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.


Sudeep Bhaskar said...

Belonging to this institution (class of 92)I feel that this decision will take away a lot from from what I have. Just a thought - This decison affects not only the future but also the past ..I feel that this decision intrudes on the sense of pride that a lot of people like me have in this institution.

Subho Ray said...

Good to know someone is speaking publicly against such myopic policies of instituions which pretend to be "private" but are largely run by public money. This would apply to most colleges in Delhi that are run by so called trusts [I happen to live in one such]. It would interesting to do a research on how little money the trusts [religious or secular with names emblazoned on bold in the buildings] contribute [most of it ocmes from UGC] and how disproprtionately huge their contribution/say is in managing the affairs of the colleges are.

St Stephen's although of a different denomination should learn from the example of the Jesuit schools especially St Xavier's Schools across India and how in the last 25 years they have rapidly deteriorated from position of leadership to also rans, as you have put it. Delhi's St Xavier's is a glaring example among many others that I know, of how pandering to populism leads to rapid deterioration of institutes.

At the cost of sounding elitist, my alma mater, Presidency College, Calcutta, offers a better example... It is a government college in the sense that the education department of West Bengal runs the college. it is still strictly run on merit in spite of various pressures legal and illegal from a mildly hostile left front government. Admission process is simple. Add up the marks of +2 and admission test and prepare a merit list for each honours course [there are only honours courses]. There were no quotas and even the obligatory quotas were not filled while I was there in the late 80s. Built in the 19th century each class in the main building could fit 100 students but not more than 20 were admitted.
On a nostalgic note, within a few years the myopia of the St Stephen's authorities will ensure that the perennial debate Stepen's VS Presi [very popular in JNU and DU] will come to an end decisively in favour of Presi.

Anonymous said...

well written, but when the christian community members have established stephen's and columba's as a brand, they have full right to do what they want with it!! you and i studied there for 3 yrs and then walked away with a stamp on our backs, but never went back to teach, fund or even offer lip service. The stephens and columbas brands would have been valued in $ millions if these were corporate entities. At that time the equity owners of these firms would have done whatever they wanted to with their company as you can with - if you suddenly turn godly you may want to offer jobs for free and let the business die. that would not give any of those who got jobs thru naukri a chance to stop you. so we can crib about the fact that the brand may lose value, but our perception of value is how elite and how well paying the jobs that alumni get, are. the christian community members who run these institutions feel there is more value in egalitarianism and helping their own kind. so be it.

Manoj said...

guess, would second soofi on this. free market and private institutes by virtue of their nature can do what they want. if we are to dictate the course of the free market by what is logical to the majority, the very fabric of the envisaged ideal society will be lost. governments can be secular and inclusive, free markets and private have to find out what works for them, themselves. going by the logic of your previous post, stephen's , if they continue with current 60% reservation policy, will lose their academic fabric, and the graduates it supplies to the market will be substandard, since their academics are poor, hence they will be less employable. In turn lesser and lesser parents would want to send them to stephens, the market forces will act and spell doom for them. if the council at stephens sees this in time, they will correct their policies and course. On the flip side if this policy of stephens is to succeed, which i suspect will be the case, they have to have belief in their teaching techniques and faculties to turn mediocre school pass outs to brilliant graduates. if that happens, the whole myopic view of the teaching institutions of training brilliant students with their run of the mill faculties and converting already brilliant graspers into intelligent products, will change permanently!! Only mediocre minority requires brilliantly intelligent faculty to undo the mediocrity that first 15 years set in them. Please ponder…

Jyoti said...

Hi Biks. Thanks for a cogent article that lays out the situation at St Stephens. As someone who lives in another country and has no contact with St Stephen's, I read the article with interest.

I must say that my reaction is more in line with Soofi's comments, than yours. Before I add my two paisa's worth, I must declare a conflict of interest: I failed to get the marks needed to get into St Stephens but was accepted into the college as a Christian. I certainly derived great benefit from having been part of the college.

