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'I never thought the LSE would pick me'

November 01, 2003 11:39 IST

En Route to the Anchorage

It all began with a touch of the comic and the quixotic. The occasion was a lecture at the IIM(A), in the winter of 1983, over which I presided.

My good friend, R S Bhatt, was the speaker......Ravishankarbhai, as we called him, arrived duly and spoke authoritatively as expected.

We were running a little late and the professor closed the session and invited the next speaker without asking me to make any concluding presidential remarks.

There was nothing unusual in this since the director being in the chair was just a routine formality as a courtesy to the guest speakers; and I was certainly not anxious to speak.

Bhatt and I took our seats at the back of the theatre, and I soon discovered that Ravishankarbhai was livid.

"What does that professor think? He was very rude. I accepted your invitation only because I wanted to hear you, and he gives you no chance. I have been asked to suggest names for the next director of the LSE and I am going to suggest your name, unless you stop me from doing so."

Stop him I did want to, from disturbing the ongoing lecture by his somewhat loud and angry remarks. Without thinking much I said, "Go ahead, but please keep quiet now."

It was so uncharacteristic of this good-natured and good-humoured man to lose his cool.

As far as I was concerned, I was very embarrassed. I had not known that the LSE was looking for a new director and that R S Bhatt was an Honorary Fellow of the LSE and, as such, entitled to make suggestions.

I did not even know who the current director was and who the chairman of the Court of Governors was.

My association with the LSE, if one can call it that, was most tenuous, and I saw not a ghost of a chance that the LSE would pick me. For me, it was just one of those days when an awkward moment had to be overcome.

I never enquired what Ravishankarbhai did. I did not know that he had carried out his threat and enlisted the support of B K Nehru, another Honorary Fellow of the LSE and one of my most gracious mentors during my civil service days.

Come summer and a letter arrived from Sir Huw Wheldon, Chairman of the Court of Governors of the LSE and Chairman of the Selection Committee. They had received hundreds of recommendations for the post, and had now reduced the list to one of single digits. My name was on that list.

He knew that I often went to North America. He wrote to ask if I would be going there in the near future and, if so, he would like to meet me at London airport.

There were detailed descriptions of what he looked like and what kind of clothes he might be wearing so that no time would be wasted in our recognising one another.

As it happened, I was to leave soon for Barbados to attend a meeting of an "Expert Group" set up by the Commonwealth Secretariat; and normally, I used to break the journey and spend a day at one of the airport hotels.

I informed Sir Huw of the day of my arrival and the place. Within hours of my reaching the hotel, Sir Huw arrived with the Vice Chairman of the Academic Board, Professor Bill Cornish, chose a corner table, made arrangements for tea and called me in my room. I too had made arrangements for tea; but the chairman's wish was supreme.

It was, to say the least, a rather curious occasion. Bill Cornish spoke little. I was asked no questions, except for details of my family. Sir Huw took the stage, described dramatically what the LSE was all about and the charms of living in London.

"Your wife, with her artistic interests, would love the city -- you will be so near the theatre and the opera. And your daughter -- well, she would be the most sought-after girl in Cambridge. Which girl has a father who stays right in the middle of London in a Heritage house with several spare bedrooms -- each with a private bath? All her friends will come and stay with you from time to time."

That was the first I heard of the Anchorage, the official residence of the director, only minutes away from the School, next to the Students' Union office, and the Three Tuns Bar, and literally with four floors and eight large bedrooms, with attached bathrooms, a big basement and a family room quite separate from the big and dark living room. After all, it was a listed building!

At the Deep End

During my first year at the LSE (1984-5), I had the distinct impression that I had jumped into the pool at the deep end.

By far the greatest challenge was the financial one. The mounting meanness of Margaret Thatcher's government, particularly with regard to the withdrawal of support to foreign students, had already forced the School on the back foot.

My predecessor had struggled valiantly, despite the financial crunch, to maintain the essential strength of the School and even to restructure in some desirable directions.

A significant amount of money was raised from private sources for this purpose.

But the sudden and sharp decrease in government grants had made it necessary to enforce economies in expenditure; and this had costs.

There had been a reduction in academic staff members and a worsening of the staff-student ratio. Academic support staff had suffered a steeper decline.

Acquisitions to the library had to be reduced, computerisation of School's activities and the spread of information technology, in general, had to be postponed, repairs and maintenance were neglected and the deterioration had begun to show.

The surroundings of the School were uninviting, student accommodation was way behind needs, and the financial crunch on students was making increasing demands on the generosity of our friends and alumni.

I came early to the conclusion that the school had to put its best foot forward. All the adverse trends had to be reversed and a return made as early as possible to acceptable standards on all fronts.

Basically, there were four avenues for raising resources of which only one was within the control of the School.

We could only plead for the generosity of our friends, or for a change in public policy for support to higher education, or for an increase in our share of such support.

But all these pleas would gain in strength if we could demonstrate that we were doing all we could to help ourselves.

