First of all tell us about your experience in managing such a dynamic university, which has multiple campuses and has expanded its reach to students in multiple regions of the country.
It’s been a little over two years since I’ve taken up charge as The Vice Chancellor, SRM University. I have an extensive milieu both from the industry and academia in developing as well as in developed economies. To my credit, I was awarded the prestigious ACCENTURE AWARD, (with a co-author) twice (1995 and 2004) for outstanding paper in Logistics and Supply Chain Management. I served as Professor, Chairman, Associate Dean and Dean at the Business School, George Washington University since 1989. I also worked with the World Bank and the U.S. Federal Government in various projects including designing and delivering Logistics and Supply Chain Management. I was visiting Researcher at Cranfield, School of Management, Visiting Professor at the University of Turin, Italy and the Norwegian School of Management; a Fulbright Fellow at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi; a Distinguished Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia, and the Otto Monsted Chair at the Copenhagen Business School. Having done all these, I am happy to be back to the country of my birth. I firmly believe my portfolio has helped me to contribute better as a leader of the University.
The experience in managing such a dynamic university has been challenging because we always aim to be a top notch university. Our strength lies in hosting a diverse population of students and educators at our University. We have Professors who are trained in India and abroad. They bring with them a rich experience that gives our students the correct mix of skills required for today’s market demands. Educational institutions have changed significantly due to a combination of major change factors, including increasing globalisation especially in the educational system, international exposure, technological advancement and much more. This keeps us on our toes. We strive to ensure our students are provided with holistic growth and development. As Universities are not made of brick and mortar, we pay heed to the voices of our faculty and students. In this sense, the job as Vice Chancellor is to ensure intellectual excellence amidst changes that are coming in various forms to reach better heights of success. As you know, SRM University is a premier multi-stream institution and we are doing our very best to stay at the top.
SRM University’s vision is to create an environment of academic freedom. What are the steps or methods, which help you, achieve this aim?
Academic freedom is very important and a critical component of the democratic process. Academic and educational institutions only contribute to enlighten the thirst of knowledge in students and teachers. As the American Academic Community's core policy document states, "institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition" (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has been endorsed by more than 240 national scholarly and educational associations). We strongly believe in learning as a two-way process – teacher-student-student-teacher. The environment is so challenging in the sense that answers are always being sought by the learners and the learned. In the vision to maintain high standards of academic freedom, SRM University encourages students and teachers to climb the extra step in challenging the existing paradigms. Beyond the classroom setting there is an active interaction between students and teachers in a variety of clubs, programs, workshops, events, conferences etc., all intended to spruce the mind constantly in different ways of thinking and imparting knowledge.
SRM University boasts of a diversified crowd at the University. The university also sends students to foreign universities for Semester Abroad Program. Can you elaborate on the kind of tie-ups you have with foreign universities and how you select the students for the program?
Internationalism is an integral component of SRM’s teaching–learning process. It permeates every dimension of the university and sets an impact on the students, faculty and research. Indeed, one of the mission statements of SRM is devoted to internationalism: Move up through international alliances and collaborative initiatives to achieve global excellence. Student mobility has been promoted at SRM for a long time. SRM is a pioneer in developing the concept of Semester Abroad Program or SAP for short. In this, a student is able to spend one semester in any one of our over 90 global partners to either do their research internship or study courses. The students are able to earn credits that are then made integral to their degree program back home. The SAP programs provide an exposure to international teaching–learning methodologies while they continue to be students at SRM. In addition to gaining academically, the exposure also builds on the overall confidence and personality of the student. They also absorb transferable soft skills like team working, analytical skills, communicational skills etc.
SRM sends several hundred students every year to nearly 14 countries like USA, Netherlands, Ireland, Dubai, UK, France, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and Chile. Some well-known institutions include CMU, UC Davis, University of Wisconsin – Madison, University of Warwick, University of Edinburgh, Umea University, Waseda University, Sungkyunkwan University, NTHU, George Washington University and University of Western Sydney to name a few. It is important to give students alternative pathways for their studies. They can either complete their studies at SRM and then progress to a higher education institution abroad or complete part of a course at SRM and transfer to a partner institution abroad to complete a course. The transfer would either be in the form of a dual degree where both institutions provide a degree or transferring once for all to obtain a degree only from the partner institution. SRM has such arrangements with 12 institutions like IIT Chicago, University of Toledo, George Washington University, University of Warwick, University of Dundee, University of Hull, to name a few.
