In June, Deepak Malghan, an associate professor with the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, made an unusual appeal to the institute’s placement committee and environment club. The email – part request, part withering criticism – asked them to “disinvite” Hindustan Unilever from the job placements for management students in October.

In 2001, a thermometer factory owned by the corporation in Kodaikanal had dumped toxic mercury in the local environment of the popular Tamil Nadu tourist spot. The factory was subsequently shut. Earlier this year, activists alleged that the company’s trial remediation of soil contaminated by mercury at the site in November 2017 had failed, possibly mobilising more mercury into the environment that it had recovered because it deployed a substandard process. They say that the company has refused to apply the standards follows in the United States. Hindustan Unilever has denied these claims.

The email was part of Malghan’s larger mission to remind the Indian Institutes of Management, which are among the country’s top business schools, of their responsibilities as public institutions even though they sit close to private business interests and influence. These institutes became degree-granting institutions with the passage of the Indian Institutes of Management Act in 2017.

“Disinviting them…will send out a powerful message that management institutions can actually walk the talk about corporate responsibility,” Malghan wrote in his email. “Disinviting Unilever from placements requires us to act like we are a real place of higher learning – with real students and professors in a classroom rather than customers and service providers. It requires us to act like a real university would – not like a glorified placement agency masquerading as a place of higher learning.”

Malghan’s email elicited a “censure order” from the director of the institute on October 17 asking him to retract it. The note said Malghan must “develop greater sensitivity” towards colleagues and “institutional stakeholders both internal and external”. Malghan retracted his letter on November 28 but “under protest” and after appealing to the board of governors. “Thinking through the complex intersections between corporations, society, state, market, and the biophysical environment is an important learning objective for budding managers,” he wrote. The retraction was shared with over 1,000 students. A week later, both the retraction and the original email became public.

This was not Malghan’s first attempt to remind an Indian Institute of Management that it is a public institution. In 2017, he and doctoral student Siddharth Joshi co-authored a paper and a number of articles on the negligible social diversity among faculty members in the Indian Institutes of Management, arguing for affirmative action in the doctoral programmes that serve as a “talent pool” for faculty recruitment.

In the paper, Malghan had also criticised the culture of the Indian Institutes of Management to pay faculty members extra for a range of activities – such as conducting admission interviews – that in any other public university are standard academic functions teachers are expected to perform. The Indian Institutes of Management call such payments “incentives”, but Malghan calls them “bribes”. He has been unsuccessfully filing queries under the Right to Information Act, 2005, to obtain compensation structures of faculty of the Indian Institutes of Management.

In 2015, Malghan became the first ecological economist – studying the “intersections between the human economy and the biophysical system that contains and sustains it” – to win the VKRV Rao Prize, a top award for social scientists under 45. He has taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, his first faculty position, for nine years. He spoke to about the role of these institutes as public institutions, the response to his criticisms and what the institutes must do to arrest their decline into the role of a “customer service provider”.

“Business schools are the first departments on any university campus worldwide that are captured by vested interests including crony capitalists,” Malghan said.

Edited excerpts follow:

Is there space for this form of activism in the IIMs? All professional education institutions seem to discourage it.
The short answer is that the limited space that exists is rapidly shrinking. My specific censure order is only symptomatic of much deeper structural problems. A more important question is should there be space for this form of activism, rather than is there space. The answer to this normative question is self-evident. What is a university that does not allow a free and open exchange of ideas? IIMs pride themselves as being crucibles for thought leaders – one of those vacuous terms that has its antecedents in the public relations industry. I think it is not the university’s job to train shills for the elite. A university’s mission ought to be to foster thoughtful individuals including voices of dissent.

Had you written about IIM policies before the paper you co-authored on faculty diversity? What prompted you to look at the IIMs?
My collaborative work with Siddharth [Joshi] is indeed the first time I have written publicly about IIM policies. The initial impetus for our work came from the fact that anecdotally everybody in the IIM system knew that IIMs have long been guilty of an unconscionable neglect of questions of diversity and inclusion in our doctoral programmes. The dubious methods used by IIMs to skirt constitutional and statutory mandates surrounding affirmative action were well-known internally. Like a lot of other contemporary Indian institutions, IIMs are an almost exclusively upper caste, and also mostly an urban upper class preserve. Based on imperfect data, we conservatively estimate that about 95% of all IIM faculty members are drawn from upper caste Hindu groups. Out of over 640 faculty members across 13 older IIMs, there are four faculty members from the SC [Scheduled Castes] groups and only one from ST [Scheduled Tribes] groups. The social composition of faculty at IIMs might as well have been produced by an apartheid regime.

