists to develop (I notice you both use the past tense in talking of ISI Kolkata and IIT Kanpur respectively): those were the times, I would guess, when women were expected to follow their husbands around. How would you solve the two body problem? Even if the wife is also a scientist of high calibre, many institutions, I am told, used to (and still) have policies of not employing the spouse of an employee. Plus, not all spouses happen to be academics. For me and many others, moving to IIT Kanpur would be out of the question, for that reason alone.

This is already a big disincentive to work on a remote campus. Plus, a city has its own life -- art, cultural, restaurants, bars, which are hard to duplicate in a remote campus (especially a campus like an IIT which doesn't have its own art and music departments).

I don't know whether these things alone account for the relative decline of IIT Kanpur and ISI Kolkata, but surely they are important.

Swarup, I am interested in whether the old model of "gurukuls" / "agraharas" (stripped of caste restrictions) could possibly be a meaningful alternative to the primary schooling system. There is much talk on how learning by "apprenticeship" is much more effective than learning in the classroom. This was one of my intended future blogposts too.

Kapil - I don't know what the atmosphere in the country was like in the 1970s, but today you have a "sense of freedom" all over the country: I'd say isolation would not contribute to it. I do agree that students need to spend time away from family, and in the IITs the majority already do. But why not stay in the city?

Finally, about your list of not-great cities: I think Boston would qualify as great, but certainly its academics contributes to it. Here's an article by Paul Graham on why he finds Boston stimulating. (Even if you strip away Harvard and MIT, the academic output of Boston would exceed that of all of India, I believe.) As for Oxford and Cambridge (UK), they are primarily known for their university but they are regular towns where lots of non-university people live; the university contributes a positive influence. Also true of lots of other university towns -- Reading, Bristol, Warwick, Leeds, ... That is precisely the point of the article.

gaddeswarup said...

I agree about your point on two body problem. To some extent it exists in USA too. Now ISI, Kolkata us not isolated, though there is a campus. I wonder about the reasons for decine. is it the general atmosphere in the city, the govt.? I feel that there is a similar decine in TIFR too. Is there a natural life span for these institute when outside influences creep in. This may be the point which Paul Graham is making. If not the whole country at least the city can make a difference. I think Richard Florida made similar points. But surprisingly, in a recent post he says innovations have started moving east.
About Gurukula/agrahara system, I was thinking more of the economic reasons for the prevalence of agraharas. In Australia (and India too) there are various technical schools for students after 10th grade. In Australia, students are required even in ordinary schools, after 10th grade to do do some apprenticeship with business concern close to their specializations. And after the course, they have to do longer apprenticeship elsewhere. I am not sure whether this is the sort of system you had in mind.(Somewhat tangential: Surprisingly these technical schools do not actually produce things to sell ;in UK some do. I think for a small economy like Australia it is not convenient to produce all the machinery here. Even guiliitones to cut paper, metal are imported. I think such things can easily be produced in technical schools as a part of the education and it can make some money for the institute. In India since local conditions vary a lot, perhaps the technical schools can try to produce some things to meet the local needs and also make money at the same time. We find here even villages they use technologies using printed circuit boards and often make some of the gadgets themselves after getting the spare parts from the cities.)
David larabee talks off four different types of universities that developed in USA. I think that there is no one type which suits everybody and different types for different needs have to be experimented.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Swarup - ah I misunderstood your point about ISI Kolkata (I've never been there). About apprenticeship-learning, I was thinking at even earlier ages. Why can't a student learn arithmetic and geometry by helping a builder or carpenter or tailor, history by helping at a historical monument, and so on? It can't be the exclusive way of teaching all subjects, but for some subjects it would be more effective than a classroom, and also directly teaches children about different ways of life.

I've been interested in the subject of homeschooling (which is getting rather widespread in some parts of the world; and even in India, some homeschooled kids are making recent headlines). But while mainstream schooling has its drawbacks, homeschooling in the absence of a support structure wouldn't in general be any better, I feel. However, if there were some sort of institutionalised apprenticeship mechanism that covered a lot of "practical" education, the rest could be dealt with by homeschooling parents...

gaddeswarup said...

