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Proactive Visionary: Sitting Down With Dr. Srikanth Rao

Sir, can you tell us about your beginnings in MIT? You were brought up in these very premises. What has the journey been like?

It all began, not as a student of MIT, but earlier than that. I was in the third standard when my father was working here as a professor in the Electrical Engineering Department. My first memory of MIT was as a kid, I used to walk down with my dad for events that happened in the quadrangle. Back then, there were very few students. Yet, it was always quite vibrant. That was back in 1968.

I did my schooling here, and I was lucky enough to get admission into MIT in 1979 in Mechanical Engineering discipline- in the last batch of the five-year course. When we graduated in December, the four-year batch already had their degree in their hands!

In fact, if you look at the profile of the teachers at that point of time, while there were only a few, they were excellent in terms of understanding the students’ needs. However, there were no campus placements; it only started in the early 90s with Prof. K.J Kamath taking the lead along with the then Principal, Prof. Alladi Prabhakar. The latter actively brought about changes in the institute, from being just an undergraduate teaching institute; MIT became a college that provided post-graduate degrees as well.

I was very lucky to get into this college as a professor in the year 1989. In between, I took a sabbatical from Manipal for five years when I went to the industry, worked with Hindustan Dorr-Oliver, which is a Stamford Oil subsidiary in Bombay. I got good training in terms of exposure to several fields of engineering like design, planning, troubleshooting, installation, and even finance.

Since then, how did you grow in MIT- from being a faculty member to where you are now? How have you seen the college grow with you?

The first time I joined here as a lecturer, there were quite a few senior faculty members. The age gap between the senior faculty members and us was almost fifteen years. The sort of training we got through them stood with us for a long time. We used to look up to them with the highest possible respect. Prof. KJ Kamath and Prof. P Ramachandra who were first my teachers, eventually became my colleagues.When I joined, I was asked to take up the Mechanical laboratory. I was of course, very apprehensive, because they were senior students. In fact, I was quite an introvert, and was not sure if I would be able to communicate with the students. The academic section was very understanding; for my first class, they assigned me a lab with twenty students, which only involved giving precise instructions. Thanks to this careful guidance during my induction process, I eased into the routine.

I became the Block Warden of D and K blocks in 1992 (The K Blocks were demolished to make way for Block 21). These two sets of blocks were considered notorious. Nevertheless, I had a lot of fun interacting with the students. Understanding their difficulties, learning how to handle them, ensuring that they did not get into trouble were my main concerns, I had a good time as a Block Warden.

Subsequently, I was also involved with Spic Macay as its Coordinator. Prof. Alladi Prabhakar was a promoter of cultural activities. There was a huge number of activities through Spic Macay, which involved Mangalore and Manipal. Student participation in all these events used to be huge. The number of events was few in the other domains.

From Spic Macay co-ordinatorship, I was asked to handle the Academic Section as Officer-in-Charge from 1999-2000. That is how I learnt more about the academic administration. Then we had parallel examinations going on in colleges in Mangalore, Mysore, VTU, and Manipal. I was able to understand the requirements of different universities, their mode of functioning and conducting examinations. Five colleges were conducting one examination.

There was a quality change made by Prof. BS Prabhu, who was the Principal from 2002-2005. The change in the credit system, examination procedures, and academics happened during his time. From there, I took charge of Public Relations and Practice School as an Associate Director when Brigadier Pabla became the Director of MIT. He brought in a quantitative change, in terms of intake of students. That gave us the freedom to expand in terms of the activities and infrastructure. Though we had a good quality of students in the earlier times as well, in terms of revenue model, it was not working out. In the ten years between 1990 and 2000, the admission was with lower fees due to the involvement of the State Government.

In addition to this, I liaised with industries in terms of internships for students. Consequently, I was asked to take up placements. I had to be with students and know their aspirations. In those days, students were attracted towards IT sector jobs. I was appointed as the founding registrar of the Jaipur campus. The challenge of starting an institute afresh was huge, but I enjoyed it. Then, I was asked to come back to MIT, Manipal. As Dr. Vinod Thomas, the new director wanted me to work with him as his Joint Director because he was my senior in MIT as a student, and knew me well.

Later, there was another rotation based on the University’s need, and they requested me to take up the admissions at the University as Director of Admissions. Now I am back here.

Sir, what are your plans for MIT?