Much of the credit for beginning this difficult conversation must go to Siddharth. Besides being a first-rate scholar, he is also a committed rights activist. I am a faculty member with tenure and really had little to lose materially. Siddharth was a graduate student yet to defend his dissertation when he first started work on the IIM social diversity project. Siddharth bravely withstood a variety of attacks and derision.

What was the response to the paper?
Initial reactions were predictable – when you are accustomed to privilege, any conversation on equity feels like oppression. As a sympathetic colleague pointed out, there was deflection. There was obfuscation. There was trivialisation. There were concerted attacks from colleagues ganging up. Finally, there was some personal vilification, too. Siddharth and I were largely able to tune out the negativity because there were a bunch of incredible colleagues and students across different IIMs who supported us in more ways that I can recount here.

Some among the IIM alumni have supported the sort of reform you have written about. Are there other faculty members who share your views?
I have to set the record right here. IIM alumni have not issued statements in support of the reforms that Siddharth and I have written about. If anything, we have reacted to enlightened alumni articulating the critical need for faculty social diversity at IIMs. If you have seen some limited reforms at most IIMs (except IIM Ahmedabad), the entirety of the credit must go to the global alumni network that has tried to remind us about Ambedkar’s vision for the republic. The alumni have been at the vanguard of marginal changes (but revolutionary by IIM standards) that you have seen sweep the IIM system in the last couple of years

Siddharth and I have received some very important support from faculty members across IIMs. From over a dozen faculty colleagues that have openly supported us, I must single out Professor Mira Bakhru, a former faculty member at IIM Bangalore. Professor Bakhru was the first faculty member to write about social diversity deficit at IIMs. Many faculty colleagues around the country, across different IIMs have worked hard in the last two years to think through operationalising meaningful affirmative action in the doctoral programmes at IIMs.

What effect does this lack of diversity have on teaching, research and students?
The most important diversity that must be treasured by a university is intellectual diversity. I do not wish to suggest that intellectual diversity is somehow correlated with social diversity (ethnicity, gender, etc). However, there is strong evidence that a diverse faculty and student body with varied life experiences are crucial to the educational mission of a modern university. Actually, the IIM leadership recognises how diversity contributes to better outcomes for students and faculty alike. It is only that not all diversity axes are created equal. For example, IIMs have made tremendous progress on the gender diversity front at all levels – MBA students, doctoral students, and most significantly faculty body. However, there has been more reluctance to extend the gains from increased gender diversity to say social group diversity. Caste is the most significant axis of social heterogeneity in India, not to mention the most pernicious axis of stratification. Unfortunately, much of the reluctance to address deep-seated caste inequities can be attributed to a wholly misguided and indefensible notion of meritocracy that smacks of entrenched privilege.

In the two-year MBA programmes, however, IIMs do admit a very socially diverse class. But students from historically underrepresented sections of India do not find role models in their classroom. I can bet that a class on infrastructure management is going to look very different if the faculty body had adequate representation of Adivasi and Dalit groups who have borne the brunt of a rapacious infrastructure industry. Instead we now have classes on infrastructure that are taught by faculty members who serve on boards of crony capitalist firms. For example, at IIM-B [Bangalore] the infrastructure management class is taught by somebody who is on the board of an Adani company.

Finally, IIMs are elite public institutions with considerable normative influence on the national discourse. It is unconscionable that elite institutions are as skewed as IIMs are in terms of their social representation. This problem is not unique to IIMs or even to public universities in general. For example, my own guess is that the social composition of elite media houses is as skewed as IIMs. Some of the duplicity surrounding affirmative action policies including reservations at IIMs stem from misconstruing affirmative action as a welfare or poverty alleviation measure. Affirmative action at elite institutions is anything but. It is about representation at the elite decision-making tables.

