Bitten by the Foreign Bug
Kannada Essay by B.G.L. Swamy
English Translation by C.P. Ravikumar
In addition to the responsibilities that come with it, a certain amount
of prestige comes with the job of a University Professor. A College
Professor does not get even one tenth of this prestige. In our
country, the notion has existed for a long time that a University
Professor is great and a College Professor is good for nothing.
The gap between the colleges and the universities is increasing
day by day. A University Professor draws a higher salary and
commands greater respect than a College Professor. Everyone generally
believes that a University Professor is a more knowledgeable person.
I cannot blame the ministers, secretaries and directors in our
government for this classification; all-India organizations like
the U.G.C, C.S.I.R, and N.I.S.I have cherished this division.
My director firmly believed in this formula. That a University
Professor is know-all and a College Professor is a know-nothing.
A few years ago, I was selected as the Vice President of the annual
conference of the International Botanical Congress. Since it
was imperative that I attend, I sent an application
to the Government. My application had to ascend the hierarchy
of the director, the secretary, and the minister before it
could be approved. My director retained my application with him
instead of passing it to the secretary. He called the
University Registrar and inquired if someone in the Botany
department had an invitation from Russia. None had. The
Director called me into his office, and asked.
``How did you manage to get invited to this conference?''
By now, I was so used to his modus operandi that I was
least irritated by the tone of his voice. I said,
``I don't know Sir, but I assure you I did not write
to them for an invitation.''
``But it seems none of the University Professors have been
``So I heard.''
``How come you get invited and they don't?''
``I have indicated the address of the person who sent
me the invitation. If you need a clarification, you
my write to him directly, Sir.''
``No, no, I don't need a clarification.''
``What else do you need then?''
``You see, everyone thinks University Professors are the best.
Do you agree?''
``I realize that is the common belief. But there ought to
be some talented people in the colleges?''
``Sure, but the College Professors are essentially teachers.''
``What about the University Professors?''
``They do research. They all have PhD degrees.''
``But College Professors have degrees too. Many of them conduct
research as well.''
``Oh, but that is all of a different quality. You can't compare
the College level Professor with a University level Professor!''
I felt like screaming. Another incident occurred within the
same week. The director called me in my office and said,
``The Education Minister has sent a request ... it seems
some unknown plant has cropped up in his garden, and he
wants to know what plant it is. Can you analyze it?''
``If I get a specimen, yes.''
``Are you sure? Or should I send it to the Botany
Department in the University?''
``If you wish.''
``No, no, don't take me wrong. You see they have better
facilities over there, PhD students working for them ...''
``Like I said, please go ahead and send it to them. But
it will come to me anyway!''
``How can you be so sure?''
``You will see.''
He grumbled something and kept the receiver down. Within
the next four or five days, I received a package from
the University. It contained a specimen of a plant
and a letter. ``Since we are extremely busy with our
research, we don't have the time to analyze the enclosed
specimen. I will be grateful if you can identify the specimen
plant and send me a note.''
It should take no more than half an hour for an expert
botanist to identify a plant. Apparently none of the
professors, readers and lecturers at the University had
the time to do this little job. The truth of the matter
was that none of them were capable of doing it. They
were too proud to admit it. I looked at the specimen
and immediately identified it as a plant that grows
on the roadside. The Education Minister was mistaken
that it was some exotic plant. I noted down the
classification of the plant and sent a copy to the
director and the University Professor.
The director was surprised by this development. ``You
were right ... they did send it to you!'' he exclaimed.
The University Professor was a little upset that I
sent a copy of my note to the director.
When I was looking for a job, I applied to all the
Universities for a position. None of them had a job
open for me. Those that did have open positions
employed others. I was destined to be a College
Professor. I needed the job for survival, so I
accepted what came in my way. I served the
position for 28 years, no less. I find it a little
discomforting when someone takes me for a ``lower
quality'' researcher just because I am from a
college and not from a university.
A few years ago, the British Council sent me an
invitation to spend six months in English Universities.
The objective was to educate the Indian botanists
about the ongoing research in England. A University
Professor somehow came to know about this and wrote
to the British council. He argued with them that
a college professor did not deserve such an invitation.