My comment really comes from a perspective of governance. The fact that St Stephen's College has been a fine college with a great academic reputation etc etc is only one dimension that those in governance over the college need to take into account when making decisions about the college's future.

What those in governance really need to be asking is something on the lines of this: 1) What benefit / difference / outcome in the recipients' lives should the actions of the college produce? 2) Which persons should be reached by the actions of the college? 3) What should be the cost or relative worth of the benefits delivered by the college?

In the jargon of governance, these sort of questions may be tagged Ends issues. A focus on ends can sometimes result in a great deviation from current practice, either because current practice does not reflect the real ends policies that should be targeted, or because the ends policies have themselves changed.

If the college's governance organisation has made its judgement on foundations such as these, then I cannot imagine that anybody can have cause for seeking a reversal of their decision.

I am a non-exec of a charitable organisation that operates in 40 countries. Sometimes we end up having to change the activities of the organisation in a country, even though that may impact activities that have provided good and valid services for over a hundred years. Sometimes those decisions are painful, and sometimes they are so obvious - but more usually so in hindsight.

I would imagine that there are many "good" alternative routes open to those who direct the path of St Stephens. The challenge for them is to choose the best option from the good alternatives. I hope they have done so already and will continue to do so in the future.

But if they choose to preserve the past reputation of St Stephens without taking into account the ends policies they should be striving to achieve, then I would argue that theirs is a case of bad governance.

Here's hoping we only see good governance in action.

All the best.

SanjeevBikhchandani said...

Hi Jyoti

You have made a relevant observation. Good governance is very important.

Now what leads to good governance. First there should be appropriate structures and processes in place. Second that there should be the right people in the various roles and they discharge their responsibilities well. Decision making is transparent and participative, due process is followed and stakeholders are consulted before a major decision to alter course is taken. People in positions of responsibility are open to the voice of reason. And finally all this should lead to the right decisions being taken and the right ends being chased.

I am not sure that this is the case currently with St. Stephen’s college.

I too am arguing for good governance. I have merely outlined the logical outcome of the current course being pursued by the college management as I perceive it to be. And then I have called for a wider discussion before a decision such as this is implemented. Remember St. Stephen’s college gets ninety five percent of its funding from the UGC and only five percent from the Church. It has to be sensitive to the opinions of constituencies other than the Church. If after this wider discussion it is determined that this is the right course by all means the college should go for it.

I am not arguing against a Christian quota. I believe it is justified at St. Stephen’s. The question really is of balance. How many of the admissions into the college should be on open merit and how many should be in the various quotas is the key question.

While it may benefit the Christian community in the short run if the college were to reserve more and more seats for Christians however if it goes beyond a certain proportion then the college would be abandoning the virtuous circle of excellence and it would be embracing the vicious circle of mediocrity as I have outlined in my article. I believe that St. Stephen’s College crossed this point a few years ago. When you have twenty percent of the seats reserved under quota then the academically weaker students will tend to get lifted by the others. When you have academic merit in a minority the academically weaker students will tend to drag down the performance of the others.

When you have a majority of students entering because they profess a particular faith or are from a certain community you stand in danger of creating a ghetto.

The end game of the vicious circle of mediocrity will be such that twenty years from now if St. Stephen’s College is known for mediocre academics then it will be avoided by the academically meritorious Christians as well. So you will have at St. Stephen’s only mediocre Christians and mediocre students of other religious faiths.

The fact is that when you meet a future Stephanian you will know that there is a sixty percent chance that he did not gain admission on academic merit.

A college with a reputation for mediocrity would not benefit the Christian community in the long run.

Now so long as the various constituencies agree that even if the above scenario were to unfold it would be acceptable because it is of overriding importance that St. Stephen’s admit the majority of its students for reasons other than academic merit and then the decision is taken it is fine by me.


Anonymous said...

