A University Chair for ‘anything’?

Chair is the term given to endowed professorships. The first endowed professorships in basic science and medicine were established as far back as in 1546 by Henry VIII. Later, private individuals began donating the funds for chairs and one of the earliest was  the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics given to Sir Isaac Newton in 1669. The prestige associated with such appointments has remained unchanged over the years. The prestige of the Chair gets enhanced with the stature of its occupants. We frequently read of elevation of eminent teachers to these prestigious positions.  There are a large number of endowed professorships in US and English Universities which are coveted by all academics.

“Is there a chair for professor of Poetry at an Indian University?” asks Sujata Mathai in an article titled ‘A World without poetry’ in today’s Hindu Literary Supplement. And this set me thinking – I could not think of a single such position in my own field of education, namely Medicine. In fact, a few years ago when the Institution I was at, discussed the possibility of establishing Emeritus and Distinguished Professor positions to invite eminent academicians and retiring faculty, the proposal was rejected by the faculty itself. Endowed Chairs, I have heard of only at IITs and IIMs and maybe there are a few elsewhere. But it is not a common phenomenon at all – probably non-existent in the University system.

There are two issues involved – financial support for the position and the selection process for filling the position. The finances are crucial and some of the many IIT and IIM alumni who have gone onto achieve great wealth, may feel inclined to give back to their alma mater with endowments. Since, these are usually named after the donor, it is also a way to leave your mark!! However, I am sure that there are many  non-IIT, non-IIM success stories. So, why are not these alma maters endowed? I can understand that in Medicine, while doctors do well, few go into that  bracket. Even among the IIT/IIM endowments, I suspect that most donors would be from the US, where they have had exposure to the concept of excellence and of ‘giving’ back.
Somehow, this is a culture that has not crept into our ethos. Surprisingly most Government organizations do not have mechanisms in place for the receipt and administration of such endowments. So, even if a donor is inclined, the lack of trust in the system would make them step back.

More complex is the ‘selection process’.  In our rigid hierarchy driven system,  we have accepted the principle of compromise in quality at the alter of seniority. Our posturing regarding ‘excellence’ is without substance at the ground level. The courts and various tribunals are plagued with litigation on selections and promotions and no one trusts anyone to be impartial. So, the filling of created chairs purely on excellence is looked at with suspicion and scepticism. In the case of my own Institution, the faculty rejected the proposal because they were sceptical about fairness in appointment and of course, there was no money forthcoming from the Government.

And in such a scenario, a chair for poetry?? That would need an altruistic donor – and there really are not many of those around. I feel that the overall space for the liberal arts and related fields within academia is static if not shrinking – in the society at large it is contracting rapidly.  I hope mine is the cynical view of an older person and that there are enough young people out there who will continue to hold the torch for these fields. But, if the older generation, which is presently holding all the reins, does not discuss ways and means of encouraging and recognizing excellence to co-exist within our current system of time bound career advancements in the field of education, we will pay a serious prize as a society.


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