Bakul Dholakia looks like a gentle professor, but once he starts talking it becomes clear that this scholar of economics probably conducts a severe tutorial. His steeliness, accentuated by a slightly shrill voice, has become familiar in the battleground of Indian higher education, where he is a hero of the country's elite, state-owned business schools.
That status was enhanced this month when Mr Dholakia -- director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, considered by many to be the best of six such centres that produce India's managerial aristocrats - helped persuade the government to reverse its earlier opposition and allow IIMs to open campuses overseas.
"If you want to be the best in the world, you have to be able to compete with the best in the world," he says.
For Mr Dholakia, the potential face-off with government - two years ago IlMs emerged on top after a bruising showdown with the government over fees, with the IlMs arguing that entry rules must not be lowered to satisfy government political aims -- boils down to an issue about the schools' effective autonomy.
Like the equally revered Indian Institutes of Technology, the IlMs are rare examples of independently minded, but government-owned, centres of excellence. When he accepted the job in October 2003 after a career as a member of the IIM-A faculty, Mr Dholakia. was not only determined to uphold the tradition of autonomy, he also wanted to add "thrust" to IIM-A's vague notions of becoming a globally respected school.
Opening a campus overseas would lend weight to the strategic vision, although he admits that, "for now, our plate is full".
His current preoccupation, since he took office, is to strengthen IIM-A so that it stands among the world's top 10 business schools within the next five years. There it would mix with Harvard Business School, which helped to set up IIM-A in 1961 and where IIM alumni now teach.
Mr Dholakia has laid down two broad benchmarks to judge his progress: the intellectual rigor of an IIM-A education and its global appeal. One should lead to the other, he says.
The first is acknowledged. In the first year of IIM-A's two-year MBA programme, students and faculty spend 700 hours together in a learning situation, compared with 650-700 hours over two years at a US school.
Some 150,000 people apply for the 250 places on the MBA. The successful applicants emerge from an Indian college system that is patchy in general but which emphasises "initiative-taking and learning on your own", says Mr Dholakia. As evidence of "our intellectual horsepower", he points out that "80 per cent of [IIM-A] students on an overseas exchange are in the top quartile of the host school, while 80 per cent of those who come here are in the bottom of our class".
Mr Dholakia's second measure of success is his strategy for the globalisation of IIM-A.
The bottom line for internationally ambitious schools is gaining foreign students for full-time residential courses. But, as he admits, "my hands are tied".
His priority is to meet domestic needs, not easy given the extraordinary demand. Yet even if more overseas students applied, IIM-A would admit only those whose Graduate Management Admission Test scores matched the exceptionally high marks of domestic candidates in their own common admission tests.
"This means we'd only be able to take foreign students with a GMAT score of 700. That score opens the doors of Harvard, Wharton and Stanford so why should they come here?" asks Mr Dholakia. "The challenge is to build IIM-A's global brand. That has to happen for us to appear on foreign students' applications."
Although that may still be some way off, Mr Dholakia points out that IIM-A receives 100 such applications a year, mostly from expatriate Indians, with "a decent 25 per cent with a GMAT of 750".
Under the circumstances, Mr Dholakia is using short-term tools to integrate the school globally. He now has exchange programmes with 37 overseas schools, and the job placements with companies overseas have risen with IIM-A's stock. UBS, the Swiss bank, and Singaporean private equity fund Temasek joined a host of international companies at the most recent frenzied recruitment of talent at IIM-A.
Finally a faculty exchange scheme is being developed to attract alumni and academics who would otherwise remain beyond IIM-A's budget. Low, government-set salaries are a factor in IIM-A's failure to attract faculty for primary research that would in turn strengthen the Institute's academic excellence on another benchmark.
"I am forced to work on the closest substitute to having foreign students actually on campus here as full-time MBAs -- and the impact [of exchange programmes] has been immense in exposing our students to a multicultural environment," says Mr Dholakia.
His long-term strategy is to develop executive education programmes and, in April, IIM-A will unveil an ambitious attempt to expand its portfolio by launching a long-planned, one-year MBA. Much faith and effort has been invested in it, adds Mr Dholakia.
One-year MBA programmes are rare in India. The privately funded Indian School of Business in Hyderabad launched a one-year MBA in 2000 and is slowing winning acceptance.
IIM-A's one-year MBA is partly a response to ISB but, more importantly, it is an attempt to plant itself in the hottest area of executive education. With global demand for traditional two-year MBAs showing signs of turning the corner after four years of weak demand, IIM-A believes it can benefit from such market conditions by providing a cost-effective and high quality product.
IIM-A's MBA programme was designed working closely with businesses and includes a five-week "international immersion" working with big employers overseas. Its $18,000 (£10,000) cost includes most living expenses on a stylish Rs75m (£1.0m) extension of the original Louis Kahn-designed campus. The equivalent MBA at Insead in Europe would cost about $100,000.
Mr Dholakia says the profile of the first batch of 65 acceptances, which includes only four people with no Indian connection, places IIM-A in a global elite. The average age is 31, with nine years' work experience and a GMAT score of 700.
Such a profile explains why Mr Dholakia believes the programme will "be the vehicle for attracting fulltime students to IIM-A".
In contrast, 90 per cent of entrants to IIM-A's two-year MBA are either straight from university or have one to two years' work experience.
Nor is Mr Dholakia confining his activity to India. After this month's government go-ahead, he admits the "next new thing will be to establish a campus abroad for management education", which could be non-degree, short-duration courses of the type IIM-A organised in Egypt, Thailand and China last year, as well as conventional tuition.
Duke University in North Carolina has emerged as a potential partner for joint executive programmes in the US, "which would be a huge step for our brand".
Mr Dholakia is also in discussion with long-time partner Essec Business School in Paris, with which the Indian school will launch a double degree this year, about a possible role in the French institute's new Essec Asian campus in Singapore.
The possible collaboration could prepare IIM-A for an independent foray, which Mr Dholakia admits will come about but is "two years away". After all, a joint effort that shares the glory is unlikely to satisfy Mr Dholakia and his fiercely upwardly-mobile IIM-A.
Under Syndication Service with FE