The Dark Side of “Excellence”

দেবদত্ত পাল। Debdutta Paul

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which takes pride in being India’s top-ranked institution, has recently been in the news for a spate of deaths by suicide of students.[1] The stark difference between the reality of ranks and the grim reality of lives lost at IISc prompted me to take a closer look at the ground. I spoke to three students from IISc, aiming to decipher the causative patterns of poor mental health. In accordance with their wishes, their identities have been withheld.

During the national lockdown of 2020, students in IISc faced massive policing on the campus. “I suffered a tough time mentally, and I am happy to have come back home and work remotely,” said Z, a PhD scholar at IISc.

The rules and policies governing life on campus were changed without any consultation and were enforced rigorously, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, alleged Y, another PhD scholar. The rules severely restricted the movements of students and limited them from interacting with others, isolating them. The rules were not relaxed until much after the worst effects of the pandemic were over.

So, was the global pandemic the causative agent?

“The pandemic has made us lonelier, but it is not the root cause,” said X, another PhD scholar.

Life as a PhD scholar

Coursework is stressful, and the evaluation is difficult for PhD courses, X pointed out. “Even if you work a lot, you will be made to feel average,” they alleged. “Some young members of the faculty are trying out newer ways to teach, which is helpful. However, the pressure remains the same. The credits one gets from the courses are not enough, given the amount of work they have to put in.”

Thus, the problem lies with the culture of merit and the little value assigned to academic labour in the pursuit of “excellence”. Of course, a few sympathetic individuals trying out different ways of mitigating a problem is not enough. When the system functions in a way that values numbers over humans, it fails humans. It is practically designed to fail humans.

Y pointed out that many students have informed the concerned authorities about the fundamental problems they have been facing. “PhD itself is a very isolating process. Moreover, there is a publish or perish culture. So, students are overworked, dissatisfied, and are all under stress and under constant pressure to perform,” they said.

“The students are under constant and immense pressure,” agreed Z.

What is the crux of the problem, I asked. “The advisor-student relationship,” prompted X. “Often, students have toxic relationships with their advisors,” said Y. But does that not depend on the advisor? “It is not subjective, but the general truth,” they affirmed. The academic hierarchy and egoism sometimes goes to extremes that put a huge toll on the mental health of the graduate student, alleged X. Power is reinforced and reminded of during disagreements, even if minor, in subtle and tacit manners, they added. What’s more, there is nowhere to turn to. “I still don’t know what to do if I am bullied or harassed [academically],” lamented X.

Could a graduate student change their advisor in the hope of a better one if such a choice exists? “The process of changing advisors is not clear,” said Y. “If the current professors are in a powerful position in the department, they try out all sorts of pressure tactics [to prevent that from happening].” If not, they remain thorny throughout the entire time the students are a part of the department, they added.

When multiple decision-making bodies are constituted of professors only, even if a student is not being advised by their erstwhile advisor anymore, it is tough to avoid their bullying entirely. Young researchers, often doubtful of their own paths in research, find themselves vulnerable to academic bullying, which affects their mental health. The oppressor, however, gets to decide their future.

“There has to be a serious check on advisors. Most students who don’t fall into place in toxic work cultures either leave or transfer, and the latter process itself can be harrowing,” summarised Y.

Dropouts, and deaths by suicide, seem natural outcomes of the power structures in academia.

Do there exist grievance redressal portals, I asked. Y was not aware of any. X, however, was. “The grievance redressal committee only has professors! We have a feedback form to evaluate professors, but they are handwavy. Professors have blatantly told us that they don’t matter,” they confirmed.

The students’ feedback on how they are being advised is never taken seriously while making decisions that affect them.

Thus, it is clear that there exists a clear hierarchy of academic labour: at the top, members of the faculty, who in many cases simply act as ‘managers’; and at the bottom, an underclass of knowledge-workers: the students.[2] The academic hierarchy is so normalised that many professors refer to PhD scholars in a possessive sense as “my PhD student as opposed to “the PhD student” or their names, as I have witnessed first hand while working as a science communicator.

