Interview with Dean of Student Affairs, Prof. Soumyo Mukherji

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Insight conducted an interview with the new Dean of Student Affairs, Soumyo Mukherji. Here’s the transcript of the interview
Shreeyesh Menon
In conversation with Dr. Soumyo Mukherji, the newly appointed Dean of Student Affairs(DoSA). So, first of all, the question being; how has your experience been, as Dean of Student Affairs, in these few days?

Soumyo Mukherji
Tiring! [Laughs]. It’s a lot of work. Think 10,000 students, right? Lots of problems, lots of things to do. So… [as] I believe in a lot of participatory approach, so talking to students, trying to figure out what’s the best way to go forward [is involved]. It’s a fun sort of tiring, not a “boring” tiring. That’s the good part of it.

Rahul Jain
[What is] your view on the current student culture and the general atmosphere on the campus?

Soumyo Mukherji
Our students are tremendously talented. But IIT and IITians are known for academics. None of us are going to be Sachin Tendulkar. Very few of us or none will be… Lata Mangeshkar, or Asha Bhosle, or Sunidhi Chauhan, or…you know? But, having said that, one has to have a pastime; one cannot just do studies. Actually, for that matter I believe that if someone is just doing studies, the output is not as great. So, I exhorted all the freshmen this time: padhai karo (study regularly), but have at least one, not more than two hobbies. It can be singing, playing cricket, basketball, whatever; but do one thing and do it well; whatever you do. IIT is about quality, do it well, do it from your heart. And that actually goes back and reflects in the academics just as much. So if you say student culture, I am worried about the students who are doing too many activities, I am equally worried about the students who are not doing any activities. And the students in the latter group are substantially high. Students who are moderating the number of activities, they are doing very well, phenomenally well academically. And they actually are going to turn out to be well-balanced [individuals].
You see, IIT is the time when a transition is happening from being responsible only for yourself, or someone else taking responsibility for you, to you being responsible for other people. And responsible to the society at large. And in this transition, academics as well as extra-curricular and co-curricular activities have a very very important role. You cannot be without either one of them; you have to have all of them, to become a well-rounded person who is responsible for himself or herself, responsible to the society, responsible for the people they are working with or their family. This is the transition happening at this age. It’s a very very critical, very important age.

Shreeyesh
How do you manage your time, as the DOSA, having 15 Ph.D. students and taking 3 courses?

Soumyo Mukherji
[Laughs] You have to understand that my Ph.D. students are very independent people. Always. And that is the only way I accept them as my Ph.D. students. I do not accept anyone who cannot make independent decisions. I do not micromanage my lab. When the Ph.D. students join me, I tell them, “Listen, we are going to discuss broad strokes. I will not micromanage. You will come up with ideas, we are going to discuss them.” Sometimes if some brainwave comes, maybe I will tell them this area you can explore, why don’t you look at it? But you are going to think about it, we are going to discuss – use me as a sounding board, so that multiple brains are working. It’s not just my brain that has to work for the 15 Ph.D. students. They are very very independent people. Actually, if some student comes who is looking for directions every other day, that doesn’t work well with me. So that way my lab runs almost on a, … I should not use the word auto-mode, but they are very independent and autonomous people. I have very good students, they are much more rounded than many others, in that fashion. That’s one thing.
I love teaching, and… I am a tough teacher, in many ways. I expect 100% from the students that I teach. But I love teaching, that’s why I am here, actually. So teaching sometimes is a logistic difficulty, but otherwise teaching is mentally invigorating. The questions sometimes you guys ask in the class, even after teaching a course for 10 years, suddenly I discover a new concept. That is sometimes very invigorating. So teaching is not a problem.
The DOSA job… I am telling people that I am maintaining corporate office hours in getting faculty salary. It’s OK, it’s fun. I typically used to come to my office at about 9 – 9.30. Nowadays I try to come to my office at 8 – 8.30. I used to go back home around 5.30 -6. Go home ,relax a bit and then get on my laptop. Now I don’t get to go home before 7.30-8. So my days have essentially expanded. That’s how I am managing time.

Rahul
The institute has laid down a set of rules for interaction with the opposite sex, substance abuse and similar activities. But many of these have drawn flak from students, who think some rules are unreasonable. Case in point: The “no girls in boys hostel post 10 pm” rule, the rule that prevents people from drinking within the campus even though most M.Tech and Ph.D. students are above the permissible age. Do you think the guidelines are good in the present form or can they be milder or stricter?

Soumyo Mukherji
Drinking within academic campus – and hostels are also considered part of the academic campus – that is a government rule. There is nothing that… I or you or IIT can do about it. So there’s nothing to be said about that.
About girls in guys hostels and vice versa, there have been some stray but extremely ugly incidents in the past, which brought about these rules. And those are such ugly incidents, that you really don’t want to face that again. I don’t want to specifically mention those, but there have been very ugly incidents.
For that matter when I was warden of [Hostel] 13, there was a issue about this timing [restriction] and all that. So I said that you have 24 hours access, but parents need to be informed as well that we are giving 24 hours access on the request of the students. Of course they are student they didn’t like that at all. Yes, the rules are stiff, but one of the things you have mentioned is because of governmental regulation.

