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CaseStudy:The LetterWar*


This caseletis a description of differencesbetweentwo individuals in an academicinstitute. Theproblem(s)it

havea bearingon relationsbetweenacademicandadministrativepeople,organizationculture, systems
andprocessesand traditional and moderne-mail communications. Thecasesituation is not to beusedasan
illustration of correct or incorrect way of addressingthe issues.It can beusedfor teaching purpose.

Established in 1945, Nalanda is a renowned
institute for graduate and postgraduate
courses in several professional disciplines.
Located on a compact, picturesque campus,
it has steadily built up an international reputation for the high quality of its educational
Nalanda is a fully residential institute. All
its full-time students (around 500) and its
faculty (averaging 50) live on the campus in
residences meant for them. Without exception, they take special pride in the institute's
unique campus culture. Its distinguishing
features are strong camaraderie, close and
informal relationships between faculty and
.>tudents,and a value system that emphasizes

respect and concern for others. Collegiality

is at the core of its administration. All the
members of the academic community enjoy
substantial autonomy; they are also encouraged to participate actively in the day-to-day
running of the institute. Differences that crop
up among them from time to time are
generally ironed out through informal faceto-face meetings rather than hierarchical
Nalanda is headed by a director. The current incumbent is Dr B. Ghosh. He was appointed to this office only recently. Prior to
his selection for this officeby a search committee, he headed a small business school. As
director, he concentrates on overall governance, external relations, and development
activities. For day to day management, he

*This case has been written by Jittu Singh, Professor at XLRI Jamshedpur
based on a real incident; however, all identities have been disguised.
9:2 (2008):299-309
SAGEPublications LosAngeles/London/New
001: 10.1177/097215090800900209


It is

300 Jittu Singh

is assisted by three senior officials: a dean

for academic affairs, a financial controller, and
an administrator for campus administration
(see Exhibit 1 for an organization chart).
Exhibit 1
Nalanda's Organization Chart

industrial experience. In addition to the 50

full-time members, there is an equal number
of visiting or adjunct professors drawn from
all over the country.
In addition to their primary role as teachers and researchers, several members of the
full-time faculty also share lesser administrative responsibilities as chairpersons of various committees (e.g. Admissions, Student
Affairs, Placement, Graduate Programmes,
and Doctoral Programme). These positions
are rotated among the faculty-and
normally held by a person for two years.





Chairpersons of Committees
Student Affairs
Student Placement
Distance Learning Programmes
Continuing Education
Doctoral Programme

Note: Dr Ghosh strongly believes that this

organization chart illustrates the division of roles at
Nalanda-rather than represent hierarchy in the
traditional sense. He would like relations among his
academicians to be marked by collegiality-not
bureaucracy. He is keen to preserve the culture of
open, informal interactions among colleagues.

Nalanda has a well-qualified faculty: all

the professors hold doctoral degrees from
leading universities; some also have valuable
GlobalBusinessReview,9:2 (2008):299-309

Faced with his first crisis since his appointment as director, Dr Ghosh was visibly on
tenterhooks. After a rushed breakfast, he
walked briskly from his on-campus residence
to the Institute's administrative complex, ran
up the flight of steps leading to his office, and
entered it gasping for breath. He had only
15 minutes left before a scheduled meeting
with Mr V. Jacob (Financial Controller) and
Dr P. Khan (Chairperson of the Doctoral
Committee-or CDC).
As his secretary brought him a cup of
steaming coffee, he settled down and reviewed once again a series of pungent letters
exchanged between Dr Khan and Mr Jacob.
He was worried that the controversy between the two was getting out of control, and
needed to be checked promptly-before
spilled over to muddy the campus' harmonious life.But he was still not sure how to handle
the delicate professorial egos involved.
The first salvo in the 'letter war' was fired
by Dr Khan, who was in the second year of

CaseStudy:Theletter War. 301

When I as the CDC sanction Rs. 20,000

his two-year term as the chairman of the

Doctoral Committee. He had been at Nalanda

as contingency grant to a doctoral candidate, you as the financial controller have

only two choices:

