It has been a long time since my last entry. I’ve been very busy running around here and there. But today I have something to share, writing from a quiet hotel room in a city that never sleeps.
This morning I examined a PhD student. The session was a bit of a rush since the chairperson had to leave early. It was nevertheless acceptable since we managed to cover all the essentials and able to converge on the verdict without any issue.
After the session, I had a lunch with a wise man in the 70’s who had a long experience in the academic world. We discussed about the path to excellence. We talked about the so many people and institutions that want to be an instant MIT. Some had money and bought everything including the professors, researchers and students. Some made effective use of the media to publicize strong relationships with MIT – a cobranding as they said it. The man then said, many had forgotten one thing, the fact that excellence is a culture. And the culture of academic excellence would only evolve from academic freedom.
I told the wise man that we need to set targets so that everybody is aligned to the right direction. We have to evaluate performance, and we need to make sure that all investment, be it budget, human resource etc are paid off. To this he said, “I totally agree with you, but we need to make it balanced.” I nodded. Yes, if we push too hard, make everything well-defined, we may produce good results, but never an excellent one. Never mind setting a culture, we won’t even be able to harness true potentials.
Once I hosted a guest, a well-known Canadian professor in my field. In the morning, we attended a talk delivered by the vice chancellor where he charted the way forward for the university towards excellence. The professor was listening intently to the talk that was full of energy and it was visionary. Later when we got to the office, he saw me recording my attendance on a thumb-print reader. He said, “what were you doing?”. I said, “we have to record our attendance once a day”. To that, with a shocking face and a serious tone, he said, “tell the vice chancellor that if he wants to drive the university towards excellence, that (pointing to the thumb-print reader) should the first thing that he need to get rid of”. He said it with full emotion, and I was speechless, only able to laugh it off.
The wise man then cracked a joke, saying something to the effect that the success of an academic institution depends on 3 groups of people. The first is the administrators and the support staff. They would always be saying that it was them that made the university running efficiently. Without them, everything would be in total disorder. The second group is the students and they would say that without them there would be no university. They are the raw materials, and they are the products. Serving both as inputs and outputs, they felt that they are most important. The best part is that, whenever something went wrong both groups would point their fingers to the third group – the academics.
The session made me reflect on my life journey as an academic. I had had many handsome offers in the past, but decided to stay put in the university. After few years of conducting consulting projects and training programs on HAZOP and Quantitative Risk Assessment, three years ago I decided to venture into a new research area – process safety. The move was driven by the fact that there were very few people in this region specializing in this important discipline. With industrial accidents happening repeatedly (organization has no memory – as said by some experts), I made a conscious decision to develop expertise in this field, filling the vacuum and hoping to give my best to serve the nation. And today, after examining a thesis on process safety, I renewed that noble intention. Help me God.