Ravi J Matthai - The First Director (1965)

Ravi John Matthai was born in 1927. He was the son of John Matthai, then an academician with University of Madras. Later John Matthai became the first Railway Minister and subsequently Finance Minister of independent India in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first cabinet.

Ravi was educated at The Doon School, Dehradun and later graduated from Oxford University with a B.A. (Hons.) in Economics. He began his career at a Calcutta based firm but later moved to the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta in 1963 as Professor of Marketing.

In 1965 Matthai was invited by noted Indian Institution builder and scientist Dr. Vikram Sarabhai to join IIMA as its first full-time Director. He was 38 years old at the time and did not have an advanced academic degree. How on earth did Vikram Sarabhai zoom in on Matthai as the first director is a puzzle. Yet, over the next six years, he set the foundations for an institution that was to grow into a top-ranking management school in India. Says something about Sarabhai's talent spotting abilities.

When Matthai came in, he had a bit of a student revolt on his hands. The PGP had been started in 1964 and discontent was brewing amongst the students. Every evening, he would sit with the students in the open ground for hours, listen to them patiently and reason with them. The revolt died down.

That was a time when it was not easy to bring in too many doctorates in management. Matthai's solution was to find people with a basic aptitude for academics and then send them over to Harvard Business School for a doctorate. They signed a bond, came back and served and, of course, had the option of leaving thereafter. C K Prahalad (a PGP product who joined IIMA as faculty thereafter) was one of the beneficiaries. Matthai reckoned that some people would leave. But even if a few stayed backed, that would be a big gain. And a few did stay back.

One of the astonishing things Matthai did was to step down a little after completing seven years on the job. He had everything going for him. Age was on his side. His record had been spectacular. He had terrific equations with all the major stakeholders. Kasturbhai Lalbhai, then chairman, and Sarabhai pleaded with him to continue as director. He could have been director until retirement. Yet the man chose to walk away from the job. Because he had thought through the governance implications very carefully.

In relinquishing his job, Matthai lived up to the highest traditions of self-abnegation so greatly revered in this country. In many other ways, he set almost impossible standards of conduct. He declined to seek reimbursement of his travel and medical bills. He never projected himself, it was always the Institute that got projected. He was rather reclusive, locking himself in his house at the end of the day and mentally reviewing the events of the day.

The great thing about people like Matthai is that not only do they create the foundations for durable success, they also set standards for those who follow. It is impossible for anybody sitting in the director's chair to escape comparison with Matthai even today.

A number of reasons are attributed to Matthai's enduring influence on IIMA:

· First, a clear sense of purpose. IIMA’s concern, as Matthai put it, was “with the application of knowledge”. This meant that the Institute would be involved in teaching, research and consulting. The impact “would be greatest if it were the combined result of all activities”, so faculty must engage in all three activities. Matthai saw clearly that to focus merely on business would limit IIMA. It would also expose it to charges of being elitist in its orientation. IIMA’s ambit needed to be wider: it would be an institute of management, not just a business school. It would develop expertise in important sectors, including agriculture.

· Secondly, Matthai’s conviction that academic activities can flourish only when faculty are given the fullest freedom. In an academic institution, excellence cannot be ordered. It springs forth when people are given the space to grow and to express themselves freely.

· Thirdly, the idea of a faculty-governed institute where decision-making rests primarily with the faculty and not with the director or the board. An example is the admissions committee that is independent of the director. The mechanism has been crucial in insulating admissions from unhealthy influence.

After six years as director, Matthai announced his decision to step down and stay on as professor. He gave two reasons for doing so - first, leaders of academic institutions tended to use their positions for career advancement at an adverse cost to the institutions; secondly, it was important to establish the principle that the director’s position is not hierarchical; he is only first among equals, which was characteristically bold of him, given the cultural milieu prevailing in leading academic institutions at that time

Jawaja Experiment:

In 1975, a few years after stepping down from IIMA’s directorship, Matthai decided to test whether corporate management disciplines could be related to gut issues of Indian poverty. He selected Jawaja block which included about 200 villages with a population of approximately 80,000 people in a drought prone district of Rajasthan. The area was then regarded by the government authorities as devoid of any scope for development. Matthai began to work with village communities on issues of livelihood and empowerment in an environment that was among India’s most degraded and oppressive. Volunteers from IIMA and the NID joined with local citizens in the search for livelihood options that could be sustained in the face of social, environmental and political challenges.

Languishing skills in weaving and leather work were selected in an effort to develop new opportunities for earning that could be outside the control of local vested interests while remaining rooted in familiar and tested capacities. The Jawaja Experiment thus began with Prof. Ravi Matthai leading a small group of volunteers to what seemed a barren patch of land with little resources and even less hope. Forty years later, the Jawaja Leather Association and the Jawaja Weaver’s Association, continue their struggle for self-reliance and dignity. They have come a long way. The leather workers and weavers have won a degree of economic independence. Their products are reputed in India and in many parts of the world.

This experiential learning of running a grass root development project, led to the setting up of the Institute of Rural Management Anand. Ravi Matthai, and two of his former IIMA colleagues, Dr. Kamala Chowdhary and Dr. Michael Halse are credited with conceptualising the need for an independent Institute of Rural Management. Ravi Matthai was associated in the initial years in various capacities - being a member on the Board, directly in teaching students, apart from informally mentoring the faculty.

Unfortunately, hectic lifestyle and heavy smoking took toll on Ravi's health. After a bypass surgery in London in December 1983, Ravi Matthai passed away on February 13, 1984.

Honours:

National Institute of Design (NID) at Paldi, Ahmedabad, has a Ravi J Matthai Design Research Chair for `design innovation for enriching school education, craft sectors and design research`. It focuses on developing a range of design research related projects and activities in this area.

The institute library at the IRMA and the Centre for Educational Innovation at IIM Ahmedabad are named after him.

In 1986, IIMA established the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation (RJMCEI), to conduct research and undertake training activities to influence the management of education systems in India.

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