Monday, 25 June 2007

Merit in minority

This is an article I wrote about the issue of reservations at St. Stephen's College for The Pioneer Newspaper

Delhi's St Stephen's College has been a centre of excellence, with a nominally Christian character. It is in danger, writes Sanjeev Bikhchandani, of becoming a centre for Christians, with a nominally academic character

Henceforth at St Stephen's College the meritorious shall be a minority community. For that is the implication of the decision by the College council and management to increase total reservations to 60 per cent of all students admitted. At the heart of this lies the fundamental issue about what the College wants to be and which constituencies it wants to serve and how.

For over 125 years St Stephen's College has stood for excellence. Be it excellence in academics or sport or in other fields. The bulk of students obtained admission on academic merit. Sure, there was a sports quota and a Christian quota, when I studied there in the early 1980s, however the school-leaving marks of those who got in on these quotas were usually only marginally below the interview cut-off for general candidates. And the number of people admitted in these categories was small.

An overwhelming majority of students got in because they had fared well in their class XII examinations, and then subsequently been impressive in the admission interview. Excellence in academics was the principle criterion.

This admission policy served the college well for over a hundred years. The institution earned a reputation as a centre of academic excellence. Its alumni made their mark in government, academics, politics, industry, literature, films, and media - name the field and Stephanians are there and making a difference. Indeed the list of luminaries the College has produced across all walks of life, consistently and over several generations, is so large that it would be impossible to do justice to it in an article.

Over the decades St Stephen's came to be regarded more as a national institution and less as a College run by the Church. This was the conscious goal of the leadership of the College; its past principals have been men of great stature and vision.

A few years ago stories went around the alumni circuit about how academic merit was being compromised in admissions and how larger and larger numbers of Christian students were being admitted simply because they were Christian - largely due to pressure from the Church.

This was followed a few years later by anecdotes of how Delhi University toppers were coming increasingly from other colleges, although St Stephen's still did reasonably well, and how fewer Stephanians were getting into the IIMs and other key centres of higher education than before. It was a logical outcome of the changed admission policy.

While it may be expedient for the clergy to nudge the College more and more towards fulfilling the goals of the Church, such a course will necessarily diminish the stature of St Stephen's. This damage to its reputation will not be immediately visible for the College enjoys enormous goodwill, earned through a century of alumni who have been outstanding ambassadors for it. But over a decade or two, it will almost certainly happen.

I have seen the impact of just such an admission policy over the past two decades on Delhi's St Columba's School, where I had studied. Once regarded as perhaps the best school in India academically, it is today not even an also-ran. It is very hard to build a great institution, but only a few years of folly can do irreparable damage.

If one is to prevent St Stephen's from slipping into the morass of mediocrity, it is important to understand how centres of learning achieve excellence, and how they stay that way. While a college may provide an enabling environment, infrastructure and committed and good professors, the truth is any academic institution is only as good as the students it admits.

This is as true of the IITs and IIMs as it is of St Stephen's. If the IITs did not select the top one per cent of a very large number of applicants, they would very quickly cease to be regarded as centres of excellence.

To build a great institution you need visionary leadership and great commitment at the start. The founders of the IIMs, the IITs and St Stephen's were such people. Once the institution earns a reputation it naturally becomes a magnet for talent - both student and faculty. It then becomes a virtuous circle: a good college attracts good students and good teachers, and together they perform well academically and further enhance the reputation of the college; this thereby attracts even better students and teachers, and so it continues.

The college then becomes even better because it is good - a positive spiral, a snowball effect, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly more and more great institutions in this country are falling into the hands of people who don't understand this.

On the flip side there is a potential negative spiral - with a majority of students not being the most meritorious academically, the College will produce less than the best academic results, resulting in a diminishing of its ability to attract the best students in future. This will result in a further weakening of the academic output and talent migration elsewhere.

Year after year the spiral will continue till the college becomes known for mediocrity. A self-fulfilling prophecy and a snowball effect of the worst kind.

In this light, the decision to depart from academic merit for admitting a majority of its students is a retrograde step by the College management. At St Stephen's, this move has been made by an acting principal, within a few weeks of his taking over, in the summer holidays, without consulting alumni, without a debate in public and in seeming haste.

It needs to be rolled back and a wider discussion held. St Stephen's deserves better.