Dr. Ananth Padmanabhan is the Dean at Daksha Fellowship, Chennai. After completing his B.A. LL.B. (Hons.), from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Ananth went on to complete his L.L.M. and Doctorate from Penn Law. He served as a fellow at Carnegie India and at the Centre for Policy Research, where he worked on a host of areas dealing with emerging technologies and regulation.
In his interview he shares his experiences in the law and education domain, and what prompted him to conceptualize Daksha Fellowship. He mentions that every individual is unique and brings different perspectives to the table. Therefore, pedagogic structures have been designed as part of Daksha Fellowship to optimally balance quality and uniqueness. Talking about developing strategies, he highlights that the institute is looking to build some international partnerships that potentially lead to a student exchange. An internship program of two months is meant to ensure students get the right exposure to practical skills and client needs.
He makes his role clear to build out the academic vision of this program in a manner that serves its objectives. Also, the major plan from an internationalisation point of view to ensure a sound global immersion program for the inaugural cohort. This shall subsequently open new avenues for lasting partnerships with universities and research centres abroad. The interview comes to a close with him mentioning that Daksha Fellowship has a very clear binding thread that runs in their ethos and vision – collaborative learning is the best way forward.
I was looking for the right opportunity to transition full-time to the higher education domain
I am a lawyer by training. After graduating from NLSIU, Bangalore, I worked in the Madras High Court for six years. Under the mentorship of Sr. Advocate Arvind Datar, I started building an interest in intellectual property rights. I took forward this interest as a career academic, pursuing my masters and then doctorate at UPenn. During the non-residence phase of my doctoral programme, I worked in New Delhi for three years at highly reputed think tanks, developing a deep interest in technology policy and data governance.
All along this journey, I had been considering a full-time transition to interdisciplinary higher education when the right opportunity came through. The opportunity finally presented itself through a conversation with Dr Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean of ISB and co-founder of Ashoka University. The prospect of building a fellowship along the lines of the Young India Fellowship, but exclusively for lawyers, was too promising to let go of at this stage in my career. Thus, I moved back to Chennai to start this stint as Dean at Daksha Fellowship.
Each individual is unique and brings very different perspectives to the table
I follow an inclusive approach to decision-making. This stems from my belief that each individual is unique and brings very different perspectives to the table. A lot of this belief has been tested, and I hope I have been proven right, during this lockdown on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a team, we hold open discussions every day about what we are doing right, and more importantly, where we could improve. Using this approach, we have come a long way including admitting some stellar candidates through two rounds of admissions, hosting top quality webinars with distinguished leaders of the bar, on-boarding some very eminent practitioners as our visiting faculty and building a robust campus ambassador network.
I personally believe educational institutions and projects cannot be dictated from top down in excessively structured fashion. Instead, one should learn to manage the chaos, an inevitable by-product of free thinking and competing ideas, and let the best ideas emerge from this process of open discussion and debate. Of course, anyone in my role has to be firm and decisive when the rubber hits the road. But the process of arriving at that decision has to be democratic, inclusive and compassionate.
All our structures are designed to nurture a vibrant talent pool within our campus
A lot of what the higher education industry has been doing in order to promote different programs have undergone massive change on account of the pandemic. Institutionally, we took a call early on that we would focus on adding value to the lives of law students, even before we formally admit any. Thus, even in the absence of the standard physical outreach in college campuses, a strategy central to the launch of any new post-graduate program, we have managed quite well.
So, a predominant part of our marketing strategy has been organically driven through our #DakshaSeries, #DakshaDialogues and #DakshaMasterclasses. All of these are iterations of the same core idea – provide learning resources through online means while the lockdown is effective, and use it as the foundation for more to do when we open up the campus.
On the administration front, we believe that the most critical element for the success of a project such as ours is, in addition to attracting really good students, to attract and retain eminent faculty. All our structures are designed to nurture this talent pool within our campus. Moreover, due to the fluid nature of our curriculum design and course delivery, a lot of technical support is required at the backend. Thankfully, we have some extremely talented multitaskers in our team who are helping with this and guiding us. Our admissions team has also picked up the nuances of a multi-factored selection process – we evaluate writing skills, academic record, performance at the Daksha Fellowship Admissions Test, and personal interview scores – to put in place a fair and transparent process of candidate selection.
