IIM-Ahmedabad’s founding ‘mom’ who couldn’t be its director

Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 20

That the premiere Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) had three founding fathers — nuclear scientist Vikram Sarabhai, industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai and former Gujarat Chief Minister Jivraj Mehta — is well-documented.

What is not known is that the institute also had a founding mother, who, a new research now shows, could never become its Director due to “sexism”.

Kamla Chowdhry was IIMA’s first faculty member and its coordinator of programmes between 1962 and 1965. Her colleagues remembered how she was the de facto Director of IIMA as Sarabhai, Honorary Director, was rarely around for routine matters.

“But sexism played a defining role in Chowdhry’s professional life almost certainly barring her from becoming the first director of the institute she helped found. Now new archival evidence is showing that she was more central to the IIMA project than has ever been publicly acknowledged,” says Chinmay Tumbe, economics faculty at IIM Ahmedabad, whose work, published on Chowdhry’s birth centenary on December 17, resurrects the obscure scholar to where she belongs.

Born in Lahore to a Punjabi Khatri family, Chowdhry did MA in philosophy from Punjab University in 1943 and later a doctorate in social psychology from Michigan University in 1949.

After IIMA was founded in December 1961, Sarabhai helped Chowdhry bag a research position at Harvard Business School (HBS), which was to later become the institutional partner for IIMA.

In 1962, when IIMA’s administrative office started functioning, HBS didn’t even admit women into its MBA programme.

But back home, Chowdhry was practically running IIMA, recruiting faculty, convening faculty meetings and even selecting furniture. She couldn’t go farther than that though.

“In spite of the full backing of Sarabhai and Prakash Tandon, chairman of IIMA’s Board of Governors at the time, Chowdhry never became full-time IIMA Director. As de facto director and senior-most faculty, she was the top contender for the post. But a peculiar circumstance put paid to that prospect,” Tumbe says.

His research shows that between 1963 and 1964, a doctoral student from HBS, deputed to IIMA, wrote a series of letters against Chowdhry to Harry Hansen, then director of the IIMA project in Boston, saying, “We must see to it that Chowdhry doesn’t become Director or for that matter Deputy-Director, or any other high administrative position.”

Tumbe notes it is likely that the correspondence of the doctoral student fuelled misgivings HBS may have had about Chowdhry’s leadership abilities.

“Chowdhry was widely seen to be close to Sarabhai, and all communication to him tended to be routed through her. But Sarabhai himself was rarely around, and his absence, in effect, gave Chowdhry powers that were often misconstrued. HBS effectively vetoed Chowdhry out of contention for the post of Director,” reveals the author.

Box: Indian biz schools still score low on gender parity

According to the latest data, IIMs of Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Lucknow, Indore and Kozhikode score an average of 33.5 per cent on gender diversity, with female students and female faculty continuing to be historically low

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