The DNA of an IIT: IIT Madras Dean lists three traits that create an institute of excellence – India Today

Chennai News

The NIRF rankings 2022 were released last week and they placed IIT Madras at the top in both ‘Overall’ and ‘Engineering’ categories. IIT Madras has been fortunate to hold on to the top spot for four years running. It is not surprising that the top positions are all occupied by IITs.

While it is heartening and exciting to see NIT Trichy and NIT Surathkal snuggle up amid several IITs, the case of how IITs make it there is worth investigating.

The DNA that makes up an IIT goes back to the Nalini Ranjan Sarkar Committee that submitted its report in 1946 and suggested that “the establishment of Higher Technical Institutions for undergraduate study and postgraduate study and research, facilities for which are almost non-existent in India, cannot be delayed.”

The committee, in their report, went on to add, “The initiation of a programme of higher technical education and research in India should therefore be pushed forward with the utmost speed and determination.”

Their recommendation for pursuit of academic excellence forms the DNA of all IITs today.

IITs are enclaves of excellence that have been built meticulously over six decades, primarily driven by government funding. I do not know any other primarily government-funded institution anywhere in the world that has achieved global acclaim and recognition.

When the IITs were envisioned in the 1950s, the aspiration was that these institutes would graduate excellent engineers that the country could employ gainfully for societal benefit. It took almost forty years for that vision to fully pan out.

Today, they create not only the best engineers for employment graduate right here in India but also an army of faculty members necessary to train more engineers for gainful employment in the country. A self-replicating engine of excellence has now been fully realised.


There are three traits of an IIT that are tell-tale signs and indicative of Institutes built for excellence.

1. Firstly, IITs enjoy and have always enjoyed complete academic freedom. All course programme related decisions terminate in the Board of Governors of the Institute (which is largely comprised for academicians and industrialists).

These decisions are made in consultation with the senate, which consists of all the professors of the institute. This academic autonomy has ensured that all course programmes are contemporaneous and sensitive to the societal context of the day.

Sometimes, granting such autonomy could be perceived as a significant ‘sacrifice’ by the funding agency. However, history has shown that it is quite the opposite; autonomy results in nimbleness and grants the Institution the ability to re-engineer itself from time to time.

2. Secondly, IITs have always strived to achieve excellence in human resources. The high watermark set in students’ admission process through entrance exams such as JEE or GATE is truly a global benchmark.

Similarly, faculty recruitment processes across all IITs are set to ensure that the faculty members that are onboarded are the best in both research and teaching.

In the act of opening more IITs, these processes have been transmitted with utmost fidelity. Exceptional human resources are a prerequisite to a sound academic institution, in the long run.

3. Thirdly, IITs have, since inception, placed significant emphasis on creating globally impactful new knowledge through research. IIT Madras, for example, has over 3,000 PhD students pursuing their research under the guidance and advice of over 600 faculty members.

Their work broadly falls either into blue sky research that is attempting to push the boundaries of global knowledge or into translational research where existing science is being converted into technology for use by society.

In all cases, the review process of admitting a student into the PhD degree is rigorous enough that novelty in the work is a necessary condition. A deep sense of curiosity drives this endeavor and forms the hallmark of any top-class research institution; IITs are not unlike them.

If any institution in India is to reach the top, as has been shown by IIT Madras, these three qualities must be imbibed into the DNA of the organisation.

– Article by Dr. Mahesh Panchagnula, Dean of ‘Alumni and Corporate Relations’, IIT Madras

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