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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Interview with the Director, Part 1: State of MiTr - Fifth Estate

Recent suicides on IIT-M campus have led to a wide-ranging debate on the existing support systems in the IIT’s and specifically IIT Madras. We approached Prof. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, our Director, to understand the administration’s take on several issues that have been raised by students and general public – from the state of counselling services to academic pressure and prevention of substance abuse.

In the first part of this four-part Interview with the Director, Prof. Bhaskar answers several questions regarding MITR, its role and effectiveness.

You can look through the other parts here: 

The suicides have brought MITR and its effectiveness under the radar. Are there any changes that are going to be brought about in MITR to make it more efficient?
Nothing in haste – we are trying to understand whether anything is lacking. Our outreach to students has many components, of which MITR is only one part — we have professional counsellors who are available at locations in the institute, where people can go to them unnoticed. They are available on telephone after office hours too.

If MITR is only one part, what are the other layers of support infrastructure that institute has put in place?
The Anandakrishnan Committee that was constituted by MHRD recommended that it isn’t enough to just have professional counsellors in hospitals where students will not go — those who need help usually tend to withdraw, so it is good if informally, faculty and fellow students can direct them to counselling. These people aren’t trained to provide counselling themselves; that’s not the purpose. We have support at different levels.
Now this is a little bit like airport security: we can’t assume that everybody knows how to do their job well or will do their job. Why do you think they have 3-4 layers of security in airports? It’s to ensure nobody slips past, right? So if every 10 students have a Faculty Advisor, a good Faculty Advisor may notice something in the student when the student meets him or her, and they will alert MITR. If the Fac-Ad doesn’t, then MITR student counsellors and MITR FacAd will have to find out on their own.
Each counsellor has about 10 students in the hostel to just keep an eye on — if he/she is missing from the room for a long time, locked up in the room, not going for meals, and so on. The training that is given to these coordinators is, if that happens, how do you go ask what’s wrong and if they need anything? This is why it’s easy for the students to think these counsellors are spying when they come knocking on doors. The question is, if you don’t do that, how will you even reach out to the person? So there is a tradeoff here… Students and faculty are not trained in counselling because they’re not expected to do it. What we are trying to tell them is how to be helpful without necessarily being intrusive. When student counsellors feel that there is a problem but the student is not responding, they inform the MITR FacAd, and this makes it look even more like it’s spying! Drawing a line between what is intrusion and what is not becomes a problem, but it has been recommended that it’s not enough to just advertise the names of the counsellors, as they do in the West. Instead,  like in the old days, where friends used to be much more intrusive in some sense, maybe we should look out more for each other…

Student counsellors are given mess rebates to reward them for their work — how effective do you think this is as an incentive?
This has been effective to some extent. Mess rebate is a way of showing the administration’s gratitude to those who make an effort. Cash was a not an option, hence the mess rebate. If he/she has been able to help even one student by connecting them to a professional, then it has been effective. If the student in question had been regularly hanging out with his friends then there is absolutely no reason to suspect anything. In case of very introverted students who stay locked up in their rooms, the student counsellors come in handy to help connect them to  professional help.
The question then is if the student who has needed help has been given the necessary care. That’s when the MITR advisor, Dean (Students) and the FacAd come into play and take the help of the institute hospital.


Interview with the Director, Part 2: Professional Counselling Services

You can look through the other parts here: Part 1, Part 3, Part 4In the second part of this four-part Interview with the Director, Prof. Bhaskar answers questions regarding the level and quality of professional counsellors institute provides and the challenges in availing of their services.

How far is IIT Madras complying with the Anandhakrishnan report?
We have adopted it, yes. We are completely compliant with the report. They specify a certain number of counsellors , but we determine the number of professional counsellors on payroll, based on utilisation.

How many professional counsellors do we have, as of now?
I’m not sure about the number as of now, but we subject the numbers to review every time we renew the contract, and change them depending on the level of utilization. We see whether students are having to wait for an appointment, and if they are, we increase the number. If they aren’t, then there is no point in getting counsellors who will remain idle. Similarly, for the psychiatrist in the hospital, we look at the appointment calendar to see whether more psychiatrists are required.

Do you think that students are availing these facilities available?
See, we know the numbers (of students availing the facilities) – though I cannot reveal them – and they are not small. Now the question is, is everyone who needs the services availing of them? That is the hard part.  In all this, it is a probability game: even if 95% of the students who need the services avail of them, the 5% who need it but don’t are the issue, right? So the numbers who are availing are quite a big number, but if you ask me whether everybody who needs it is availing — that I don’t know. That’s the big problem… If somebody doesn’t want to speak to the institute staff, we have a psychiatrist and counsellors, who are working together and refer students to each other. The psychiatrist is recommending students to the counsellor and the counsellors are recommending those students who they feel need medical attention to the psychiatrist.