The British Council sent me a regret letter. ``We
were under the impression that you belong to a
University college. We have been informed that such
is not the case. We are embarrassed to withdraw
I don't believe that being in a position makes
someone knowledgeable. On the contrary, it is
a knowledgeable person who adorns the position
and brings prestige to it.
On another occasion, I was seated next to two
political leaders in some committee meeting.
It was decided that another member must be added
to the committee. The question was, who? Everyone
agreed that the new member must be an internationally
known scholar. The two political leaders suggested
the name of a Botany Professor from some university.
I turned pale.
``Why? Do you have any objections?''
``No. But we can consider some other names as well.''
``And what are they?''
I listed a couple of names from the top of my head.
``Never heard of them!''
``Might be so. That's their misfortune. But their research
is well known among international circles. When we teach
postgraduate classes, we talk of the importance of their
``Are they in Universities?''
``How many times have they gone abroad?''
``The first person never went abroad. The second person
did go abroad for higher studies, twenty years ago.''
``Then how can you say they have international reputation?!''
``This is a stupid question. Our candidate has been to
America, England, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, and
the Philippines. He goes abroad twice or thrice a year.
He is always busy attending seminars, symposia, conferences
and research meetings. Now that is what I call international
recognition. What kind of an international reputation will
a person have if he never leaves his home?''
``I am sorry, I cannot understand this kind of international
reputation; Please excuse me,'' and I walked away from the meeting.
I hope the reader does not misunderstand me. I am not
criticizing people who travel abroad for research purposes.
But I have seen directors of national laboratories and
technological laboratories who spend six months out of
twelve travelling. It is only logical if we expect them
to place their institution first in their priority list.
When they are absent, the assistant director takes over
their responsibilities. But his powers are limited.
He cannot make big decisions. The big decisions must
wait until the big Sahib returns home.
A friend of mine is the director of an Indian
national laboratory. Before he rose to this position,
he had made himself a name as a fine researcher and
teacher. After he became the director, he had several
chances to visit foreign countries. He made good use
of all of them. But he became greedy. He started
advertising himself. He would force international
organizations to invite him for visits. His name
began to appear in newspapers. He was on every
committee and on every commission. Within India
he traveled almost every day. Today he will be
in Calcutta, tomorrow he will be in Delhi,
and day after tomorrow in Bombay. Due to this
intense activity, he had no time for his lab.
I had the occasion to read the annual report
of his lab. He had spent 330 days out of 365
travelling. The assistant director had spent
250 days in foreign travel. It is up to anyone's
imagination how well the subordinate staff would
have functioned in the absence of the directors.
25 research professionals belonging to the lab
had sent only two research contributions for publication!
And they were all being paid fat salaries.
Curious, I looked at the previous years' reports.
It was the same story. They were full of requests
-- insufficient funds, need travel allowance,
need a machine urgently for research, approve
a grant for 10 lakhs, the building needs to be
air conditioned, need more working space, the building
needs to be expanded, a central heating system must
be installed. The government had approved all their
I once visited the laboratory and was told that
the director was in town -- what is more, he was
available in his office! I went to see him,
and he gave me a warm welcome. He took me around
the building and showed me the facilities
available. We then came back to his office.
I was aghast to see the decoration in his office.
Air travel bags of all colors, varieties and shapes
were hanging on his walls. There were so many of them,
I could hardly see the wall! The director explained
it to me. He had made seventy trips to foreign countries
since he had come to be the director. ``I still have
three years of service. I am hoping to make thirty
more trips so that I can complete a hundred! Each
time I travel, I get a different air travel bag.
You can count -- there are seventy bags there!''
I was dumbfounded. He saw my pale face and asked
me what was the matter.
``Nothing," I said, ``But don't you think you would
serve the position better by spending more time here
in your office ? What about your personal research?
I think the quality of your annual report will be
much higher if you had spent more time here than
He sighed. ``Swamy, you are an idealist. Do you
think I can be like that? I am not here to please
the scientists. My job is to keep the government
happy. I keep the MLAs happy, and the people who
voted for them happy. That is what builds up my
image. Each time I return from a foreign trip,
I call a press conference and give a report of
the research advances in that country ... What
is the matter? You look flustered again!''
I remain flustered to this day.