We already have a vision statement, ‘MIT Vision 2020’. That is the foundation for all the planning, and there will be no disruptions. ‘Vision 2020’ aims for us to be among the top 10 institutions of the country. Currently, we rank 43rd place in the NIRF, which is an MHRD entity and is authentic. We plan to be among the top 10 in that, and number one among the private colleges. Currently, we are number nine among the private colleges. The ranking is important for us because it takes the concerns of all the stakeholders into account, making the student the most important stakeholder. Are you addressing the aspirations of the students? Are you looking at the industry? What are your alumni doing? What are employers are looking at in the institute? All this put together makes the NIRF ranking. If our ranking is good, it means we are addressing these issues in the right spirit.

The second is with respect to the alumni relations. Luckily, the last three directors, including I, are alumni of the college. I think that helps us relate to the alumni of the college so we can connect better with them. As of now, we have about 45,000 alumni who are doing well for themselves. We have a network of almost one-fourth of our alumni. The idea is to connect to almost all of them. Our intention is to create a strategic roadmap for MIT. For this, we need to integrate our alumni network. They can be involved in helping us out to achieve not only ‘Vision 2020’ but also beyond it.

MIT has also been looking into getting an ‘Institute of Eminence’ classification from the Government of India. With that, we would have the autonomy to function with total freedom. Regulations may be prescribed in terms of overall functioning. There are only five private colleges that are likely to be identified and we need to be one of them. Currently, there are more than 4,500 engineering institutes in India, and we are among the top 1% of them. If we have to be within the five institutes from that 1%, it is going to be a big challenge. But we have the advantage of Manipal having several other colleges. Our focus will be completely on quality improvement, in terms of the program and welfare of the students.

Another award that we hope to receive is the Ramkrishna Bajaj Quality Award.

During your tenure as Joint Director under Dr Vinod V Thomas, the student council reached its peak, in terms of functionality. How do you intend to reach the level of efficiency you did as Joint Director?

I enjoyed my time as Joint Director, and one of the main reasons was that Dr. Vinod V Thomas was always a supportive and reliable person to work under. He gave me the complete freedom to interact with the Student Council in the way I wanted to. I also had the time to pay attention to the small details of most proceedings of the council, back then. Students from the Council used to come to consult me. The Council was very enthusiastic about getting several things done and brought a lot of ideas to the table, but they were very understanding about my limitations and worked accordingly, while still maintaining quality.

I feel that giving the Council the importance that it deserves is very important. Dr. Vinod V Thomas was the chief orchestrator of the change that MIT has witnessed over the years and I see that his initiative has picked up very well. The last two years have seen the college grow immensely. I want to maintain this constant upward curve now as Director.

How do you think MIT is different from other engineering colleges and how do you plan on continuing to have this edge over them even in the future?

In MIT, the administration does not try to micro-manage the lives of the student population. We avoid getting into the details of what students do, in order to give them a free and creative atmosphere. A student experiences complete personality development here, whether it is technical activities or co-curricular skills. All productive activities are promoted by the institute in a balanced approach for holistic development and growth of the student as an individual. Academics is one part of it, students also end up learning the life skills required to survive in the corporate world. This is possible only in a campus like Manipal, where the population on campus is diverse. Students also get exposure by meeting people studying in other colleges. In the innovation centre, students from Dental Sciences and Medicine are collaborating with MIT students and winning prizes, while learning a lot on the way. These kinds of interdisciplinary activities are possible only in MIT.

As for keeping this edge, MIT is a massive ship that makes way for itself. Of course, we must not be complacent about this. My job is to continue steering it in the right direction and overcoming any challenges that block the path. We are an integrated community, from the supporting staff to the administration; we can continue working towards success together.

You have a keen interest in sports and are a versatile sportsperson. Do you intend to increase the exposure to sports on campus? If so, how?

This is a tricky question. I used to play volleyball, tennis, badminton, and cricket during my student days. Even as a faculty member, I was in the team and used to play against the students. This was in the mid 2000s. Once I got into administration, after 2009, I lost touch with sports. However, sports have always been my greatest love.