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SRM’s flagship program is with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The university is only one of two institutions in India that CMU has tied up with. The MSIT-ESE is a 16-month specialised degree program. With an identical curriculum to Carnegie Mellon’s campus program, the study begins in year one in Chennai at SRM’s School of Computing and School of Electrical Engineering. After completing the ¬first two semesters at SRM University, students then proceed to CMU to continue their program in residence. Upon successful completion of the degree requirements, graduates may elect to remain in the U.S., to pursue professional opportunities, a definitive return on one’s educational and professional career investment. Three of our students- Sujith Vijayakumar, Vaishali Suresh, and Prashaanth Ragupathy, completed their courses and have landed with their dream careers in core engineering companies in the USA. Other popular twinnings and transfer programmes include one in Germany called IGCHE. In this program students in certain branches of engineering complete 3 years in SRM and spend the 4th year in Germany to earn two degrees. The students do not pay any fees in their fourth year, and career prospects are assured with top-notch jobs or pathways for higher studies.
Other aspects of internationalism include faculty visits and research collaboration. Under the Faculty Abroad Programme, faculty spend up to six months overseas to upgrade skills and competencies in all dimensions of teaching-learning and research, which are then incorporated into SRM processes on their return. Also, several faculties from partner universities, visit SRM to deliver lectures, seminars and workshops for students.
What is your mantra to create a positive academic culture at the various SRM campuses?
The mantra is to find the right mix of academic rigour, the relevance of academics to the demands of the market and research. There is an urgent need to look beyond classroom interactions, examinations and degrees to see what the market requires. After all the bottom line is, the young mind must be successful in the walk of life. We emphasise on the following: Ask questions to know better, Ask even if you don’t understand a thing, Take initiatives, Know your strength, Identify your learning style, Set your priorities right, Think out of the box, Aim high, and Be abreast of the changes around. For this, there has to be constant interaction between academia and industry, not merely for the purpose of upgrading the syllabi and course content but also for the purpose of engaging usefully in projects and internships that pave the way for brighter prospects. We encourage our students and faculty to focus on research and publications and this is one of our primary objectives in all our campuses.
As we are discussing SRM campuses, you recently established the Amravati Campus. Congratulation on the expansion! Are there any more expansion plan in the pipeline?
SRM University, AP-Amravati is a New Age University, born in the age of technological innovation and discovery, the likes of which have never been seen before in India. It is, therefore, imperative for Universities to produce talents to sustain and nurture this revolution and for India to maintain its global edge in a competitive world. SRM University, AP-Amravati is designed to do just that. From its birth, it is imbibing the best in the world. The teams of academics are pioneers in their fields, involved in ground-breaking research from leading universities from all over the world. The University is also partnering with the world's best names for educational method and philosophy, campus design and infrastructure, learning and living spaces, recruitment of faculty and leadership. Noticeable examples are the MoU it has just signed with MIT, U.S., in the development and design of its curriculum through the use of MITx courses, Perkins + Will, leading American architects who designed the university, and Perrett Laver and Society, global search firms from UK, who are involved in the recruitment of senior leadership roles and faculty. The University aims to establish a centre of excellence that is both globally connected and is a regionally transformative for research and education at the heart of a new, modern, vibrant metropolis.
About further expansion, at any given time we are always open to seeing where and how SRM University can expand. It is a dynamic situation and long-term strategizing is needed. We have to be prudent in assessing and drawing plans accordingly but will seize every opportunity that presents itself. The collective experience gained in establishing a network of over 20 educational institutions with over 60,000 students, is the strength the group has in identifying opportunities, assessing them, and formulating plans to make it a reality. Yet at the same time, one would have to be careful while drawing expansion programs for the simple reason we would have to see what is really in need. As you are aware, there are swings in the interest of the young student population coming into the portals of higher education.
The university had recently held a counselling session on SRMJEE on May 14. How was the response from the students towards Amravati campus?
The newly launched SRM University-Amaravati has elicited an overwhelming response from the students. Nearly 3,178 students expressed their interest in applying for Amaravati campus. During the first day of Cycle 1 admissions, 10 toppers of SRM JEEE including the 51st rank holder opted for Amaravati.