Science magazine had two articles on math. education in schools after research by some expert panels U.S. Expert Panel Sees Algebra As Key to Improvements in Math
and Expert Panel Lays Out the Path to Algebra--and Why It Matters
. There seems to be very little agreement except that algebra should be started early by grade 8 I think. We had algebra from grade 9 and I remember asking about the point of doing algebra and nobody explained. My father was transfered twice that year and I ended up doing the same algebra thrice. I did not see why I was learning algebra but may be it helped. I remember lots of classmates being scared of algebra but it did not bother me. Just finish homework and go out to play.
There are some experimental studies for earlier ages at the instance of L. P. Benezet. Benezet Centre has his articles and later studies but generally these have not been followed up except by a few. Benezet's idea was that they were teaching too much too early and that one should not teach mathematics until the age of eight or so. Instead they had English, History and were shown how to use the index to find the relevant information in the books. Thus they developed some feel for numbers. Apparently, it did not do any harm and those students when put in regular classes later, caught up with the othrs in an year. (continued)

gaddeswarup said...

That was in the late twenties and thirties. But then the preschool experiments started in the sixties to help disadvantaged children Crooked Timber's post Early Lessons gives several links to US preschool programs starting with High/Scope Perry PreSchool in Ypsilanti. Very interesting transcript of a radio program by Emily Hanford here a summary here. This time the early start seemed to have helped. Excerpt from the last link:
"By the time study participants were 40 years old, the differences between the people who went to preschool and the people who didn't were startling.

The people who'd gone to preschool were more likely to be employed; they made more money. They were more likely to own homes and cars, to have savings accounts. They were more than twice as likely to say they had positive relationships with their families. The men who'd gone to preschool were more involved in raising their children. And the biggest difference of all had to do with crime.

The people who had gone to preschool had far fewer problems with the law. They were half as likely to be arrested. In other words, preschool cut the crime rate in half.

By cutting crime and sending fewer children to special education, the preschool saved society a lot of money. That got economists and business people interested in the Perry Preschool. They like Perry because it makes economic sense. Investing in preschool pays off."
This seemed to have started the new trend of starting early. see also See also Why do Finland's schools get the best results? :
"According to the OECD, Finnish children spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world."
and the recent Nature Editorial Learning in the wild . So there does not seem to be any consensus but I tend to go along with the Nature Editorial which has drawn a lot of flak.
P.S. Advantages of keeping a blog. I was able to find the links quickly. But one is no nearer to any sort of answer.

gaddeswarup said...

Coming back to your post, I started googling about university-neighbourhood partnerships and it seems that there is trend towards this in USA. I have not read any of these but see the review of Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform:
"Dewey's Dream describes several other programs and projects initiated by the University of Pennsylvania in its attempt to partner students, faculty, and diverse members of the Philadelphia community together in the work of solving real world problems. For any university educator or administrator interested in facilitating collaborative community problem-solving projects, part 2 should be required reading for its presentation of concrete strategies."

Anonymous said...

I am in an IIT. Right next to my flat is a campus community center (run inside IIT by IIT). During some months, there are three weddings there per week. Completely flouting Supreme Court diktat, loud drums, amplified remix and local music, and louder explosions fill the air from 9pm to past midnight. Sometimes explosions dribble on up to 2am. In some 18 neighboring faculty flats, it becomes impossible to sleep, leave alone work, during these times. Years of complaints have come to naught. Campus security is tolerant to the events and turn a deaf ear (lame joke intended) to the pleas of faculty members for some peace and silence. Many of the weddings are hosted by members of certain ethnicities and religions and castes and cannot be touched by cops. My whole household just goes to the department to chill out and may be work some more until after 2am when the festivities are over for sure.

I mentioned this fact as a contrast to the typical civilized city, where one would be arrested and fined for making a noise that disturbs someone else on their property. But then, Rahul finds such comparisons elitist. Real researchers are able to win Nobels and Turings and Fields while prancing around in wedding parties, identifying with and reveling in the dominant culture of their motherland.