It is important to remember that the issue is not about admission of Christian students but of creating another category of quota called "Dalit Christians" There is a case in the Supreme Court whether or not such a category can be a reservation category. Even before the Supreme Court has given its ruling Stephens has gone ahead thereby giving the impression that the church does not care for the highest court of law in our land.
Moreover, there is no viable way for certifying who is a Dalit Christian and who is a non-Dalit Charistian. If one looks at this closely one can realise that this new quota is merely a quota for bishops who will have the power to give dalit certifications. Thus it a programme for back door entry.
Also, there are two kinds of minority institutions: those unaided and those that are aided. St Stephen's is fully funded by the State. The Church does not give it even a paisa. Therefore it can have only those quotas that are sanctioned by the State. Moreover this move will have serious repurcussions on the Christians themselves. So far in Christian colleges, as per law, minority seats are meant for ALL christians regardless of whether they are Catholics or Protestants or Baptists. Now, the door has been opened for a Catholic Christian College from having seats for Catholic only and keep protestants out and vice versa

Anonymous said...


a nice little discussion warming up over here. a)I feel that the college's decision is well within its powers and they have either the necessary sanctions from ugc for taking such decisions or actually need no approvals from ugc. you have to trust this, or outrightly ask them. b) i think as ex-students you guys have to trust your institute of installing the best practices even in not so best students. though your fears cannot be turned off outrightly, however, they are more of presumptions c)when you meet a stephanian 20 years from now, you would not want to know his school marks sheet, rather what he is now. and in case he is successful you will feel proud of what stephen's has done to him, else you know that they tried!

Anonymous said...

Moving away from all the ranting and the raving and the chest thumping and patting on the back, here is a serious piece on Quotas in College. Mekes a lot of sense. This is found on the blog "Jacob's Random Thoughts"

Jacob's Random Thoughts
Random jottings on life and work in Gurgaon.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
The Martyrdom of Reason
The last post of mine on the quota issue at St. Stephen's College was a bit of a rant. I'll attempt to be more structured here (though, don't hold me to it - it's a pretty emotional issue for me).
First off, let me make the disclaimer that this is not going to delve into the rights and wrongs of reservation in general (for the record - I am staunchly against reservation in any form, for anyone, particularly upwards from the college level). This post is about the recent move by St. Stephen's College to establish a quota for Christians.

Prologue complete, let's place the facts on the table:

1. A full 30% of the seats available at the time of admission have been put aside for non-Dalit Christians.
2. 10% of the seats available have been put aside for Christians deemed by their local bishops to be categorizable as 'Dalit Christians', presumably implying the category to consist of converts from the Hindu faith that were categorizable as Dalits prior to conversion.
3. 15% put aside for SC/ST applicants and 5% for Sports category applicants.
4. Should the quota for 'Dalit Christians' have seats vacant, they will be filled with Christian applicants only.
5. A full 40% of the admitted students should be from the Christian community, at any cost.
6. To fill up the quotas, cutoffs for various courses have been lowered by as much as 25% for Christian applicants, and (though I can't seem to recollect the source for this) there is a blanket 60% cutoff for 'Dalit Christian' applicants.
7. Faculty, students and alumni have not been taken into confidence before going ahead with the move.
8. The new principal is a ...

Well, rather than name-calling, I will attempt to treat the matter with some dignity (more dignity, at least, than that seen in other ego clashes involving the new principal).

Let's take a closer look at the facts.