The campus will bring together diverse cultures, backgrounds, and experiences from across the country. The University maintains a very stringent academic requirement. Upon entry, students enter a world of discovery to rise to face the challenges with zeal and therefore transcend their visions into reality. Added to that is the world class infrastructure being created and teaching- learning processes being integrated from world class institutions like MIT, are set to provide a truly transformational experience to the students. Recognising these special attributes of the new University, was a key factor to the encouraging response that was seen in the admission process.
When heading an educational institute, it is very important to have a dynamic approach toward both student and faculty development. How do you achieve that?
Students and faculty are the main stakeholders in any academic institution and it is critical that any administrator maintains a dynamic posture to ensure the highest standards of achievement. In some ways, the demands of the faculty and students are similar—they both ask for good infrastructure and an intellectual environment that is challenging. At SRM University and in the different disciplines, students have the liberty and are constantly encouraged to pursue their dreams and passion be it in India or overseas. The University liberally funds those who want to explore the student semester abroad program, and likewise, faculty members are also encouraged to look at this option. We have institutional arrangements with more than 90 universities around the world and we constantly encourage students and faculty to explore opportunities that are available. We do have programs like “Meet the VC” – where faculty interacts with the Vice Chancellor and discusses measures for better performance, “Tea with VC” – students interact with the Vice Chancellor and represent their thoughts and ideas. Apart from such initiatives, we do have student ambassadors--students also serve on various committees and cells along with their faculty.
Can you elaborate on the placement and training cell of SRM University? What are the initiatives taken by the cell to ensure smooth placement drive for students? What are top companies, which have been a regular visitor at SRM for placements?
The Career Centre in SRM University plays a vital role in making SRM a favoured destination for many national and international organisations to recruit fresh talent nurtured at the University. The excellent infrastructure of the Career Centre facilitates activities like pre-placement talks, written tests, group discussions, and interviews as per the requirements of the recruiting organisations. Career Centre encompasses the Placement Office (PO) and the Career Development Centre (CDC). The Career Centre enables the students to take up in-plant training and project work in major industries. Continuous institute-industry interaction, pre-joining learning initiatives, participating in industrial exhibitions, fairs, seminars to promote useful interaction with the industries and alumni activities are some of the initiatives of the Placement Office. Other initiatives include MOUs for Curriculum and Faculty Development with industry giants like TCS, KPIT, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Wipro to name a few. The Career Development Centre has three verticals Quants, Soft Skills and Verbal with a team of highly experienced faculty to prepare students across six semesters and make them industry ready. International companies like Works Application, YKK Group, Fuji Xerox, NEC, EMRIL, CCC etc. visit SRM University for campus recruitment offering packages ranging from Rs.18 Lakhs p.a. to Rs. 35 Lakhs p.a. This academic year has seen a record of 440 companies visiting our campus to recruit talent which in itself is a testimony to SRM University’s commitment to excellence.
In last few years we have seen education sector move more towards digital presence. How do you think it helps in reaching a wider range of students?
Globalisation and the revolutions in information technology have made a profound impact in every profession, teaching and academia included. Gone are the days when students walk into a class, listen to a lecture and move on to the next class. Today we have “Smart Classes” and students have before them so many tools with which they enhance their knowledge over and beyond the subject matter on hand. The Internet has spread its wings beyond our imagination. The student community is the master of the digital world. On the one hand, an argument has been made that modern gadgets have made students a little slow in the natural learning curve; but on the other hand, the extensiveness of the spread of availability of technology shows the intensity of wanting to go beyond! Technology has also altered the search philosophy of students. They have their own ways of selecting a course or the institution. Therefore to attract the best students, it is extremely important to know the priorities and demands of the students and to display their needs accordingly, preferably digitally.
These days every premier institute in the country has implemented digital technologies for classroom teaching and is experimenting with the methods of teaching. What are the new modes of teaching, which SRM has introduced across its campuses, and how do you think it has helped students at SRM to be prepared for the professional world?
In today’s world students have to be quick on the draw and for more than one reason. The outside world is not only changing constantly but is becoming increasingly challenging and complex by the day; hence an institution like SRM will have to be prepared for any situation. There are some merits left yet for the chalk and talk method but slowly Professors are moving away to newer forms of teaching. Today, across campuses we encourage our faculty to have more student presentations like the ones they have in a graduate seminar in the United States. This allows students to not only prepare extensively but also in the process fine tunes language and presentation skills which are necessary for employment.