for nearly 10 years. Though popular among

students, he had a more tenuous relationship
with his faculty colleagues; they found him
a bit aloof, cold and sometimes abrasive.
There were nearly a dozen doctoral candidates under his overall supervision. To support their research work, he was allocated
an annual 'contingency
budget'; if a candidate required financial help to meet researchrelated expenses, he was empowered
sanction money out of this budget.
On Monday, February 12, Dr Khan lost his
cool when one of the doctoral candidates
reported receiving from the financial controller, Mr Jacob, Rs. 555 less than the contingency grant of Rs 20,000 sanctioned to him.
Perceiving it to be a challenge of his authority,
he immediately
sat at his computer and sent
the following e-mail to Mr Jacob-and
marked copies to several other faculty colleagues:
Dear Mr. Jacob:
I have received complaints
from two
doctoral candidates that they have been
paid contingency amounts less than what
was sanctioned by the Chairperson of the
Doctoral Committee (CDC). These reveal
confusion of roles of sanctioning and disbursing authorities, and no organization
can function
if such confusion exists.
The rules state: 'For payment of contingency grant and reimbursement
of travel
expenses to doctoral candidates attending
conferences, the thesis adviser will be the
and the CDC
will be the sanctioning authority. Any appeal, if desired, against the CDC's decision
may be made to the director.'

1. Either pay the sanctioned amount; or

2. Appeal to the director (appellate authority) against the CDC's sanction.
I would think that the disbursing authority's role is to ensure that the relevant
accounting records like expense vouchers
are in order and not sit in judgment on
whether the sanctioning
discharged its role correctly or not (which, if
needed, is the responsibility
of the appellate authority).
arrange to pay immediately
the balance amount to the two doctoral

P. Khan
At the receiving end, Mr Jacob (who had
earlier held responsibility
for Student Affairs, played several games regularly with
students, was working
towards a doctoral
degree in finance, was involved only marginally in teaching programmes,
and was regarded by few as somewhat opinionated)
found the tone of Dr Khan's memo highly aggressive and offensive. Enraged, he decided
to repay in kind. He shot back the following
reply almost instantly (and marked copies
to all on Dr Khan's circulation list-plus
own office staff):
Dear Dr Khan:
I hate to engage in arguments
Whatever be your line
of thinking on organization and the functions therein, my views on academic and
managerial functions at Nalanda are:
GlobalBusinessReview,9:2 (2008):299-309

302 Jittu Singh

a) The director is the sole sanctioning

b) The financial package for doctoral
is approved
by the
c) The financial controller consults the
director in case of any deviation
from the original sanction-and
takes appropriate corrective action.
d) Financial matters come under the
domain of the financial controller.
e) Chairpersons of various academic
committees take care of academic
matters and are expected to forward
or financial matters
to the relevant persons in the administration.
Having expressed
my views, I also
would like to present the facts of the cases
you have taken up:
Case 1: The student concerned came to
me with a request for contingency reimbursement. I explained to him that his case
involved some special issues and, therefore, I would have to consult the director
first. Thereafter, I communicated
to him
both the director's decision and the action
taken by me.
If this student wanted any further
clarification, he should have approached
the director-and
not the CDC.
Case 2: You had sanctioned Rs. 20,000,
although you don't have any sanctioning authority. However, the bills submitted by him amounted to Rs. 19,445
only. This amount has been reimbursed.
Should I have paid the erroneously sanctioned amount of Rs. 20,000 or the value
of the bills?
Well, now you draw your conclusions.
GlobalBusinessReview,9:2 (20081:299-309

These episodes clearly highlight the truth

that facts of the cases should be checked
with the right person before one sends out
mails. So you are requested to seek clarifications from the financial controller or
the director on administrative matters
before taking them to any other forum.
Know for sure that the financial controller needs to consult the director-not
committee chairpersons-on
such matters. So kindly take care of the academic
matters and leave the financial matters to
the financial controller and the director.
Last but not least, I would not like to be
drawn into any further debate on this
issue. Regards,
V. Jacob
Viewing the financial controller's response
as both unjustifiable and uncooperative,
Dr Khan decided to approach the director
for a solution. Bristling with anger, he composed the following e-mail to Dr Ghosh (and
marked copies to Mr Jacob-along with four
members of the Doctoral Committee):
Dear Dr Ghosh:
I do not wish to spend any time in arguing with the financial controller on each
and every routine issue that involves a
doctoral student
and that seemingly
involves some financial matter. In my
opinion, trying to make a simplistic and
clear demarcation between academic and
financial matters is too naIve. For instance,
is a study-related expense an academic or
financial subject?
Coming to the basic question of protocol, faculty members are appointed by the
director and report to him. They are not

CaseStudy:Theletter War. 303

subordinates of the financial controller.