Is there a way to measure the quality of the services given? How does the outsourcing  process work? Some students are dissatisfied with the quality of services…
See, the issue is this – in this case, it is difficult for us to get feedback from the users, because even we, as in the administration, don’t know their identities. The counselling staff don’t reveal to us the names of the people who are going to them  except under particular circumstances. In cases where a person is referred to the hospital for medical care, records do exist, but they are only available to the Chief Medical Officer. It isn’t as if this data is published or even shared with us — even for hospital records, privacy is maintained. We can then only get feedback from somebody who might complain to us about the service.
Also, there aren’t too many sources of such professional counsellors in Chennai — it isn’t as if there are plenty and we can choose between organizations that offer this service, unlike, say, in the case of mess catering. I suspect the counsellors coming here might be variable in competence and quality, so it is possible that somebody has met a counsellor who asked something inappropriate, and it is possible that somebody met another counsellor who was very good. There’s limited choice, so the approach we take is that if they are not reliable, in terms of availability and so on, we take serious action. But if they are reliable and there are complaints of this kind, we usually forward the feedback to the agency. The agencies also need to train their people better. Our feeling is that the system is not so well established in the country and the city that we have plenty of choice, though we have some choice that wasn’t available 20 years ago. There are a few agencies and we depend on them, because we can’t recruit a counsellor from any place.
This issue of how well they are doing counselling is one that comes up for us every time we renew the contract – the number of people availing the services and how well they are doing. The number of people is easy;  we ask the counsellors – they don’t have to give names – but the number of people who came to see them and we also know if people are telling us that they aren’t able to meet a counsellor. We know that the number is sufficient if nobody is waiting to meet the counsellors and that is ok right? As far as quantity is concerned, we have no limit – we can go on increasing the number as much as required. Quality issues, though, are a little tricky – they can only be based on informal feedback like this, because we can’t contact all the people who went and ask “Did you like it?” because we don’t even know who they are.

You mentioned earlier that some students withdrew from the professional services provided. Is this the cost that we have to bear for seeking outside expertise?
We do not think this is the reason why they withdraw; the CMO tracks as to why they drop out out. Sometimes we seek expertise outside the institute and pay, and sometimes we do not — these issues arise because some expertise is not available with the consultants we have here. I know of a case where the boy was asked to go to a clinical psychologist and there was six hours of interviewing to figure out where the problem was. If the psychiatrist within the institute wants a clinical psychology assessment, then he will refer the student to a clinical psychologist. If we find that there are a lot of such cases, then we will bring a clinical psychologist here, but for a rare case, we cannot do that. Whatever happens, payment is not the problem — we always find money. Sometimes the problem is emotional, and the students stop going to the psychiatrist. That is a part of the problem as some would feel there’s nothing wrong with them.

PART 3 :

Interview with the Director, Part 3: Dealing with Academic Pressure

You can look through the other parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.

Academic stress is often seen to be high in elite institutions like IITs. In the third part of this four-part Interview with the Director, Prof. Bhaskar answers questions regarding the extent of this stress and how the recent curriculum changes  are designed to reduce stress.

Whenever a suicide happens, does the administration do further analysis of the incident after police inquiry and investigation? What are the kind of problems that students usually face?
Yes yes, we look into it very closely for every case — in fact, more so than the police. The police look at it from the angle of establishing the nature of the incident. We look through the academic record, attendance records. We ask the professional counsellors if this person has been coming for sessions. We check with the hospital records. There have been many cases where the situation has been very serious and the student has been given necessary help. This kind of analysis definitely has to be done. In fact, one person who has a good picture of the range of problems students face is the MITR advisor. Sometimes people go to the hospital and then they opt out — they stop taking their medicines and visiting the doctor. Then we try to use the student counsellors to encourage them to continue. When some of them refuse and stop their medication, there is nothing we can do but keep a close watch on them. Another dilemma is deciding when to inform the parents. Some of these students might have problems at home, so we cannot simply call their parents; this might actually worsen the situation. In case of all other issues such as substance abuse or poor academic performance we can go to the parents and tell them, “Look, your child isn’t doing so well here, you could come over and help him/her out maybe?” But in these cases, where there might be problems at home, we cannot simply approach the parents. Ultimately, the Dean (Students) and Dean (Academic Courses) end up spending hours to figure this out, and it has helped before.