Rahul
There has been a sharp increase in PG intake in recent years, which has led to a crunch of resources; accommodation is one of them. What are the long term plans of the institute to ensure sufficient room availability? The faculty-student ratio is already bad, and this increase in intake is only going to put more pressure on professors. Would the academic infrastructure be able to evolve at the same rate?

Soumyo Mukherji
A big question.
Yes, the institute is planning more hostels. One hostel, as far as I know, has already cleared the BMC permissions and all that. Tendering would soon be out, that’s a 1000-student hostel. There’s another one, which has also gone to BMC but there are certain little issues, for which it is stuck. But it will also get cleared. So, the capacity goes up by 2000, hopefully in the next 3 years.
From the academic infrastructure point of view, we are just about saturated. So whatever we do, we have to maintain about this sort of number, maybe a marginal increase on top of that, unless we increase the academic infrastructure substantially. But also, you know, one can actually plan it well. There are people who specialize in these – our IEORUR faculty members, they have been working towards setting up these timetables and all.

Shreeyesh
Optimization.

Soumyo Mukherji
Right. So optimization of resources and… if we put our heads together I think even with the present resources we have we can do a lot more.

Shreeeyesh: Our next question is about the very unfortunate incident of suicide recently on the campus. A lot of students face stress due to academic as well as personal pressures. What is your opinion on this and where do you see your office’s role in alleviating this?

Soumyo Mukherji
Good question.
This is my top agenda. No no, this is my top agenda. To the extent that we have had some discussions already – for that matter this Friday we have a workshop with a famous mental health personality. We have invited 5-6 psychologists from the Bombay area plus Professor Vikram Patel who is a major international specialist in this domain. It is a full day workshop – 12.30 to 5. We will be discussing how to expand our counselling services. I want to do a planned expansion of the counselling services as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction and just hire some more counsellors. As I said it is top on my agenda. We are working to get those counselling services expanded and expanded in a proper way. You see, I am not an expert in this area. I don’t know what we need – I know we need – I don’t know what exactly is going to give us the results that IIT students deserve.

Rahul
We are done with heavier and serious questions, so we would like to move to the lighter ones. When do we see B.Tech in Biotech in IIT Bombay?

Soumyo Mukherji
B.Tech in Biotech… I don’t know. Frankly. The reason is that B.Tech programmes in Biotech have not been very successful. You have to understand there is a difference between Bioengineering, Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering and so on. Biotechnology, as we have seen – our M.Sc. Biotechnology programme is very successful – they are more from the science, from the subcellular structures and enzymes etc. There’s a lot of Chemistry and a lot of science. [On the other hand] B.Tech Biotechnology programmes, they don’t have the science much enough. They have the engineering curricula, and they don’t have the engineering curricula much enough. It is a big issue. So B.Tech Biotechnology programme to me is not very desirable… B.Tech Bioengineering might be something else, that has more of engineering and much less of the science part. That will rest on the traditional branches of engineering – Electrical,Mechanical, Civil, Metallurgy. All of those will feed in into a Bioengineering programme. That, to me, is a more palatable option. But I don’t know when we will be able to start that off – it will take a number of additional faculty members – we have to hire them, we have to look for the right people.

Shreeyesh
On a lighter note, what are your hobbies, when you do get the time? And [which] is your favourite movie?

Soumyo Mukherji
Favourite movie? Extremely difficult to say.

Shreeyesh
You are an avid movie watcher.

Soumyo Mukherji
No, I am not an avid movie watcher, but I have watched a lot of movies I really liked. It is very difficult for me to pick a favourite movie.

Rahul
A book or movie or anything that comes to your mind which has affected you in a major sense.

Soumyo Mukherji
I have… at various points of time various books affected me. When I was in 10th,11th,12th standard, Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”, one that really affected me a lot. Later on in college of course everyone’s favourite – Ayn Rand. Something like “The Fountainhead”. Everyone reads it in their college days. I have been really fortunate to be born a Bengali. And Bengal has a wonderful literature. There have been a lot of writers who have given me elation, moved me to tears and made me go through all emotions and thoughts possible.

Rahul
Which one is your favourite Dosa? The ones we eat, of course.

Soumyo Mukherji
You see I am a strict non-vegetarian. I used to love those… you know Tendulkar and one of his friends opened up a chain of shops. Not Tendulkar but there was some chain of shops, and one used to be in Chembur. I think it was called Just Dosazz or something like that. Oh, they served a lovely Chicken Dosa. I mean, I used to go to Chembur just to have that Chicken Dosa. Before I had that dosa, I couldn’t have even imagined there can be a non-vegetarian dosa.