Having said that, MIT has been doing wonderfully in sports. If I remember correct, the athletics field always used to be full during athletics events. In addition, we used to have marathons with the track surrounded by people. All that is missing now, maybe because there are plenty of other activities. Achievements on the athletic field are my dream. Now if a football or a cricket match being held, though the performance of the athletes is satisfactory, support from their fellow students is lacking. We need to have more faculty and students meetings in the sports arena to promote relationship building. We have young faculty who are quite competent at sports, we can have more of these faculty-student meets during sports events to help us know the students and connect with them better. College should not just be a classroom experience. We need to have personal contact with the students as their teachers. Students should see their faculty as role models and try to exhibit that. Sports might be the key to doing that.

Sir, the current sex ratio in MIT is nearly 5:1. So, how do you plan to encourage more girls to join engineering courses? Are there any plans in motion?

The first lady student who joined the college was a cousin of mine. When I joined the college, there were around 40 girls. Now, you see a large number of girl students. As you rightly said, it is still inadequate, but we are getting there. Take Cummins for reference. Their ex-CEO, Anant Talaulicar, who is my batch mate and still interacts with me, focused on having 50% female employees. He started a college only for girls in Pune. They have met with excellent success and the company has come very close to having 50% female employees. The cause of this ratio problem is, to some extent, the mindset of the parents and even the students regarding certain branches. For example, mechanical engineering. A common mindset among most people is that Mechanical is not suitable for girls.

I think we need to break that. I find that girls handle things much better than boys do. In the field of human resources management, girls can do a pretty better job. I think that if we had a woman Director, she would be able to do a much better job than I would; this is the regard I hold for women. We have to see how to portray these branches as being fit for girls too. We may have to project some girl students doing very well in these branches through media to demonstrate that there are good opportunities for girls too, in these branches. There are ways in which we can promote the entry of girls into the campus, and we will.

What new activities, both academic and otherwise do you plan to introduce into the curriculum?

In terms of curriculum, I find that the employability of students nationwide is poor. If you look at a student graduating from here and joining the company, 90% of the times, the student has to be further trained in additional skills. The student will have to unlearn some things which one has learnt here and relearn something else. Can we undo this part of it? Can we be in line with the company requirements and be employable from day one? This is what I feel should be a target for MIT. Therefore, we should take the lead, and try to make students employable. There has to be direct learning from the community. Students have to be exposed to every major sector of the nation. In the curriculum conclave that happens every year, this should be discussed rigorously and applied.

My target is to see whether I can first currently identify what the employability of MIT students is branch wise and see whether we can improve exponentially in the next five years. In order to do that, we need to identify the stakeholders and see whether they can be engaged in our curriculum development. We also need to review our faculty’s delivering abilities and the possibility of making a change in the teaching-training technique also. There are multiple connections that are necessary to be established.

What have you envisioned for the future of MIT? Where would you like to take the college?

I am not someone who would like to have an individual dream for it, because it should be in line with the organizational dream. Dr. TMA Pai’s dream was to parallel Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the reason why he changed the institute’s name from Manipal Engineering College to MIT. Their budget is of course, more than the state budget of Karnataka, but can we go towards that and make a mark. At least in India? I hope to reach that milestone. We need to follow our vision statement- “Excellence in Technical Education through Innovation and Teamwork”. Innovation is already there and is going to get better under the leadership of Dr. Arun Shanbhag and Dr. Upadhyay. The other aspect is teamwork- something we have to focus on. Hence, the vision is not mine, it is ours.

We are also looking to develop our alumni relations. We are also looking at Industrial participation. You are aware of the KEF Foundation established by Mr. Faisal, an ‘87 batch pass out from the Civil Branch, has given us considerable assistance in the construction of the Centre of Excellence in MIT through this Company. It is to be inaugurated in the middle of this year. He has a setup facility in Krishnagiri, where he builds the pre-cast structures over there, and assembles them in MIT. This venture is a collaborative effort between MIT and KEF. It was an initiative brought forth by an MIT alumnus.

Any message for the students?

I would like to congratulate them all for putting forth their best performance and behaviour. Of course, enjoy your four years of stay here and benefit academically. Build a skill level, which is going to make you very employable and sought after. Also, enjoy extra-curricular activities. My one concern though is that you are on a campus, which is residential. You should be a little careful whenever you go out. Your safety is our utmost concern. Being self-disciplined is the need of the hour. When one is self-disciplined, imposed discipline slowly fades away and one is able to carve out success through ways of self-discipline. Nonetheless, we are all proud of our students. You are our main assets, and your actions are a reflection of the college. Glory to MIT, the faculty, and its students!