Thursday, November 13, 2008

Overcome the Academic Caste System for Better Retention

Schools are missing a massive amount of valuable information as a result of its traditional professions caste system. That’s the one that looks very much like the one in India as described by Vikas Kamat . I will annotate a bit to help us make the transition from the spiritual world of Indian philosophy to the practical one of academia. The caste layers according to Kamat are:

  • · The Brahmins -- those engaged in sacrifices, and priestly functions Senior Administrators, vice-presidents, trustees
  • · The Kshtriyas -- Rulers and warriors Full-time Faculty
  • · The Vaishyas -- Merchants, farmers, and tradesmen Deans, Directors,
  • · The Shudras -- Laborers, craftsmen, service professions - Managers
  • · The Dalits –so unworthy as to be casteless Clerical, maintenance, adjuncts (but only part time)…

In academia, we look to the Brahmins and Kshtriyas to make most of the policy decisions, create procedures, determine final budgets, formulate policy and decide what is important. Okay, that’s what they do. The Vaishyas then interpret the pronouncements of the Brahmins and Kshtriyas so the statements can be implemented within various constituencies on campus and in their sphere of influences, And that’s the Vaisyas job on campus so fine. The Shudras, as skilled service professionals, are then given the job of implementing whatever it is and the Dalits are there to take direction and assist the Shudras and all those above them by actually doing much of the work

But the Dalits, being casteless, have no say or input into any decisions and are not supposed to question (out loud). They are there to do the jobs that others think are below them and make sure things actually move along. The society, economy or life could not move forward at all if it were not for the Dalits in India nor academia. They do much of the real work where the jota hits the road. They are sources of a great deal of information and wisdom about how things really work that is usually not tapped. They are invisible after all.

Recaste the System for Success

In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies S.E. Page discusses his diversity trumps ability theorem which states that a randomly selected collection of problem solvers outperforms a collection of the best individual problem solvers. That is, when we bring together diverse points of view, experience and knowledge of the subject or issue for decision-making, the result is better than when a smaller, more homogeneous group thinks things through.

Brahmins will think as Brahmins and their decisions will come from their rather harmonized viewpoints for example. Yes they may have greater experience in some areas such as administration but it will be limited by their current position, common experience as a team of decision-makers and the need for political unity. They will think as senior administrators and what they see as best for the school and themselves. The same will be true of the Kshtriyas who will have a worldview that is focused more on the classroom, research, academia, the faculty and the senior administrators who might have some say on their lives and work. These are their points of reference after all. Each group looks to what is in it (or out of it) for me and what I care about. They also have most concern to the group or groups above it since they make changes and decisions that can affect them.

An interesting thing does occur though as we travel down the academic caste system. As each next lower group looks at those above it, it gains more diverse understanding of the higher caste groups; how they work and think. They may not have inside knowledge but they see how one group’s actions cause reactions through all the groups above and their own. In a sense, they gain greater, more diverse understanding.

In academia this is particularly true when it comes to how the system relates to students. A decision by the Kshtriyas for example has direct effect on the students and their lives. A decision by the Vaishyas (deans, directors, office managers) on how they will implement a policy that affects students from the Brahmins has direct impact on those lower castes who have t implement it. And when the Shudras and Dalits put it all into action, they are the ones who have the most immediate and direct interactions with the students. They are then the ones who have the real knowledge of how something t is affecting students. Yet, since they are either lowest caste or even no caste at all, they are not ones to listen to or involve in any decision-making.

Carrying the diversity trumps ability theorem concept forward a bit, higher level castes should increase the diversity of their thinking and processes. Yes, there is some involvement of Brahmins, Kshtriyas, Vaishyas and even sometimes Shudras together on committees as a recognition that a wide band of knowledge and experience is needed or is good (at least for show) on some committees or task forces. The diversity can lead to much better recommendations, actions reports, etc when these groups come together to share ideas, experience and understanding

But, Dalits!!! Oh no. After all, what could clerical and other staff bring to the table? How about direct contact with students on almost all the actions, decisions and policies the recognized cast groups make. Howe about honest and earned practical knowledge of how something has or will affect their ability to help students. How about real understanding of cause and effect throughout the whole college as well as sincere knowledge of how the place really works. How about diversity that WILL make your decisions, actions, policies, procedures better and help students more.

Involve the Dalits, staff, clerical and otherwise as well as even, heaven forbid the most untouchable of all, adjuncts in committees, task forces, and other think groups on campus. They have a great deal to offer and given an honest opportunity, will add diversity that will make the college better.



“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%.” Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.” Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick

“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.” Shelly S, Lincoln Technical Institute

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Anonymous said...

So, where do students (including student leaders & student-run groups) fit into the caste system? It seems like their voice is somewhere below "untouchable", and yet there are some amazing untapped resources there.

Anonymous said...

You are correct. Please see the additional discussion at