Point 1. refers to non - Dalit Christians. While not exhaustive, the list would include Kerala's Syrian Christians, and the Konkani/Portuguese-converted Christians that live in the stretch from Mumbai to Mangalore. If you know these communities well enough, you would drop your jaw in amazement at the thought that they would be eligible for any sort of quota in the first place. These communities have produced their fair share of educationists, enterpreneurs, politicians and career-people. If anything, they would be better off than the average Joe (or Jagdish). The per-capita income of these communities are high, and general education levels are similarly high. How do you justify taking these people in on a quota, whose ostensible purpose is to 'right the historical wrongs'? Even if you were to buy the argument that the interests of the Christian community should come first in a Christian college (why the favouritism?) it isn't as though there's a dearth of Christian colleges...there are enough of them lower down the academic value chain for the quota students' merit to be on par with that of the rest of the students. So far, Christian applicants have been availing a 15% relaxation in cutoffs. While this is patently unfair, it was tolerable since there was an interview process that weeded out the really hopeless cases and there was no evangelical zeal to fill up any quota with Christian students. This actually ensured that a large chunk of the Christians admitted actually had the marks to get through without the 15% relaxation. Now, however, College is going to be flooded with Johns and Jacobs and Matthews, many of whom would never have made it to College otherwise.

This brings us to point 2. - the 'Dalit Christians'. I do understand that just by converting one's religion one doesn't rise out of the many millennia of oppression that one's ancestors have had to encounter. So, insofar as a quota for this group is concerned, I do feel that they have as much a claim to it as the sarkari-certified Dalits. But, let me reiterate, I do not believe that Dalits have any claim on a quota in higer education and sarkari jobs in the first place. Also, by creating a separate quota for Dalit Christians, College has exhibited a gob smacking amount of hypocrisy - shouldn't 'Dalit Muslims' be given a similar quota, by the same token? If you're flying the banner of 'social justice' in a secular pluralistic nation, it has to be an inclusive sort of social justice,doesn't it? The Christian Dalit convert quota seems to be an advertisement for conversion to Christianity - come join us and get hooked on to a lifetime of benefits! I'm not saying that everything's fine for this's just that at the college level it's already too late to bring up such people to the levels that you'd expect from students at a top-rate institution. For the record, again, I would like to state that I am against any notion of exclusionism/exclusivity that comes from birth or adherence to a faith or belonging to a country club. Point 2. also raises the question of the veracity of claims of Dalitness. Right now, the bishop in my diocese back home has never paid a visit to my home - how would he be in any position to determine whether or not I come from a Dalit background? I see this as nothing more than a window for corruption and nepotism to sneak into the admission process. There's a time and a place for everything...if the church wants to uplift the 'Dalit Christians' it should do so while they're in school. Provide them with educational grants or something...give them the tools to rise on their own.

Point 3. about SCs and STs...let's not get into that. Probably the only remotely justifiable quota would be the sports quota, and that too only because students who come in have excelled (I use the term very loosely here) in something.

Point 4. is quite disturbing. When you consider that this time round there were only 6 'Dalit Christian' applicants, you get to see the broader picture. There are 33-34 seats from this quota that were filled by non-Dalit Christians. That such a situation would arise is something of a foregone conclusion. I wonder if this was playing at the back of the principal's mind when he made his decision.

Points 5. and 6. complete this tragic tale. From one angle, you could consider all the quotas you want, as long as the same minimum criteria are being met by all admitted. In the IITs most of the SC/ST quota goes unused because of the fact that most students that apply through this quota don't make it through the preparatory course, a one year primer intended to bring them up to speed. The IITs wouldn't dream of letting in students who didn't have it in them to come out of the IIT system with a passing grade. Why should it be any different for St. Stephen's? In the current school education scenario, where marks are being dished out with such alarming generosity, that they are no longer a differentiating factor at the upper end of the scale, a person who's managed only a 60% has really not learnt anything of significance in school. To take such a person and put him in a class with 95% scorers seems pretty much like a Roman-era gladiatorial event - feeding the Christians to the lions, if you like. What you will end up with are a bunch of basket-cases, depressed about faring badly compared to their peers. I speak from personal experience about this...I have had friends in College who would cry about how badly they were doing academically...they were determined and enthusiastic, but just didn't have the brains to rise out of the academic morass. It's cruel to put someone like that together with a student that has always been an exceptional performer, and expect them to do equally call extraordinary pressure to bear down on the academically challenged student. Of course, there was another set of Christian students that just used to give up very early on after seeing the writing on the wall...they had already experienced the greatest achievement of their lives (getting into College) and were quite content with drinking and doping and doing nothing else for the 3 years that they were in college. But that's another story.

