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An Update on the Knowledge Centre

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An update on the “Knowledge Centre”
Preamble
The story of the blind men and the elephant is all too familiar; the story of the “Knowledge centre” at St John’s bears similarity to the elephant story, even if the analogy is only applicable to the concept.
It was in the mid-2000’s that concept was first floated. It was inspired, we were told, by similar centres that existed in some institutions of international repute. To one proponent, it was a centre for innovation. To another, it was a to be a skills-training centre. To a third, it was to be a place for cutting-edge research. To yet another, it was to be a state-of-art digital library with multimedia rooms, teleconferencing, telemedicine and web-based learning & communication. IN course of time, as the Golden Jubilee approached, it was expropriated as the Golden Jubilee commemorative – first by the Alumni Association, and later by the management.
It was sometime in early 2008, or so, that this was shared with the staff & local alumni at a meeting chaired by the then Director. Details were not forthcoming, but there was an impression that brainstorming at the back-end would give concrete shape to the proposition, and the details would be forthcoming in due course. Two things stand out in memory, though: 1) the then Dean was confident that the Alumni would be raise the funds for the venture – a figure of USD Two hundred thousand would be the targer, and 2) another senior functionary of the institution declared that the alumni would never disappoint, and the sceptics in the audience should temper their scepticism.
In due course, a new team of Director & Associate Directors took office. At some point, the new team felt that the “full potential” of St John’s was not being realised, and the institution was “stunted” by it’s limited annual intake of only 60 undergraduate medical students. St John’s “had not grown with the times”, and therefore, there was a need to revisit the intake. Numbers were crunched, and it was concluded that with the existing staff an intake of 150 students annually could be achieved. The only constraints would be the classrooms and similar “physical” facilities. The original building plan was revisited – and it was found that that the completed Robert Koch Bhavan had been visualised as a “H” shaped building, and therefore another wing could be added perpendicular to the existing north-south wing at its southern end. It was conceived that this new structure would accommodate the additional infrastructure required for the proposed yearly intake of 150 undergraduate medical students, and the second floor of this structure would house the “Knowledge Centre”.
A team from what was then the “Medical education cell” was asked to give inputs on the requirements for the “Knowledge centre”. Considerable work was put in, and the space requirements were computed. It is clear from this that while some things were agreed upon, the contours of the whole project were as yet unclear, and a great deal of iteration continued to be under way. Broadly, it was decided that the “Knowledge Centre” would have the following:
  • A “basic skills” section for undergraduate training
  • An “advanced skills” section for postgraduate training
  • A hi-tech simulation centre for highly specialised training needs
  • A cadaver dissection lab
  • A demonstration room
  • A lecture-cum-conference hall
  • A debriefing room
  • A telemedicine facility for rural doctors & sister-doctors
  • An E-learning lab
  • A digital library & conference rooms for web-conferencing
  • Network connectivity for multiple workstations, and for all the above
  • Plug-and-play connectivity for devices that may be added on in future
  • Information repository & back-up server(s) – including a virtual I.T. environment
  • Sluice, Storage, Utility, Network, Janitor & Support facilities
It was also clear that as architectural designs were as yet to be developed, inputs regarding the space requirements would be provided to the architect(s) for incorporation in the building design.
Preparatory work
In preparation for the setting up of the centre, an team consisting of faculty from the Medical Education Department and a couple of others was tasked with providing the specific inputs required – equipment, technology, layout, infrastructure, spacing, etc. Members of the team visited other institutions that had similar facilities, and interacted with their academic & managerial staff to understand both the physical facilities and the operational details. Information was obtained on the source of manikins, simulators, etc., and quotations were obtained. Financial projections were made, albeit as estimates.
The architect for the project had been identified, and a series of meetings were held to finalise the designs & drawings. At this point, I may mention that based on the drawings prepared by the architect, different areas were identified for attracting donations – with naming privileges extended to the donors. The construction work started in early 2013, so that there would be some progress to show to the alumni who were attending the Golden Jubilee celebrations.
August 2013, and later
In August 2013, a day prior to the launch of the Golden Jubilee celebrations, a meeting took place at which George Varghese, Marian Kamath, Venkatanarayan, Salim Yusuf, Brian Pereira & Jovita Peiris Crasta were present, representing the NA Chapter alumni; Kishore Murthy, Thelma Rodrigues Narayan, Dominic Misquith and myself were invited to attend as representatives of local alumni (not as the Alumni Association representatives). Fr Glen Mascarenhas was representing the management. I am not sure if the minutes have been recorded by anybody, or circulated.
