Faculty appointments are key to arresting the decline of State universities. The case of the Department of Crystallography and Biophysics at Madras University

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Department of Physics. A part was later rechristened in 1952 by G.N. Ramachandran as the Department of Crystallography and Biophysics of the Madras University. It soon emerged as an internationally renowned centre of what we now call structural biology. A number of path-breaking scientific contributions emerged from Ramachandran's team at Madras in the subsequent two decades.

The Ramachandran map

Many consider G.N. Ramachandran to be the most distinguished scientist to have worked in independent India. His first path-breaking contribution, in structural biology, made in the mid-1950s was the elucidation of the structure of collagen, the fibrous protein associated with bone, tendon, skin, etc. The coiled-coil structure, proposed by him, has stood the test of time and formed the framework of subsequent collagen research. The Ramachandran map, devised by Ramachandran and his colleagues in the early 1960s, almost immortalised him. The publication of each protein structure needs to be now accompanied by the map, which remains the simplest descriptor and tool for the validation of protein structures. He made many more, mainly theoretical, contributions pertaining to the biomolecular structure (technically “conformation”). He has also been an outstanding theoretical crystallographer.

Losing stature

Ramachandran, a student of C.V. Raman at Bangalore and W.A. Wooster at Cambridge, moved to Madras University in 1952 at the invitation of the legendary Lakshmanaswamy Mudaliar, who was Vice-Chancellor of the University for 27 years. Mudaliar treated Ramachandran like a son and provided him administrative and financial support. Ramachandran's mandate was to establish a vibrant world-class centre of excellence, which he did. After Mudaliar retired in 1969, Ramachandran found it difficult to function as he had till then. He left the University in 1970. After an year-long stint at Chicago, he joined the Indian Institute of Science, in 1971. Some of his colleagues at Madras University followed him to Bangalore to join the newly established Molecular Biophysics Unit at the Institute.

The departure of Ramachandran and some of his colleagues substantially attenuated the strength of the Madras Department. The department also lost much of its formal status especially as a University Grants Commission (UGC) Centre of Excellence. However, the department gained some lost ground through new faculty appointments, consistent efforts of its members and the steady support of peers and friends. Unfortunately, this recovery was substantially reversed primarily on account of the near absence of further faculty appointments. For close to two decades from the late 1980s, there was no faculty recruitment while retirements continued to happen. During the past quarter of a century, only two faculty members have been inducted.

From a department with over 15 faculty members during its heyday, it now has a staff strength of four. This figure does not even qualify the department to compete for prestigious programmes of governmental support. Among the four professors, two are scheduled to retire within the next five years. Thus, unless urgent action is taken, the decline of the department could be almost terminal.

The single most important cause for the decline of State universities during the past few decades has been the near absence or delay in faculty appointments and the inappropriateness of the appointments when made occasionally. This trend has been so strong as to sweep away even an iconic department like the one at Madras University. I am aware of the earnest efforts made by many Vice-Chancellors and others to save the department. But the system has been callously strong enough to thwart these efforts. Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate that we are unable to save a department which was the pride of India and an inspiration to many. To those of us who considered the G.N. Ramachandran department as a Mecca in our youth, this is a personal tragedy. Even at this juncture, everyone should make a determined effort to revive the department through immediate faculty appointments. This can also set an example across India for rescuing once thriving departments and now languishing for want of faculty appointments.

(Professor M. Vijayan of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, is former president, Indian National Science Academy.)

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