The one resource on which we had complete control was the fees we charged our foreign students and this, in our case, accounted for as much as one-third and more of our income.

The government prescribed only minimum fees for foreign students, but the universities were free to charge higher fees if they liked. None did. Could we dare to cross this rubicon?

For the LSE, which had taken such a strong stand against withdrawal of public support to foreign students, this was a difficult step even to contemplate, and was bound to be strongly opposed from within.

For an Indian director, it would be nothing short of treachery. But one had to bite the bullet. I knew this step was the key to the realisation of all our aspirations. What was needed was to muster support for it.

It was no surprise to me that there were many supporters of this idea -- it was a step as obvious as it was odious.

My greatest support came from my friend Sir Kenneth Berrill. He assured me the UGC would welcome someone taking the plunge. There were other governors and several teachers who were willing to go ahead if the opposition could be blunted.

Some objections were easy to meet. There was no real danger that we would lose out in the game of attracting foreign students.

My hunch was that other comparable universities and colleges would follow suit: they needed the money too and would be afraid of being considered 'cheap'. This was to prove correct.

Everyone knew that there was no chance of government policy in this regard being reversed.....The fees were already high enough to deter students from Kenya or Peru; and our current student body had a disproportionately large number of members from rich Hong Kong, Malaysian, Singaporean, Taiwanese, Canadian and American families.

The case of poor meritorious students from developing countries, while strong, was virtually lost and we could not hope to recover even a part of the lost ground here without vastly expanding student support directed primarily at them.

Raising fees and setting aside a part of it for this purpose was one way of meeting a fraction of this need; and it would strengthen our case for such support from the government and from our donors. This too was to prove right, at least to some extent.

In a strange way, the fact that an Indian director was in favour of the proposition softened the opposition to it.

The Silcott Affair

When I returned to my office fresh from the 1989 China visit, I found it surrounded by journalists and television cameras flashing bright lights. They wanted to speak to me about 'the Silcott affair'.

Since I did not even know who or what Silcott was, I had to plead for time till I found out what had happened. I was soon to learn that Winston Silcott was convicted of the murder of a police officer, P C Blakelock, during the race riots in Broadwater Farm in Tottenham and that serious doubts had been raised about his conviction, which made his name to figure frequently in newspapers.

At the LSE, the Students' Union at its annual general meeting every year elects an honorary president for the next year.

Generally, this is not treated as a serious matter -- sometimes it borders on a student prank, sometime it enables the students honour someone they admire or to highlight an issue they consider important At the AGM on 27 April 1989, nominations for honorary presidentship were made, as usual, on the spot and included: Jacques Delors, Brian Clough, HRH Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Terry White and Winston Silcott.

Some 150 students were present, and they voted for Silcott by a show of hands, as was the custom.

All hell broke out as soon as the news reached the stands. A policeman's murder arouses much anger, which gets compounded by the undercurrent of racial prejudice when the accused is black.

The racial riots at the time had aroused much interest and anger; and the fact that the trial was questioned had also polarised public opinion along the usual racial and political lines.

All this added fuel to the fire and the reaction of anger against the School and the Union had the dimensions of a dormant volcano suddenly erupting.

Some friends and donors of the LSE wrote in angry terms, withdrawing support. No less a person than the education secretary made a statement that 'the loony left was still active at the LSE'.

Scores of journalists were roaming around the School. Some 700 news items on the subject appeared over the next few days. There were some sober statements too about looking at the whole thing in perspective, such as in an article by Bernard Levin in the Times.

The Vice Chancellor, Lord Flowers, also stood by us. But the newspapers had a field day -- the School, the students and the teachers were under constant surveillance.

On Taking Leave

It is always a wrench to leave a place where you have spent some happy years..... But there was at least the satisfaction that the one apprehension I had when I had come to the LSE had not materialised. I had not spoilt my copybook.

As for apprehensions for the future of the School, I did indeed have some on leaving.

But these were minor and I was confident that the School was robust enough to take them in its stride and that things would fall in line soon in keeping with the School's basic strengths and values.

I had wondered on arrival about the lame duck factor in the closing year when someone else would be waiting in the wings to take over. I had hardly that feeling in my last year.

As was the tradition of the School, John Ashworth [his successor who was chosen, as per tradition, one year in advance] kept his distance from the running of the School. We went about our business as usual, attended to tasks as they arose and took whatever initiative we needed to take for the future.

But a certain difference does emerge. You are conscious that you will not be able to finish what you have begun, and this acts as an inhibition where there is a significant difference of opinion around the School.

Similarly, you are not inclined to take a strong stand against ideas for which there is significant support around the School. All this happens unconsciously perhaps.

In retrospect, I feel it must have happened. But I do not think it mattered. It is an illusion for anyone to think that he or she alone can make much difference in a few years to a School with such rich traditions and values.

I know that what I could honestly claim was that, all in all, I left the place no worse than I found it.

An Encounter With Higher Education: My Years at LSE by I G Patel. Published by Oxford University Press. Price: Rs 495

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I G Patel