Learning and Teaching in higher education should also evolve with the changing times and requirements of the current and future generation learners.SRM University Learning Centre (ULC) is an entity that helps update both teachers and learners to adopt best practices followed across the globe and also evolve future requirements to keep upbeat with the ever changing requirements of the higher education market. Presently, ULC conducts training workshops for improving teacher’s abilities to evolve curricula, technology-enabled learning, skill enhancement and educational research. For students; ULC helps in reducing the academic and industrial knowledge requirements, deeper learning strategies, technology assisted self-learning tools and techniques.ULC team comprises of experienced academics who aims at reinforcing skills and pedagogy. A broad spectrum of academic practice workshops covering innovative teaching-learning practices, research and implementation of guided learning techniques help enhance learning thereby, building a society of industry ready engineers who are professionally and personally an asset. Technology-assisted learning like eCurricula, eLab, eLearn, eVerify, eThink etc., offer global standards of academic ambience triggering the rigour of the students with relevant and reliable outcomes and skills. The purpose of learning is met as the students are actively engaged making this centre a place of possibility.
You have had considerable experience in the field of Supply Chain Management. How does your experience in the field help you manage the operations at SRM and maintain a balance between the productivity of faculty members and performance of students?
Supply chain works efficiently when there is integration among various entities that comprise the supply chain. Likewise, universities succeed when the principal entities, the faculty, students, employers, and administration work together in unison just like a symphony produces melodious sound when all instruments and accompaniments work together. I believe supply chain management offers a realistic perspective for managing a complex organisation such as a large university like SRM.
You have published 50 journal articles and also serve as an examiner for PhD dissertations. What changes do you feel should be introduced in the current academia to promote more students to take up research in various fields?
The most important ingredient for transforming a large Indian private university is to identify, recruit, nurture, and reward competent faculty members. Unfortunately, this is one area where all Indian universities seriously lag behind. I am appalled to observe that we often do not realise the value and importance of our faculty members and often fail to show enough respect for our faculty. This must change immediately. In Indian institutions, I still find to my utter disbelief that seniority (and not competence and accomplishments) is the principal factor for career progression. Competence and achievement are often taken as afterthoughts. If India wants to benefit from “demographic dividend”, competence and performance must become the sole criteria for career progression.
What are the qualities, which over the year have helped you, create a brand name for SRM?
The brand name comes from many aspects that have been meticulously nourished over years by the top Management, and as the Vice Chancellor, my job is to carry the process forward towards a path of continuous improvement. We pay a lot of attention to the quality of education and in ensuring that the process is holistic. When a student graduates from SRM University, he/she not merely walks away with a degree in hand; but with the pride that they are a good citizen of India and the world. Students have to recognise the diversity of India and with this diversity comes the different faces of the country. If our students are able to understand the complexities of the divide and how to bridge them, we have done well. We aim to offer quality products/ services, this builds our brand effectively.
SRM is taking huge strides in the field of education and has already established itself as one of the best universities in India for Technical Education. How do you intend to expand its reach and make it one of the top educational institutes for other streams as well?
While we are indeed one of the best universities in India for technical education, we are also known for our other streams as well, be it in the realm of medical, dental, health sciences, management, sciences, social sciences, humanities and law. We have good programs in non-technical streams and they have been well recognised in India and outside; and this is primarily judged from the student intake every year, which is continually on the rise. That said, there is no doubt that we have to keep improving and one way we do this is to keep a prime focus on a vibrant course structure that is in tune with what the corporate and business houses are asking for. And at the same time, we keep a lot of emphasis on research and publications of faculty and post-graduate students including those who are pursuing the doctoral programs. As the demand for non-technical courses grows, we need to be ever vigilant on getting the right student and recruiting suitable faculty. This is what makes the difference at SRM University.
One last question, with so many educational institutes trying to lure students with the promise of world-class infrastructure and 100% placement, how do you think students should differentiate between institutes, which deliver on their promises, and institutes, which don’t? What are the parameters on which a student should judge an institute?
Students are quite smart these days to tell the difference between a reputed institution and a fly by night operation. At the same time, there is the mushrooming of institutions, many of whom are subsequently known to be of dubious quality. Infrastructure goes beyond building four walls; it requires passionate commitment and constant care to ensure that the student is exposed only to the best. The quality of teaching and competence of research faculty should matter more prominently. The environment of the learning process is something to be paid attention to. The freedom and opportunity to think, express views and act is a sign of a good institution. These are a few things that students and parents look for. And this is where we make the difference! In short, it is the faculty that makes a difference and students and parents must look for the distinctive competence of faculty and their teaching and research record.