“Abandoned by teachers”, “a stronghold of mediocrity”, “once glorious, now decrepit” — stage whispers about Presidency University seemed to be everywhere, the prophets of doom a dime a dozen.
Presidency has its problems, just like every other institution, but what people forget is that it is a work in progress. It’s a difficult job to reinvent yourself at any age, least of all after your 196th birthday. Some of us students felt that perhaps it was time to show people what Presidency is all about, behind the politics, partisanship and prejudice.
Calcutta has its share of music, film, lit and college fests, but we felt there was a vacuum when it came to lectures. There were no popular academic fests open to the public, no platform where students from Calcutta could interact with the best minds from all over the world. This is where Presidency University Lecture Series comes in.
Initially, the plan was to have speakers from across the sciences and the humanities. Because of our relative inexperience at organising events of this magnitude, we bit off more than we could chew. So we broke it down into two parts — the science lectures to be held on 13-15 December and the humanities ones in February-March.
Our task was simplified by the fact that most renowned Indian or Indian-born scientists have nostalgic links to Presidency, and most were more than happy to come here.
Our lectures team sent countless emails to speakers — such as Yuri Manin of the Max-Planck Institut fur Mathematik in Bonn, Vladimir Voevodsky of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Sankar Das Sharma of the University of Maryland — with occasional confusions, fumbles and irate replies.
We had many rejections of our invitations but, and as an eminent lecturer pointed out, “It is very important that you did not give up and kept going.” In its nearly 200 years of existence, this was the first formal video conference at Presidency, using professional video networks.
Our IT team spent a lot of time and effort to bring our e-classroom to life, liaising with professors on the other side of the world, as well as fashioning the lecture series website from scratch. The PR team ran a relentless campaign through social networking sites and mainstream media outlets.
And then suddenly, it was show-time. Everything that could have predictably gone wrong did go wrong, along with unpredictable inclusions. Speakers got stranded in traffic snarls, projectors decided to die at the wrong moment. However, we had large crowds at every lecture, even on a cold Sunday morning.
It was one-of-a-kind experience for us student organisers to interact with eminent researchers on a near-personal basis, along with coming in contact with their research fields.
Although primarily a student-led initiative, we got unwavering support from the university authorities and faculty, for which we are grateful.
After months of planning and three exhausting days of execution, it is finally over. Until February, of course. And the next edition of the series. And hundreds of such events which, we hope, shall spring up all over the city. The future looks bright.
The authors are second-year undergraduate physics students at Presidency University.
The science lecture series was held in association with The Telegraph