Finally, point 7. shows that the new principal is an egostical monster, capable of doing what he pleases irrespective of how others perceive it. A certain Adolf with a small moustache comes to mind at this point. Really, if the new principal wants to do something like this, why the tearing hurry? He could have at least had the decency to put it out before all stakeholders in College, given them time to consider it (more than just a few hours, that is) and invited a debate on the issue, allowing for the airing of all points of view before making an informed, enlightened, democratic decision. As far as I know, barring the usual Wilson-baiters and a couple of others, the faculty are not very happy about this move. All the Stephanians that I've interacted with have expressed their utter disgust with the move, and the cloak-and-dagger manner in which the move was executed. I'm sure there are Stephanians that support the move (after all...there have been Christians availing the 15% marks relaxation earlier, though not necessarily in the form of a quota). It's just that I can't say I've seen any.

The new principal asks "What is merit?". Besides having the answer in your average dictionary, a little reflection on the subject would at least throw up a few facets of merit, at least the notions of excellence in some field, or the notion of superior raw material, or the notion of superlative skills and achievements. Really, I think I'm beginning to understand why they turned him away when he applied to College for his Bachelor's degree. The big issue is with the level of merit. I have always felt that St. Stephen's saw itself as a meritocracy. You reward the best and the brightest with admission, and provide them with every facility to nurture their talents. By turning away a meritorious student in favour of a less meritorious Christian, who has probably had superlative schooling throughout, College is being hypocritical to the hilt. It is sending out the wrong message entirely - mediocrity is fine as long as you've got Jesus. Now, with the meritorious being in a minority, College is creating some very bad PR for itself. This will do nothing except dissuade the meritorious from applying. So, all that will be left will be a college full of mediocre people. What good is that? My personal opinion is that things have worked well so far because the 'Jesus quota types' were in a small minority. For the most part, one could ignore the indifferent among them and get on with life. The eager amongst them would be able to immerse themselves in the relatively loftier statures of the rest, rising in the process. Now, you're going to have the mediocre encouraging the mediocre to be mediocre. Bravo! We've killed the goose that laid golden eggs.

As I said earlier, there is no dearth of liberal arts colleges in this country. St. Stephen's College would not be adding any value to the community, or to the nation, if it was to be just another teaching shop. It adds value by creating the leaders of tomorrow. Christians are not an educationally disadvantaged group, and don't need another institution to provide them with basic schooling...they have institutions like his old college, Bishop Moore College in Mavelikkara, for that. If anything, they need an institution to be their standard bearer, showing the nation that they are fully committed to the Christian value of service. They need something to be proud of, not something that people will snigger at for all time to come.

Rev. Thampu is not the local village priest. He shouldn't be concerned with the issues of the local parish. He is the head of a distinguished institution, one that has been serving the nation for a hundred and twenty five years, providing it with generation after generation of leaders in all fields (except engineering and medicine, of course). It's time he remembered that and started acting the part.

Labels: India, Quota, Reservation, St. Stephen's College

posted by Jacob @ Sunday, July 08, 2007 0 Comments Links to this post
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About Me
Gurgaon, Haryana, IN
A curious turn of events has found me in Gurgaon, where I'm struggling to prevent my love for life from dying an untimely death.
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a fan said...


Read your interview in Financial express.
Excellent one.

Sudeep Bhaskar said...

I guess there is a lot of common ground between Blogging and Golfing, than meets the eye ...

Anonymous said...

Hi Bikh,
I am waiting for your next blog.
Do you have a fan club?

Anonymous said...

Hi bikhchandar,

somebody surely seems to have taught you how to point a finger at people and start a conversation with 'YOU'.

significant lessons always help in business & entrepreneurship.

but, do stop pointing at and accusing others so often.


nisha said...

Thanks a lot for that extraordinarily high quality article.