The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A) will soon be celebrating its golden jubilee. A stand-alone school in management education in the country, the IIM-A is different from the usual, run-of-the-mill institutions in several ways. It enjoys a high degree of academic freedom and the faculty has a definite say in decision-making.
It is not as if the IIM-A was given autonomy on a platter. It was won on the strength of the confidence it had built up, through sustained and strenuous effort, in all stakeholders, including the government. Once the community was convinced of the IIM-A's strong commitment to serving the interests of society and of the fact that it measured up to the high standards of accountability, it became clear the institution could do without external intervention.
As highly developed knowledge workers — an expression coined by Peter Drucker — members of the faculty can perform to their potential only in an academic atmosphere where they feel ‘liberated', not suffocated by highly restrictive bureaucratic procedures or unhealthy extra-institutional influences. This is palpable in the IIM-A, which made it a point to nourish and encourage that spirit of freedom with diligence. The concept of ‘faculty governance', wherein the faculty members are given a role in the decision-making process, not only motivates the teaching fraternity to innovate but generates in them a sense of ownership.
If elements such as these defined the IIM-A as India's premier management school, its collaboration with Harvard Business School — and the adoption of the latter's famous ‘case study method' of teaching — helped it a great deal in attaining pre-eminence.
Much of the credit for what the IIM-A is today should go to Ravi Mathai — the man who the author of the book under review, Ram Mohan, says, built it “brick by red brick.” After a brief career in industry as CEO and a two-year stint as professor in the IIM-Calcutta, Mathai joined the IIM-A in 1965 at an incredible age of 38 years. When he stepped down as Director in 1972, everyone in the IIM-A was taken by surprise, but his action was by no means impulsive. It was deliberate, a kind of self-abnegation born out of a sense of detachment, which remained an article of faith with him. Mathai however continued to be on the faculty, working in an area that was close to his heart — rural education.
The book has nine chapters, besides a preface and an epilogue, and the first two speak about the establishment of IIM-A and its partnership with the Harvard Business School. What follows is an account of Ravi Mathai's parentage — he was the son of John Mathai who had distinguished himself as Finance Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru's Cabinet — his family background and formative years.
How the IIM-A came to be built by Mathai “brick by red brick” — in the structural as well as institutional sense — is explained in detail: moving from temporary premises into permanent quarters; selecting and training faculty; designing courses and their content; creating a framework for further research; and also, sourcing adequate funds for sustenance and development.
So much for the hardware part of the institutional edifice. Then comes the software element — the culture of fostering academic freedom, creativity, and the democratic pattern of governance. Mathai's sense of independence bordering on audacity stood him in good stead while dealing with men given to imperious behaviour.
In the years after relinquishing his position as Director, Mathai worked relentlessly on problems related to rural regeneration, and his missionary zeal and punishing work schedules are legendary. He won universal acclaim for his role as an educational entrepreneur nonpareil.
The last moments of Mathai's life are described poignantly; he passed away in 1984. Perhaps, he would have lived longer but for his hectic and tireless working style. He comes across as a man who had no complex and was totally at ease with himself and the rest of the world.
The book, Ram Mohan says, is not a biography. It is the story of a remarkable man who, meticulously and with deep involvement, built a remarkable institution. Easy to read and difficult to put down, it makes an excellent story of the man and his mission.