Therefore, the signature of a faculty member cannot be overruled by him in any matter whatsoever, whether it is an expense
bill submitted or any approval granted
(some minimum protocol has to be followed despite our being proud of our informal culture).
As per the duly approved rules (which
I discussed with you in person before you
approved them): 'For payment of contingency grant and conference travel reimbursement, the thesis adviser will be the
recommending authority, and the CDC
will be the sanctioning authority. Any
appeal, if desired, against the CDC's decision may be made to the director.'
The spirit behind this rule was that the
director need not be disturbed for routine
matters and that the CDC can take care of
these on his behalf. For example, whether
a particular expenditure is eligible for
reimbursement as a travel-related expense can be more sensibly decided by the
dean or CDC-rather than by the financial controller.
Since the financial controller refuses to
accept the rule cited above, and hence the
CDC's sanctioning authority, I request you
to kindly clarify the matter immediately
so that I, and the Doctoral Committee, can
continue to meaningfully process requests
from faculty members for research grant
or requests from doctoral students for contingency grants or conference travel reimbursement.
P. Khan
Dr Ghosh, who was still busy familiarizing
himself with more important aspects of his

new office, seemed in no hurry to get sucked

into an unnecessary conflict between two
seemingly petulant individuals. Therefore,
he did not respond to Dr Khan; he hoped,
perhaps, that tempers would cool down automatically after a while. However, after waiting
for two days for a reply from Dr Ghosh, but
not receiving one, Dr Khan sent another mail
on Wednesday to his four colleagues on the
Doctoral Committee:

I have decided not to sign as CDC on any

document that goes to accounts till the
protocol issue is sorted out. I find it humiliating to decide that a particular expense
item is a research scholar's 'study related
expense' and be overruled by someone
who has done no research in his life saying
that it is not.
But we need to address the basic issue
of removing ambiguity from the list of
items eligible for reimbursement. For example, in Case 1, computer hardware was
disallowed by the financial controller, despite some similar expenses being allowed
in the past. Where rules are ambiguous,
precedent takes the force of a rule, according to common law; but it is better to spell
out clearly what the eligible items are.
Keeping in mind what prevails elsewhere, I propose that we elaborate our
existing rules to read as follows:
1. Each student is entitled to a contingency grant of Rs. 10,000 per year
during the first two years and Rs.
20,000 per year during the third and
fourth years, on a reimbursement
basis to cover study-related expenses.
Purchase of reading materials (books,
GlobalBusinessReview,9:2 (2008):299-309

304 Jittu Singh

journals, magazines, newspapers,

etc.), travel and accommodation
(air, train, taxi, hotel, food, other incidental expenses, etc.), computer and
accessories (software, hardware, peripherals, supplies, etc.), and all other
study related expenses (photocopying, phone calls pertaining to research
work, etc.) are reimbursed under the
contingency grant. Every single expense item of Rs. 500 or more should
be supported by a receipt.
2. The Trust provides support for attending conferences in India and
abroad. A student will be reimbursed
all related expenses (travel by air,
train or taxi, hotel, food, all conference
fees, other incidental expenses, etc.)
up to Rs. 100,000 (all-inclusive, domestic and foreign conferences together) during the entire duration of
the programme. Every single expense
item of Rs. 500 or more should be
supported by a receipt.
Please let me know by Saturday if you
have any objection to this elaboration, or
if you have any other suggestion.
P. Khan
Dr Ghosh finished reading these letters
and pondered over the consequences of this
simmering dispute and how best to diffuse
it. He was aware of the unpleasantness it
had already created among his faculty
colleagues. Nalanda was not used to such a
public spat among its senior functionaries.
Just then his secretary walked in to announce that Dr Khan and Mr Jacob had
arrived for their scheduled meeting with
GlobalBusinessReview,9:2 (2008):299-309


him. The moment he had feared was now

upon him.
Questions for Discussion

1.Who (or what) do you hold accountable for triggering the conflict described in the case?
2. What led to an escalation of the conflict?
3. What differences do you see between
the roles of 'sanctioning' and 'disbursing' authorities? Should they be
combined into one office-or remain
4. From the communication
point of
view, how effective ~ere the e-mails exchanged between Dr Khan and
On a more general note, what are the
advantages/ disadvantages of e-mail
vis-a-vis conventional memos (off-line
and on paper) and face-to-facemeetings?
5. What do you think of Dr Khan's e-mail
to the director and to his colleagues on
the CDC?
6. What would you have done differently if you were in the shoes of Dr Khan,
Mr Jacob, and Dr Ghosh?
7. As a common mentor to Dr Khan and
Mr Jacob, what advice would you give
to them now?
8. Had Dr Ghosh turned to you for advice
about the best way of handling the dispute, what would you have suggested?