On a more personal point of view, where do you think the problem lies?
There are a variety of reasons — what we see in certain small fractions is that it is biological, genetic, clinical. The feedback from MITR is that clinical cases are easier to handle — when we know it is clinical, medication can be given and it works. Academic pressure also is not a very difficult issue to handle. There are one or two cases we have where they are simply not interested — they don’t want to do engineering and are forced to study here. These are relatively easy to handle but takes up a lot of time — in each case the Dean(Academic Courses) has to spend hours.
The ones that are difficult are the ones where personal problems exist, related to family, relationships or just the student growing into adulthood. These are where the counsellors have a lot of work; these are the ones that often withdraw. At this point, observing the student becomes important. If the family situation is not good then it is very difficult; we can’t rely on the family thereafter. Or if the student is very unstable because of a relationship or has recently lost a friend, you have to talk to the student, reach out to his friends, talk to the student counsellor — these are the cases where a lot of time is spent. This is emotional stress caused by personal matters. Going back to my own time as a student, when, unfortunately, there was a suicide, it was because of a personal matter. Academics appears to be the deciding factor though. When you are in a terrible situation, you can’t study; it will manifest as a nagging sensation. The person will find difficult even the subjects that he/she found easy in the past. The despondence becomes very bad, though the problem is not there with academics and lies elsewhere.

Since we are implementing the new curriculum task force recommendations, is there anything in it that will help reduce stress among students?
In the new curriculum design, we have the guideline that unless the department can make a strong case, we would like to limit the number of courses in any semester to five. We used to have six and seven earlier, but now, only a few departments have been allowed to offer 6 courses any semester, and they have had to fight for it in the Senate. That means 15-20 hours of instruction per week, and the new credit system does not allow more than 60 credits per semester, so students cannot be expected to work over 60 hours a week. The new method of counting credits accounts for the time spent studying outside the class too, and not just class hours. This means that students have about 7 hours a day for purposes other than studying, given that they sleep 8 hours a day, and don’t have to handle chores like cooking. This is also beneficial to students who need more time to study. Time management was the first thing the Task Force took up — some professors assume that the students do only their course and nothing else, so we decided that the number must tell what you expect from a student. Now, most lectures will be in the morning — in the afternoon, there will be, at most, two labs, and otherwise, they will be free.The increase in the proportion and number of electives that are free also means that students can do learn what they like.

Do you think the new system will work to reduce the academic stress on students?
The other source of stress in academics is exams, and this comes up in the Senate very frequently. There are recurring debates on whether quizzes or mid-semester exams are preferable, whether quizzes should be made two hours long, and so on. This is an ongoing process, and we are always open to ideas from the students. I think we are duty bound to do some evaluation and prepare a CGPA and a transcript, and it is only fair that we do it, but we are open to trying new ways of doing this, within reason. One bit of student feedback we got this time from the condolence meeting held in the EE department was that CGPA-related stress is very high, because now everybody is aware that CGPA determines one’s career and other things. I’m not sure what can be done about this…see, we don’t really do relative grading in the high end – if everybody does well we are quite happy to give everybody As and Bs. It is only in the low end that we set the cut-offs and determine a pass percentage. So I don’t see how relative grading is a factor. But obviously, some students are not able to do well and that is affecting them. It is fair enough that every student wants a decent CGPA to get a good job, but I don’t know an easy way out of this. These are things that we have to worry about.
One thing I want to add is that the Dean (Courses) also plays a big role in the academic stress. In the institute, we rarely terminate a student’s registration. This Dean’s office discusses with the FacAd and the HoD and puts struggling students on a reduced course load track. So, we have very few students who have that kind of trouble — usually, with a combination of reduced load and assistance, they are all managing, even if some take 6 years.

There is the opinion that the Comprehensive Exams for the PhD students are a huge source of stress, and it is solely based on the student’s guide. What do you have to say about this?
Every department has its set norms with regard to the Comprehensive Exam. Also, comprehensive exams are usually given in a bunch — the student can take up a few papers, write the tests and attend the viva. If one has done the exams well, then the viva may be easy — it’s just about asking them about their research and how they plan to go about it. If he/she’s on the borderline in the written examination, we give another chance for the candidates through the viva-voce. There will be some questioning, but this might help bring out the confidence via oral examination in case the candidate didn’t do well in the written exam. In all departments there are slight variations to this. I don’t think any Comprehensive Exam is determined by the guide. Comprehensive Exams are stressful — all of us went through it. There is no stress-free path; after that, one has to worry about publishing papers, and so on.