Salim Yusuf had been selected to speak on behalf of the NA Chapter, and he began the discussion with some of the thoughts overseas alumni had in general about the practices of the incumbent management of St John’s, and how that was coming in the way of more donors supporting various activities in the Institution. In particular, he referred to the “opaque” manner in which donations were being handled, with everything going into the CBCI accounts – and not into separate accounts in the name of the cause for which the donation had been made. He, George Varghese & Jovita Crasta forcefully argued for the St John’s management to be more “open” in these matters, and follow good practices in handling donations. There appeared to be unanimity in both the grouse voiced, and the appeal made. The team repeatedly referred to the need for a mechanism for handling donations and their utilisation which would also include alumni.
Fr Glen Mascarenhas assured everybody that there had been no “misuse” of any donation in his watch (wonder what he was hinting at, though!). He was unable to explain why different accounts did not exist for each cause, and no statement of utilisation had ever been sent to the donors. He only said that the “Bishops” had their own way of looking at things, and “he would do his utmost to be transparent, and reform some of the practices”. Nobody present was satisfied, and he excused himself saying he had to attend a meeting with some Bishops. The meeting ended inconclusively.
At this juncture one may actually wonder why the Alumni Association office-bearers were not part of these discussions, or even activity related to the Knowledge Centre. By December 2011, stung by the lack of any progress in preparations for the Golden Jubilee, the responsibility for organising the Jubilee was taken over by the management from the Alumni Association, and a multi-functional core-committee with intramural and extramural representatives was set up to organise the Jubilee. One of the “sub-committees” of this group, headed by Swarnarekha Bhat, was tasked with developing the “Clinical Skills Lab”. Since much of the background work had been done by the same group, the only thing that remained to be done was to launch the skills lab, pending construction of the permanent facility.
That launch was expected to take place at a “Simulation workshop” to be held in September 2013, when Kumar Belani and his team from University of Minnesota would be in Bangalore. That workshop never took place – as a consequence of mischief and sabotage – thanks to some malevolence on the part of one of the leading lights of the Medical Education department who had a running ego-clash with Swarnarekha Bhat. Swarnarekha met Prem Pais, the then Dean, and withdrew from the project in order that peace may reign and progress be made.
This happened at a rather poignantly critical juncture in the history of St John’s: The incumbent Dean, Prem Pais, had been told that his tenure would end in December 2013 (i.e. in 3 months’ time). The Director Fr Lawrence had also been told that his tenure would come to an end as scheduled in 2014. Fr Mathew Kattiyangal, the College administrator had asked to be relieved by March 2014 as he could not deliver on his responsibilities due to interference and obstruction from his notional superiors in the institution. This has largely to do with the construction of the new block.
Looking back, it appears that the entire exercise between March 2012 and August 2013 had been undertaken to present a “good face” to the alumni attending the Jubilee. Post-August 2013, serious issues cropped between the Architect (the leading architect of Bangalore, suggested by Ranga Nayak) and Fr Glen Mascarenhas. Fr Glen refused to pay the architect his fees, claiming that “his understanding was that the Architect would do the work free of cost”. This dispute ran for a long time, and is as yet not settled. Fr Glen also started making numerous ad-hoc changes to the plans, which annoyed the architect no end. He stopped supervising the construction and his participation now is only to the extent that he hands over drawings as and when required.
The entire layout of the second-floor of the building has been changed; demolitions were carried out to already constructed structures and the estimated loss is over Rupees Forty-five lakhs. These alterations were ostensibly carried out in the watch of the Dean Srinivasan, Vice-dean Sandhya Avadhany and Fr Glen Mascarenhas. The architect was not consulted as these were thought to be “internal changes” not requiring any approval or input from the architect.
Finance
The financial proposals for the block were presented to the Governing Board between September 2011 and March 2012, and approved. However, no specific allocation was made for the “Skills lab”, and a verbal assurance was given that Rupees One Crore would be initially released for purchase of simulators & manikins. When the September 2013 workshop led by Kumar Belani & his Minnesota team did not take place (refer above), this matter never came up again. As of now no one is any wiser about how much money has been allocated, and how much will eventually be spent and for what.
The donations from Alumni and others towards various named privileges were specifically for certain areas of the “Knowledge centre” which has not come up.
Epilogue
Post-September 2013, there was no “driver” for the project. The incumbent Dean knew he was on his way out, and took no further interest. The incumbent Director knew he was on his way out and lost all interest in the project. The incumbent College administrator had already asked to move out, and had washed his hands off the project. The Core committee for the Golden Jubilee scarcely met, and no further progress was reported by the management on the project. The project was being handled by Fr Glen – perhaps, with inputs the new Dean and his team. The new Director, to the best of my knowledge, has not brought this matter up in public.
To sum-up, there is now no “Knowledge Centre” – no body, no face, no soul, no spirit, no master. It is perhaps a residual thought in the minds of some who took it to heart, and hoped for something good to come up. It may cease to be even that in a couple of years’ time.

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