We are looking to build some international partnerships that potentially lead to student exchange
We are yet to develop a full internationalisation strategy for inbound students, especially due to the divergence between common law and civil law systems. There is considerable jurisdiction-specificity that attaches to the practice of law, thereby differentiating it from other kinds of professional education.Despite these limitations, we are looking to develop international partnerships that potentially lead to student exchange. That would be a good way to begin understanding the needs of international students and then respond through iterations of the Daksha model. For the inaugural cohort, our focus is on inducting the best crop of Indian lawyers, both freshers and mid-career professionals, to build the fellowship with us.
The internship program of two months is meant to ensure students get the right exposure to practical skills and client needs
Daksha Fellowship is all about bridging the gap between the world of work and the world of learning.. The three pathways available for Daksha fellows – technology law and policy, law and regulation, and disputes resolution – are designed to ensure work-readiness of our fellows in leading technology companies, law firms, and corporates and policy think tanks after the fellowship. The internship program of two months, part of the academic calendar, is meant to ensure they get the right kind of exposure to practical skills and client needs. The global immersion program is designed to expose them to law and regulation, technology policy and dispute resolution, as they operate within a different society or jurisdiction.
But beyond all these specific elements of the program, the pedagogic approach at Daksha plays an absolutely critical role when it comes to furthering industry best practices. We have reduced emphasis on lecture hours and that whole method of learning. Instead, we have focused on learning by doing, and created structures to enhance the same. We have a work and well-being lab for collaborative learning of leadership skills and enhancement of critical thinking. We also have bootcamps planned for the year where we make students work in teams on specific and well-defined problems for over three days under the supervision of experts and institutional partners. These interventions guarantee a course design that responds in an agile manner to developments in the field of law, business and technology.
We are offering full tuition waivers, and are hopeful that this should encourage students from weaker sections to consider applying to Daksha Fellowship
We have taken first steps in this direction by reaching out to Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) – a non-profit organisation that aims to empower underprivileged children by giving them access to quality legal education. Daksha Fellowship is being actively promoted among IDIA scholars who may want to take this up as a post-graduate opportunity. We have also been mindful of the inclusivity problem while admitting students to the fellowship, and try to factor in these differences when assessing them. For the inaugural cohort, we are offering full tuition waivers (inclusive of the global immersion cost) and are hopeful that this too should encourage students from weaker sections of society to consider applying to Daksha Fellowship.
My primary role is to build out the academic vision of this program in a manner that serves its objectives
As part of this role, my responsibility is to onboard the best faculty available in India and abroad for teaching the range of subjects on offer at Daksha. In addition to that, I try to keep up to date with latest trends in the world of higher education and learning, and to incorporate them to the extent possible in our learning model.
We are looking to build the best inaugural cohort
The first thing I would like to stress is that we are looking to build the best inaugural cohort we can under these exceptional circumstances. Therefore, we have extended full tuition waivers to all who are selected this year.
Additionally, I would like our prospective fellows to know that we have some amazing responses so far from law firms and industry to this fellowship, and many of them have agreed to take in our students as interns. However, due to the Covid crisis, there has been some delay in signing formal partnerships or advertising the same on our website. I would like to personally assure students that we are on the right track when it comes to internships and placements.
Finally, we also want prospective fellows to know that even though we are a one-year residential program, your health and safety is of utmost concern to us. Therefore, we are following a blended approach for the inaugural cohort which involves an online start from September 28, 2020. The residential component of the program will only begin from early next year so that we have sufficient lead time to prioritise safety in a campus environment. Do follow regular updates on our website and FAQ page for more details in this regard.
The absence of a legacy approach to legal education is liberating
Some of our key strengths are: the absence of a legacy approach to legal education, which allows us to simply identify certain problems and solve them without boxing ourselves; the presence of some truly remarkable individuals in our advisory board and among faculty, who have generously given their time to the fellowship; the market demand for specialised lawyers with a high degree of professional finesse in the three areas we have identified, and which we can cater to; and an ever-changing world that a fellowship model is best placed to respond to from a pedagogic standpoint.
The major plan for now is our global immersion program, and exploring avenues for using it
Once our student body is in place, we have some other ideas in mind that enhance their research exposure and collaboration with international students. The same goes for our faculty collaborations with international universities and academics. Finally, there is the larger issue of how the fellowship curriculum can be customised for the benefit of international students. This is going to take some time as we need to undertake in-depth study into whether the same knowledge, expertise and skill gaps that we have identified for Indian students apply for the international student community as well. It is a complex exercise.
We have a very clear binding thread that runs in our ethos and vision – collaborative learning is the best way forward
In furtherance of this, we have several ideas in mind for team building that we plan to execute. There are both online and in-residence ideas being explored.