Such blind aping by no means breaks new ground. As any senior dermatologist will tell you, dermatitis and fungal infection have skyrocketed among youth (who are supposed to have healthy, vital and resistant skin) after they have started wearing thick, tight jeans in tropical humidity and temperature. But hey, there is positive GDP in selling jeans, then positive GDP in dermatologists' fees, then yet more positive GDP in medication.

So we can look wistfully at idyllic cities blending into college campuses, but trying to replicate one part of it without appreciating what that will do in the harsh realities in India is plain silly.

The next thing you know, some bleeding-heart type will blurt out "but IIT has a role to play in making its surroundings like those of NYU". To which I will say dream on, lover boy. Most of India's serious problems are not technical. We are tired of hearing "how, with so many civil and structural engineering experts, are IIT buildings so pathetic?" Look, even in India, lack of technology is not coming in the way of good, useful, hassle-free buildings. All we need is for architects to not copy Western designs blindly, for contractors to not steal so bloody much, and for contractors to not give a cut to architects for expensive esoteric design. (I have direct experience of the above.) To save the country, become a cop, a spiritual leader, a politician, a psychologist, never a scientist or engineer pushing the envelope of world-class prior art. Most of the civilized world has solved these problems and moved on. Researchers are evaluated on how they measure up with the best-known techniques anywhere in the world, not what one society practises.

Anonymous said...

I think there are two separate issues. The first is whether universities should be integrated into cities, and the second is whether they should be far away from cities. The problems in the two situations are different. For example, finding jobs for spouses is not so much of an issue if you have a walled-off institute which is on the suburbs of a city. I can't see any valid arguments (other than perceived elitism) against having a walled-off campus in close proximity to a city.

It is apparent you can't integrate Indian institutions to the extent that, say, Harvard is integrated into Cambridge Mass because of various problems.

From direct experiences at ISI Calcutta, I can say offhand that theft and strikes. There are numerous instances of people simply walking into buildings and committing petty theft even though there were security guards who knew almost everyone who regularly passed through the gates. We would have to set up elaborate security systems on a per-building basis. This works in cities like Cambridge, but I'm not sure how easy it would be in Calcutta. Another big problem at ISI Calcutta was bandhs and strikes. ISI constructed an underground tunnel from the staff quarters/student hostels to the classroom/office building part of campus precisely because of strikes. Faculty or students who attempted to go to the academic campus before the tunnel was built would sometimes be forcibly prevented from doing so by political strikers. The tunnel solution was only possible because the campus was walled off.

Other than security and bandhs, other problems like squatters, squalor, noise, pollution also come to mind if we are talking about campuses integrated into cities. The isolation certainly helps create a calm environment conducive to academic work.

gaddeswarup said...

I have been visiting ISI, Kolkata since 1970 and in my opinion (and for my taste) it had the best academic atmosphere for long time that I have seen anywhere in the world. There were lot of politics but slowly they found it more and more difficult to hire good young scientists. I think that it has some thing to do with the conditions in the city and more recently the govt. encroachment in the instiute affairs. This raises various questions. How long can one isolate oneself from the conditions outside. Secondly how difficult are the conditions for the young living outside to study and pursue careers and should the institutes play a role in this. ISI played some role through sample surveys and various agricultural studies ( I cannot remember exactly what but remember meeting a professor of agriculture). Ramakrishna Mission has colleges and now a university and they have some neighbourhood initiatives and agricultural and rural developments, some of them huge, through out west Bengal. Possibly, in spite if campus nature, such initiatives can be developed taking in to account 'Indian conditions'. May be this is the sort of think Rahul is aiming at.
I apologize for too many comments but this is some thing I have been wondering about for some time.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sorry for not participating in the discussion. I'm spending too much time on blogs as it is! But clearly there are many sides to this issue and perhaps my personal opinions intruded too much.

vbalki said...

I must say I sympathise with much of what "Anonymous" said in his comment (8 June 2010, 11:44 pm). Maybe politically incorrect in places, but absolutely true all the same, and a pretty accurate description of the ethos that prevails in this country, where helplessness enforces tolerance.