An interview with Dr. S. Chandrasekaran, Co-ordinator (Evaluation), JNU
Wafa: What was your first impression of JNU and how would describe your experiences over the years here?
S. Chandrasekaran: First, I would like to thank JNU News for interviewing me even though after 15 years of joining JNU. JNU's reputation was already established before I joined and it was and is a brand name. A chance to work here in one of the top positions is a dream for many.
Even a few months before joining, I did not have the slightest inkling that I would end up working in JNU. It was on the invitation of the then Vice Chancellor that I decided to appear before a Search Committee. The experience was challenging in itself and at first I was a little apprehensive whether I would be able to do justice to the post I had been offered. I was a scientist earlier at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and transferring from a scientist cadre to an administrative cadre posed a challenge for me but I am happy I took the chance.
The experience of working at JNU has been great in view of the responsibility of coordinating wide range academic activities such as Admissions, Evaluation, Fellowships, Endowments, Chairs, Project Administration, Planning, NAAC, International Collaboration, Recognized Institutions etc. Till a few years back I was also handling Faculty recruitment and the experience of interacting with experts from all over the world was amazing.
I have also been entrusted with the additional charge of the duties of Registrar and Librarian several times for prolonged periods. In fact, once I have also represented the Finance Officer in the Meeting of the Court to present Annual Accounts and Budget. I have also served a full tenure as the CVO of the University.
Wafa: What trajectory did your career take since when you were a student to becoming the Coordinator (Evaluation.) of JNU? Was there any difference in the working environments of other institutions you worked at in comparison to JNU?
S. Chandrasekaran: I was lucky enough to be the youngest in the family. Being the son of a school teacher who was known by everyone as "Maths Teacher", and with my elder brothers already settled in the academic line I had no pressure from my family to look for a job soon and was given the freedom to experiment. New approaches to disciplines always intrigued me and I was among the first batch of students to join the newly started course called BSc Special Physics by Madurai University. Then, I studied MSc in Physics which was an intercollegiate course. After this I pursued M.Sc (Tech) Science Technology and Development Studies from BITS Pilani which was mainly aimed at the R & D management aspect of science dealing with the concerned policies. I was one of the 3 students in the first batch and we were mostly taught by Guest Lecturers from all over India. Besides the core courses, I studied a variety of foundation courses, Economics, History, Sociology, Computer Science and so on which provided me with an interdisciplinary approach from the start. Then, I worked in the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) a CSIR lab in Mysore as a Senior Research Fellow for some time working on Vegetable Oil Industries which required a knowledge of not only the sciences but an idea of policy making as well. From there I moved to CSIR in Nov 1979 and joined the planning unit and worked as Scientist at different levels.. Later on CSIR sponsored my PhD as well in the area of R&D Planning. It was after this that I moved to JNU for a completely new job and experience. And for the last 15 years every day has been different and enriching.
I think every institution is different in terms of working environment. And with the kind of diverse posts I have worked on it wouldn't be fair to compare the experiences. The experience of being a scientist in CSIR working more in the field of Scientific Administration cannot be compared to what I do here. Here I am more accountable and answerable to more people. The freedom and autonomy you get as a student or a faculty is not available to an administrator. In such a position to work, you need the trust of the VC and the team which I have always got. As a scientist you can have a hypothesis and you can have success or failure at the end of it but in JNU I am responsible for the careers of thousands of students so there is absolutely no question of failure in any way. Thus, the responsibility is more because of the nature of my post but this challenge is the driving force for me and makes each day different.
Wafa: You coordinate admissions for JNU apart from other responsibilities. How has this particular facet changed over the years?
S. Chandrasekaran: When I joined in 1997 the number of applicants was around 35000 - 40,000 and the number of examination centres was 35 - 40 all over India. One of the first things I did was to make sure that we were able to reach out a larger mass of people. We conducted some studies and within the span of 2 years we increased the number of centres and as a result the number of applications also increased exponentially. Now we have around 80 examination centres and the number of applicants is roughly 100,000. We made it a point that every state has at least one examination centre so that the students can reach the centres easily and they are more accessible.
We also found that many people were applying for more than one programme to keep more options open but because of this when a student got selected in more than one course of his choice a large number of seats used to go vacant and many students were deprived of the right to get admission on time. So we made a provision in the application form to facilitate the aspirants to apply up to 3 programmes at the same level and had to give a list of priorities which were available to all the centres and the university. The results were then synchronized so that the candidates name appear in only one of the select list. Efforts were made to fill up the reserved seats.