Interview with the Director, Part 4: Curbing Drug Abuse, Freedom of Speech and Lack of Communication


In the final part of this four-part Interview with the Director, Prof. Bhaskar explains why there was no official communication to the students from the Administration regarding the recent unfortunate events and his opinion on the subsequent fallout between students in the mainstream press. He also outlines admin’s views on drug abuse and ways to curtail it.
You can look through the other parts here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.


Why didn’t the Administration inform the General Student Body about the recent suicides through a formal e-mail?
A formal communication is not possible unless the police give us the cause of death. We cannot officially provide all the information the media is providing. It may appear like a suicide, but the administration cannot say so till it is confirmed by the police – the FIR usually states unnatural death and not suicide as the cause of the death can only be established after the post-mortem.
So, my statement which was released to the press within 3 hours was that we have unfortunately lost a student in the hostel, he passed away, the police are investigating, we are cooperating, and we requested them not to reveal the personal details of the student. This is why there were few photographs of the student, I think. Next time, I will also release the same internally – my concern then was that this statement would look like a partial statement compared to what the media is already putting out – this was the only issue, and this is unavoidable.

But this has led to a feeling among the students that the admin has failed to inform them, and is instead trying to suppress the news…
Not at all — it is the admin that calls the police and the parents, spends time with the parents until the whole thing is done, takes them to the mortuary and arranges for the vehicle and for whatever arrangements the parents require. We comply at every point. A condolence meeting was also organized in the hostel and the department of the student, as the department and the hostel will have the people who are closest to the deceased. These measures were taken for the previous incident too, as they are, every time we lose a student.


What is your opinion on students approaching the media to voice issues about the institute?
I think it is the right of every student to state his/her opinion and this must be respected. At the end of the day, it is upto the publishing platform to verify the facts and IIT Madras will not interfere in this unless it is absolutely necessary.
On the other hand, campus news bodies like T5E must be factually accurate as, for the external world, it represents IIT Madras. It doesn’t matter whether T5E runs from the institute servers or not.* Of course, again, the freedom of expression and opinion must be respected and protected and students are free to express their opinions, remaining factually accurate.
* T5E is currently hosted on an external server.  


Substance abuse is prevalent in the campus to a large  extent. What measures is the administration taking to curb drug abuse?
See, again, it’s not just drug abuse – as per the law, you can’t even drink in the hostel. So what we try to do is to keep a watch in the hostels — we have also our squads which do surprise checks. What else can we do? There is a very thin line separating such measures and some kind of police state – checking everybody, frisking everybody… We don’t want to do that because the number of people who are doing this isn’t that large; a large number of our students are going about doing their own work. So we have to balance freedom with intrusion.

What action is taken against the offenders?
We usually give them a warning and one punishment. The action, I would say, that seems to be logical in such circumstances is, if you don’t follow the rules of the hostel, don’t stay in the hostel. We don’t see any logic in punishing them academically — giving them a bad grade doesn’t make any sense. If you can’t abide by the rules of a system, don’t stay there, and that’s what we are trying to do. Many students don’t prefer this, and so the punitive action has some power of deterrence. Of course, they try to come back with friends — we are very familiar with these issues. This is one of those things that you can’t curb by any stringent action. You have to keep acting, you can sort of prevent it from exploding, but you can’t bring it to zero — it’s very difficult.

Does the admin take measures to ensure that students are aware of the possibility of surprise checks?
Yes, we put up notices in the hostels, every time a student is caught.

Are there provisions to help somebody stay away from drugs or get de-addicted?
Of course. Cases of substance abuse brought to the counsellors usually get recommended to the hospital, and there are well-known protocols for de-addiction — even for our employees. We send them for Alcoholics Anonymous or refer them to organizations in the city whose help they can take — there are employees who have been rehabilitated. It’s easier for students, actually — it isn’t a bad addiction. We don’t have too many students who are addicts. Usage, yes, but not addiction. The problem isn’t how much addiction – it’s about abuse and this is one of those things where we have to balance the amount of intrusive action that you take. You have to keep doing it so that it doesn’t explode but you can’t also put up such a regime which will hurt the normal life of others – this is a balance you have to strike.

Townhall with the Director, Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthi, is being organized by MiTr, SAC and T5E for students to voice their concerns on, and provide suggestions to improve, the condition of mental wellness within the Institute.
Date: Thursday, 12/11/15
Time: 6 to 8 PM
Venue: Central Lecture Theater
Don’t miss it!