I am not happy with my position as a professor in a university. If I were in Kerala, I would have hanged around politicians trying to become a vice- or pro-vice chancellor. Being mindful of the deepening of democracy and political contestations there, politicians in Kerala have almost reserved each post of VC and PVC for a particular caste or religion.

Since that option is not open, I may lobby with the management of my university to be a head or director of a department or school of `amateur economics’. If that does not come through, I may try to be a director of a `centre for marriage studies’. It does not matter whether these serve some social purpose or not. We, academics, are clever enough to argue that everything that we do is needed badly for the society. Unfortunately, our management is smart enough to find out my ulterior motives.

It is interesting to think about the reasons that make academics like me to crave for some administrative or hierarchical power, especially in India. Thinking about academics in this regard may give some general insights too. It is somewhat normal for a manager or an administrator to aspire to go up in the hierarchy of the organisation in which he/she joins. The growth in his/her career depends on such an upward mobility. On the other hand, an academic is expected to grow up in the profession by acquiring higher proficiency and acceptance as a teacher, researcher, and as a contributor to public discourses (or by being a consultant or advisor to different kinds of organisations). Hence academics can thrive well without holding administrative power. There are a number of internationally known academics whose social (and economic) standing depend on their research and writings and not based on whether they are the head of a department or a vice-chancellor. Hence if academics who can have a joyful and meaningful career, too crave for a piece of administrative or hierarchical power, there must be something that is serious behind this phenomenon.

Before getting into explaining this phenomenon, let us think about the need for hierarchical power. Why should there be such a power in an organisation? Certain centralisation in decision-making is needed to solve co-ordination problems. The absence of such a centralisation can be costly or may work against the effectiveness of organisations. Hence the power to make decisions is assigned to one or a few individuals or in a hierarchical order to enhance this effectiveness. What should be the nature of such a centralisation and who should have such a power depend on the specific nature of each organisation. However this normative need for centralisation for the effectiveness of organisations cannot explain the demand to get a piece of hierarchical power by individuals in society.

There could be an easier explanation. Though academics are expected to derive joy from teaching, research and contribution to public debates, many among us in India do not get much joy from these avenues. Professors may continue to teach in the same way that they have taught in the beginning of their career (or in the same way that their teachers have taught them), stop doing research after getting possible promotions in the job, and may be uninterested or incapable to contribute to public debates.

Some people who enter an academic career may not be interested in the job. They may have taken up this option since they have failed to get into other attractive jobs. We expect academics to come through a process of self-selection. This is so since academics’ salary and other material rewards are significantly lower than that of jobs which require comparable educational achievements. Hence only those who are interested in deriving joy through other means (teaching, research, writing, and so on) will be happy in an academic job. However such a self-selection need not happen in all cases. The lower material rewards of academic positions may attract those who command a lower salary in other jobs. (This is an issue in not-for-profit organisations too. Let us think about the job of a doctor in a charitable hospital. We would like to have very proficient doctors who are willing to work at lower salaries in this hospital. He/she should be the one who get happiness from serving poorer patients. However lower salaries in this case may attract those who can get only such a compensation in for-profit hospitals).

Whether it is due to the disinterest or incapability or the unwillingness to derive joy from academic work, many look for non-academic ways to derive joy and happiness. Moving from one meeting to the other, chairing/attending appointment committees, giving inaugural speeches, and so on are the ways to keep oneself busy, active and important.

There could be a deep-rooted factor that encourage people to hanker for bits of hierarchical power.  India is yet to come out of feudal moorings. In a feudal society, power is in the hands of elites. Or power is distributed by this elite section of society through patronage relationships. It should not be surprised if family or kinship connections and other such close networks mediate this distribution of power.

As part of the democratisation process, there is a demand for a share of power on the part of non-elite sections. They may struggle to get into and use networks that mediate the distribution of power. Competitive politics or populism has led to a client-like relationship between political rulers and the ruled. Individuals or groups of people expect personal benefits from these rulers in return for their loyalty or electoral support. Pieces of hierarchical power are part of this bargaining.

Feudal power comes with (non-monetary) privileges. I am fascinated by the possibility of having a revolving red light on the top of my car or a person to open the door of my car as I get out. Such privileges enhance the incentives to demand power.

Organisational hierarchy in India is also connected with the public perception of knowledge and who is right and wrong. A Block Education or Development Officer’s words on schooling are more acceptable or valuable than the view of an experienced school teacher, since the former holds a hierarchical position. When Amartya Sen and Minister Ratnakaran attend an academic conference, newspapers report the speech of the minister (written by his PA) and may neglect the words of the former. Journalists reckon the government secretary of a science or technology department as the greatest scientist/technologist in the country.

All these create a situation where people demand pieces of power-cake and the rulers have to follow different kinds of strategies to meet this demand. The effectiveness of organisations is not a consideration here. Power is used here to meet the internal need of an individual. Rulers provide it out of charity or due to different kinds of compulsion.

This has serious implications. Many times, the effectiveness of organisations is compromised in this distribution of power. People who are incapable of administering or managing or coordinating may reach the positions of power. The competition to be in a hierarchical position may work against the desired collective action in organisations. I have seen this happening in research organisations.

Those who hold positions may not get adequate joy by taking quick decisions. Delaying may help them to demonstrate to the world that they have the power. Or personal needs of power may not go hand in hand with the effectiveness or efficiency of organisations. There could be people who are interested only in the position, and the best way is not to take important decisions/actions. This will avoid any major turbulence within the system. It maintains the status quo, but it may not be useful for the society.

There is a demand to sit in committees irrespective of whether a person can contribute something meaningfully or not. Membership in a committee is often a way to appease those who have aspired for, but have failed to get, a piece of power-cake. Or it can be a consolation prize. Once I am a member of a committee, I have the compulsion to give a view on each and every issue even if it is on neuroscience or astrophysics. Many people don’t know what they don’t know, and this adds to the conundrum of the functioning of committees. There are psychological needs to say/express and to be heard, and these committees become spaces for meeting such requirements. One may talk a lot on what needs to be done in committees and go back and sleep, without any moral compulsion to do something. All these contribute to the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of decision-making process and organisations.


Academics’ desire to hold hierarchical position is socially harmful. They have a great opportunity to lead a meaningful and joyful life and hence they can avoid the competition to be in a hierarchical position. There may be cases where one of them have to be in such a position for the benefit of the organisation. All people may not have the capability to do so. Hence it is ideal to have a situation wherein someone with an administrative capability is to be persuaded to be in such a position. This should not be based on individuals’ demand and lobbying.