Both my daughter and the college were five years old when I took over as Principal,” says Nirmala Prasad, the head of M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women in Chennai. “I spent more time in college than at home. I can’t say it was a perfect work-life balance. But I took a conscious decision to empower thousands of women at M.O.P. rather than be ‘selfish’ and devote attention to my daughter alone.”
This, perhaps, aptly sums up her 16-year stint as Principal ahead of her retirement later this month. During this period, the well-known educationist and her team have transformed a little-known institution into a sought-after academic entity that has notched several firsts.
As Syndicate member of the University of Madras for three terms, Nirmala lent her expertise and administrative prowess to the country’s oldest university. And as member of the University Grants Commission, she helped set new benchmarks for quality in higher education.
Arriving at M.O.P. after 25 years of heading the Commerce Department at Ethiraj College, she got down to the task of growing the fledgling college into a well-known brand. Today the college is run like an efficient corporate, with the twin goals of maximising value to ‘customers’ — as she often refers to the students, and charting new paths to forge a unique identity.
Interestingly, she consciously chose not to teach, focusing her energies instead on professionalising education and ensuring the college stood out amongst the older, established counterparts, “all within a 2-3 km radius!”
“It was a real challenge to attract students to a new college, a private institution with no government aid. We had to charge fairly high fees, even for courses other colleges were offering at half the cost, and had to create a value proposition that would justify the fee,” she says.
That was when she hit upon her idea of ‘unique service proposition’.
“My USP was that we would offer not just a degree but a holistic education,” she says.
And she knew exactly how to do this.
Whenever Nirmala met people from industry and the corporate world, she heard how they struggled to find the right person for a job despite the thousands of graduates emerging from colleges each year. Most jobseekers were found lacking ‘employable’ skills for the corporate environment. Nirmala promptly latched on to the opportunity, turning her attention to niche, potential-filled graduate programmes such as Visual Communication, Electronic Media, Media Management, and Food Science and Technology.
As there were few trained faculty in these areas, the teaching was initially outsourced to professionals in the field. With language often proving to be a barrier to achieving full potential for many students, the college offers bridge courses in communication.
And to foster holistic personality development, students are taught the importance of keeping inter-personal relationships on an even keel, including ways to cope with crises and problem solving.
Such interventions nurture students’ self-esteem and their ability to present ideas clearly and confidently, says Nirmala.
M.O.P. graduates are today sought after by top banks and corporates, including Barclays, McKinsey, Google, Goldman Sachs and Cognizant, besides ad agencies and TV and radio companies. (During the latest round of placements, one 20-year-old was hired by a leading investment bank at Rs 7.5 lakh a year!)
College Board member S. Parthasarathy says the principal has turned out more than 8,000 smart students ready for the job market.
Nirmala’s faith in internship programmes, even for First Year students, has clearly paid off. Even those who had questioned the wisdom of such internships later ended up seeking interns from the college.
“We had created a ‘brand’ that would be remembered, especially when it came to hiring on campus,” she says.
To strengthen versatility, she came up with the novel requirement that each student should take up a course unrelated to her main subject. So a computer science student can learn photography, while a visual media student can try her hand at baking and cooking, or jewellery design. Such cross-disciplinary exposure also widens career choices, the principal points outs.
She is especially interested in empowering young women to become entrepreneurs; the college set up the Entrepreneurship Development Cell in 1999.
“It troubled me that many talented and highly intelligent young women were just sitting at home after marriage, letting their skills go to waste because of societal pressures. I wanted to help such women become self-employed and, in turn, create jobs for others. I felt we should create creators.”