JNU also conducts examinations for Biotechnology for other colleges and Universities. This examination was earlier held 2 weeks after the usual JNU entrances which led to more expenditure, energy as well as required more resources. So, we made an effort to conduct them on the same days as other entrances increasing the efficiency. This also resulted in more number of students applying to the JNU Biotechnology programmes. JNU was the first University to upload the admit card on the internet. It is also one of the very few universities where the admission lists and the process, including examinations, take place roughly at the same time every year. JNU's "Admission Policy and Practice: For Equity, Access and Quality" has been lauded by the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA- now NUEPA an University) for Best Practices in Higher Education; we were unique in introducing the Deprivation Points (Quartile points) for students who had studied their qualifying programmes from rural and less privileged areas so that they could compete with students from cities who have more exposure and facilities. JNU was able to admit large number of OBC Students by the system of deprivation points much before the Government implemented the reservation for OBC students.
Wafa: JNU is adopting e-governance and has made the admission process relatively hassle free for students. How difficult was it to implement this? Are there any other changes planned in this direction?
S. Chandrasekaran: We introduced online forms last year. We had been planning this for a while but due to various hurdles we couldn't implement it earlier. One thing I can say is that we have learned a lot. I wouldn't say that the process is perfect but we are trying our best to incorporate changes and learn from our experience and improve. Our admission process is very complex. Even for the same exam different students have different types of eligibility. We don't want to make the mistake of eliminating someone who might have been eligible. We are also trying to make the semester registration digitised. This is taking time because of the lack of data. But we started from January 2012 and we are improving. The number of folios has been reduced and folios are now available from a single window.
Wafa: Recently JNU was graded 3.91/4 by NAAC which in itself talks about the quality of education here. Where do you, as an administrator, think we should head from here?
S. Chandrasekaran: It is indeed a happy occasion for everyone in JNU that the process of Accrdidation by NAAC has been successfully completed. In fact, in the Year 2000, JNU was one of the first five Universities to be recognized by UGC as a University with Potential of Excellence (UPOE) and also got a special Grant under the Scheme.
JNU has now been rated the top with 3.91/4. Now we should aim for the maximum 4. Reaching the top is tough but sustaining that position is even tougher. NAAC arrives at the grading based on the data for the last 5 years and it is valid for the next five years. So what one has achieved has been accomplished gradually and not within a day. To keep this going the JNU ethos has to continue. Also, the deprived sections of the society cannot be ignored and all sections of the Society need to be included with the help of reservations as well as quartile points and this kind of uniqueness we need to maintain and couple it with good quality output. You need improvements everywhere every day. We cannot be content and need to aim for higher goals and continue to get the best faculty, the best students and the best staff and all of them need to work as a team. What makes JNU different is the opportunity for discussion and debate and that has to be maintained to foster a healthy intellectual environment. We should aim to figure not only in the National rankings but also among the top International Universities.
Wafa: Any particular memory you cherish of the 15 odd years you have been in JNU?
S. Chandrasekaran: There are many memories I have close to my heart.
The coordination work of organizing Special Convocations to confer "Honoris Causa" on Prof. Amratya Sen, Presidents of Russian Federation H.E. Mr.Vladimir V. Putin and H. E. Mr. Dimitry A. Medvedev, Prime Minister of Greece H.E. Mr. Constantine Simitis, Prime Minister of the Republic of Mauritious Dr. Navinchandra Ramgoolam and the time spent with these dignitaries are memorable events. Further, I was very happy to contribute in the Institution of SYLFF fellowships funded by Nippon Foundation/Tokyo Foundation, Japan fellowships and Fox Fellowships of Yale University, USA.
The intellectual interaction with the experts in the Academic Committee meetings of the recognized Defence and Research Institutions and the respect one gets are something ever unforgettable.
Wafa: What is the message you would like to give to the JNU student community?
S. Chandrasekaran: JNU students are highly matured and very intelligent and I don't think they need any message. Even the NAAC expert peer team was very happy with the level of interaction they had with our students. Every member of JNU community has to work as a team to continue the model, JNU has set up and one has to keep the ethos of discussion and toleration for differences alive.