The corporatisation of academic spaces

There exist several problems with the hierarchy of academic work.

“The faculty members are not trained to do management jobs,” said X. “Putting all the management related responsibilities on them burdens them as well. Sometimes they pass on their pressure to others,” they said. “Some mentors try their best to be helpful to the students, but with erratic institute policies and lockdown restrictions, their support is not enough,” echoed Z.

Humans, even if sympathetic, can do their job poorly, especially if they are not trained to do the job in the first place. The problem remains with a system that neither holds them accountable for doing it badly nor is interested in evaluating whether the management/knowledge-worker divide is doing more harm than good to academia. The need for management, as opposed to a democratic system of functioning, is never investigated by the administration because its interests lie in preserving the hierarchy.

Naturally, a few sympathetic individuals in the management class are not enough to tackle the epidemic of poor mental health of graduate students. Academic hierarchy is the problem. Breaking apart the hierarchy is the solution for both managerial and knowledge-worker classes. Empathy with the pain of the academic labourers, solidarity with their voices of dissent, and democratically defining how academia functions — is the solution. Sympathy is not.

The student council is supposed to voice these concerns to the authorities, I said. “The student council is not representative of the actual voice of the students. There is no official portal to communicate with them… After the deaths by suicide, the cultural secretary circulated a Google Form asking for tips to prevent such deaths,” said Y. “There is no culture of socialisation and collectivisation in the campus. There should be, but everyone is invested only personally. There is a lot of peer pressure, and the competition is cut-throat. Conversations about papers and impact factors are rife, leading to negative ways of perceiving peers.”

The knowledge-worker thus harms peers by not uniting in their common struggle. Instead, they try to find semblances of achievement by competing against others. Thus, the collective continues to suffer. Illusions of individual achievements mirage the collective suffering.

But is it the fault of the students? “Every student is under so much pressure that they don’t participate in the council work at all. They don’t have the time! So, it’s the same group of people representing the council year after year, which is not at all helpful in voicing students’ concerns,” said Y.

Thus, the academic system, helmed by the management class, does not explicitly prevent the knowledge-workers from uniting. Creating excessive burdens of academic labour in the pursuit of academic “excellence”, invoking competition with a false sense of solo achievements that foster the atmosphere of “hard work”, and maintaining the power structure by keeping decision making exclusive to the management class — reinforces academic hierarchy, which is enough to create divisions amongst the knowledge-workers that prevent it from uniting.

“Every time a problem is raised, it is believed that the solution lies with individuals. No one thinks that there can be solutions at the administrative level. They don’t realise that the problem is with the system!” summarised Y.

IISc’s response to the recent deaths by suicide

The IISc administration, a branch of the management class, reinforces individualistic thoughts. Whenever there is a death by suicide on the campus, it sends out condolence emails on the same day. “In general, when they send out these emails, they seem lazy,” said Y. “As if the problems are personal to the student. It is not! It is very much based on the environment,” they added.

“IISc has a track record of toning down the sincerity of the situation,” alleged X. However, the successive deaths by suicide on the campus has forced a sustained set of conversations. In response, “all the institute did was organize condolence meetings and put it on the Institute Wellness Committee,” alleged Z.

The email to the students from the institute’s director, Prof Govindan Rangarajan, said: “To promote the psychological wellbeing of the IISc community, the Institute has set up a Wellness Centre. It comprises consulting psychiatrists, consulting psychologists, and wellness coordinators, and is overseen by a committee consisting of healthcare professionals, faculty members, and student representatives.”

However, Y contested that the “Wellness Centre” even exists. “There is no wellness centre; there is only a health centre,” they said. Similarly confused about the terminology in the director’s email was X. “There are two permanent psychologists, who are regular, and two visiting psychiatrists, from the health center. It is probably this combination that is being referred to as the ‘Wellness Centre’,” they said.

