- One, leaders of academic institutions tended to use their positions for career advancement; this was not good for the institutions.
- Two, it was important to establish the principle that the director’s position is not hierarchical; he is only first among equals. You are professor, you become director and then you become professor again.
This one contribution of Mathai’s cannot be overstated. In the present scheme of things, the director has sweeping powers. The board of governors does not quite have the monitoring authority of a corporate board. Faculty governance can work only to the extent the director is willing to let it work.
Limiting the director to one term is vital to good governance. It is the knowledge that a director’s actions can be looked into once he has reverted to a faculty role, the certainty that he will be cut dead in the corridors by colleagues whom he has mistreated that acts as a check, however inadequate, on the incumbent.
There is more to Mathai’s enduring impact than his grasp of the principles of good governance in academic institutions. He managed the relationship with government with great skill. He was a superb man-manager with the gift of drawing out the best in people. Above all, he had moral authority: he brought to his office high integrity, a spirit of sacrifice and self-effacement.
India has been fortunate in having had great institution builders. At the national level, we had people of the make of Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar. At the organisational level, we have had the likes of Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and RK Talwar (of SBI). In that constellation of institution builders, Ravi Mathai shines brightly.