You point out that IIMs have demanded autonomy but not exercised it for “critical engagement with business practices”. In which direction do you see the institutions going under the new IIM Act passed last year? The new law has granted even greater autonomy to the institutions.
Yes, egged on by a consumptive urban upper class, the IIMs have used the unprecedented autonomy granted to these institutions (even before the new Act) for largely self-aggrandisement. IIMs do not see themselves as enlightened public universities. Autonomy for IIMs has largely meant abdicating their social contract as a public university. The social diversity deficit at IIMs is only one of the most egregious symptoms of these institutions abandoning their public mission. I believe the new Act will only exacerbate this trend even though it also provides a framework to recover the public mission. The litmus test for any university is this: does it use the autonomy to promote an environment where the life of the mind is nurtured and treasured? Available evidence suggests that IIMs fall short of this ideal by quite a bit.

You have mentioned the “powerful faculty bodies and board led by corporate honchos” that run the IIMs. How have they – and IIM-Bangalore in particular – responded to your criticism?
Individual colleagues and many students have supported or at least defended the exercise in self-criticism. The leadership has been much more, shall I say, sceptical if not hostile. Of course, several colleagues have also been very critical and a colleague has even described me as being obnoxious and a hypocrite. In general, the intellectual culture at IIMs (and I can speak most authoritatively only about IIM-B) is not open to critical inquiry. The problem is structural. Business school academia is focused not on understanding the world but on manipulating it. IIMs really are not an exception. Business schools are the first departments on any university campus worldwide that are captured by vested interests including crony capitalists. Quite often it is the case of not being able to criticise the very hand that feeds you. When students are reduced to fee paying customers, the professoriate has to debase itself into a customer service provider guild. The only exception to this otherwise bleak picture that I have painted is the doctoral programme that has been my refuge.

Why did you describe faculty members receiving incentives for research as “bribes”? How did your colleagues react to this?
Many of my faculty colleagues have been upset with Siddharth and I going to town with IIMs’ worst kept secret – the fact that faculty members at these institutions need special incentives to write academic papers, and “upset” is putting it very mildly.

There are three fundamental problems. First, we have made a fundamental category error – incentives and integrity are two very different objects. The idea that you can fix what is fundamentally an integrity problem with incentives betrays a certain kind of studied illiteracy. How can a professoriate that is so confused about incentives and integrity lecture in an MBA classroom about business ethics? If faculty have to be paid to do admission interviews, we really cannot complain about MBAs that are paid those vulgar bonuses to run the casino economy.

The immediate corollary of this category error is that faculty demand to be bribed to do anything at all – from reading and writing to admission interviews and supervising master’s thesis project. An improved incentive structure will do nothing to fix this fundamental flaw with our system. Unless we recognise that we cannot bribe our way into making up for our original sin – jettisoning our innate integrity – we are doomed. Yes, we need a set of shared norms but not metrics that reduce the deans at IIMs wholly into a bean counter.

Second, IIMs are a public university – at least in theory. We have (if only an implicit) social contract with the Indian republic. Our current compensation arrangements are in breach of this compact. Every major public university (including business schools at public universities) has an open and transparent faculty compensation structure. Unless we are willing to publicly defend who and what we pay ourselves, the present regime is simply illegitimate. In the past few months I have filed several RTI [Right to Information] requests at various IIMs asking them to reveal their faculty compensation structure (the generic structure) but all of them have come up with the flimsiest of reasons to deny this information.

Third, we are a faculty body that has lost any sense of proportion. At a public university, compensation structure ought to be benchmarked against the means of the larger society. We are being non-transparent about our compensation structure because we are paying ourselves incentives that are patently indefensible. We may come up with any number of excuses to pay ourselves. My favourite is the one offered by several colleagues – we need to pay ourselves because we now aspire to send our children abroad (read Western university) for undergraduate education. We are perfectly within our rights to harbour such aspirations but it is not any Indian public university’s remit to pander to these aspirations.

It takes a certain kind of entitlement to believe that being on 98.4 percentile of the income distribution in our country (this is at the beginning assistant professor level) as a public university teacher means living a life of abject poverty.

How has your own experience at IIM-Bangalore been?
On the balance, my time at IIM-B has been most fulfilling. I must especially single out the superb doctoral programme at IIM-B that has provided me an opportunity collaborate with, and learn from young scholars in disciplines ranging from social anthropology to hydrology. The dozen or so doctoral projects that I have been involved with have been the most important source of intellectual sustenance at IIM-B. Doctoral programmes at IIMs operate outside the din and media glare associated with the bread-and-butter MBA programme. While much of the IIM system is focused on celebrating corporate titans of the world, I have been happy to inhabit a much less glamorous space that has produced many outstanding scholars.