The confusion with nomenclature is only a part of the problem. “The counsellors and psychologists appointed by the institute do not know their job at all and are not qualified to handle such situations,” said Z.

Y agreed. The psychiatrists are from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), where they are regular employees. Once a student decides to take up consultations at NIMHANS, they have to pay on their own. “Of the two [permanent] psychologists, one of them was not helpful,” they said, citing their personal experience. “I have never received any help through the suggested official channels,” they said.

The director’s email also mentioned an online platform, ‘YourDost’: “IISc students can also access counselling and support online at http://www.yourdost.com using their IISc email login credentials.” Y refuted the solution. “I got two sessions at the ‘YourDost’ platform, and they were not helpful. The psychologists are not experienced enough to understand the concerns of academics. Instead of working on active solutions, they are interested in ensuring the [appointment for the] next session.”

Further, the director’s email confirmed biases that this analysis delved into. For example, it is insensitive to academic hierarchies and how the class divide creates barriers to a free conversation between the classes. “If you have suggestions as to how we can further improve the services rendered by the Wellness Centre, please convey them to the Wellness Committee. If you have suggestions related to reducing academic stress, please contact one of the Deans.”

Thus, it puts the onus on knowledge-workers to voice their concerns to the representatives of the management class. At best, their problems will be (and often are) individualised. At worst, it will lead to a backlash in the forms of subtle tactics of pressure and academic harassment by other or the same members of the management class. It will reinforce silence or lead to surrender.

The email goes on: “If you are facing any difficulty or have some concern, whatever it may be, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone – it could be your friend, your classmate, your advisor, your Department Chair, or one of the Wellness Committee members.”

The onus of reaching out for “help” is once again put on the knowledge-worker, even if the lived experiences of the others documents that the help is shabby and does not address their real concerns.

The email goes on: “Please also check in on your friends, classmates, and colleagues whenever you can, and do not isolate yourself under any circumstance.”

The onus of not isolating oneself “under any circumstance” is thus put on the students, even if the same institute’s rules isolate them in the name of the pandemic, day in and day out, without leaving a semblance of human comfort, even after the worst phases of the pandemic are over.

The director asserts: “On behalf of the administration, I would like to strongly emphasise that we really care about the mental health and well-being of every student and campus community member, and want to help you as much as possible.”

The administration, which the director represents, is a section of the management class that is not interested in breaking down the class hierarchy and, in the process, getting rid of the immense amount of power it has on knowledge-workers. Hence, it must be clear to the reader that this “help” is only to prevent the worst, that is, deaths by suicide. It is also immediately apparent why that is so. One, it tarnishes the reputation of the image of the institute. And two, it is the labour of knowledge-workers on whose back all measures of academic performance is achieved. Take the labour force away, and there will be no first rank.

Thus, the mental health of the knowledge-workers has no intrinsic value to the management class. It is all about preventing deaths by suicide, and maintaining the reputation of elite institutions. That is why conversations regarding mental health are driven by deaths by suicide and serve no real purpose.[3]

It is my ardent hope that the situation changes. For starters, would it be too ambitious to think that it is time for IISc, “India’s top-ranked institution”, to move beyond ranks in its self-evaluation?


দেবদত্ত পাল। Debdutta Paul [he/him/his] is a science writer by day, science journalist by night, scientist by weekend. He finds solace in mountains and jungles; is a jack of some trades; is bogged by nightmares — still dares to dream of better times. He tweets @dbdttpl and you can find links to his work here.


Footnotes

[2] The NotA Collective. (2021, September 20). And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal. Notes on the Academy. In this piece, I use the word ‘class’ only as an analogy with the term class as used by classical economists. The usage is not meant to downplay the prevalent and staggering economic class divide, often reinforced via the caste system, limiting access of the proletariat to campuses like IISc. In order to avoid confusion, when speaking about academia, I will refer to those within academia that occupy a subordinate position (project and graduate students, laboratory technicians, etc.) as ‘knowledge-workers’.

[3] The NotA Collective. (2021b, October 14). On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health. Notes on the Academy.

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