If a college has to have a theme poem that reflected its mission, then Lady Shri Ram (LSR) could open a Robert Frost anthology and pick a few lines from The Road Not Taken: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I/ I took the one less travelled by, /And that has made all the difference." Principal Meenakshi Gopinath would call it LSR's determination to "engage in possibilities rather than limits". Either way, it has propelled the Delhi-based college into a rarefied strata of education where few others can enter. Giving a tremendous boost to gender equality, it has powered its way to the No. 1 position among arts colleges-for the first time in the nine years of India Today survey, a college for women has shot up to the top rank.
In what is probably one of the most closely fought races in the various streams, LSR has vaulted from No. 6 last year to No. 1. Last year's winner, Loyola College, Chennai, has been pushed down to No. 3. It has also suffered the mortification of having its rival, city-based Presidency College, surge to the second spot-up five places from 2004. Among the toppers who have dropped down in ranking are St Stephen's College, Delhi, and St Xavier's College, Kolkata. Meanwhile, for Fergusson College, Pune, it has been a major gain, entering the Top 10 list for the first time and coming a creditable fifth.
The real success story is, undoubtedly, LSR which, as Gopinath says, "has always been willing to push the envelope". While colleges in India are largely constrained by the curriculum that the government rams down the throat and by grants that are never adequate, LSR has scored by being innovative and inventive in its approach to imparting higher education. It has studiously avoided straitjacketing and has worked towards redefining the notion of success while maintaining a "try-not-to-say-no" attitude, even if that meant giving students the space to make mistakes. The professors point out that it would help the youngsters think out of the box and explore their full potential later in life. For almost half a century now, the college's emphasis has been to train women to become leaders.
Gopinath, an alumna of the college, has seen the transformation that has taken place on LSR campus. When she was a student, whatever the lecturer spoke was accepted as the gospel truth. Now students are far more self-assured and, therefore, demanding. While the risk-wary earlier generation stuck to a profession for a lifetime, today's 20-somethings go through five jobs in as many years and pick up new skills on the way to adapt to the rapidly changing opportunities. Multi tasking has become a way of life for them. "Unlike in the past, now there is a generational change every five years," points out Gopinath. LSR has been quick to understand this and adapt its pedagogy to suit the requirements of Gen Next.
Meanwhile, Presidency College, Chennai, has taken a giant stride in the India Today ratings, moving up from the seventh position last year to the second slot this time. The second college established by the British in India, Presidency has refocused on the arts stream and introduced the choice-based credits system at the postgraduate level. With 59 of the 114 faculty members of the arts department and 63 of the 99 teachers of science being PhD holders, Presidency boasts a strong teaching community. In infrastructure too, the college is taking a tech leap-its library is all set to go digital. Says Principal M. Dhanushkodi: "Once all the books are made available in digital format, we plan to have interconnectivity with most of the major libraries outside the campus."
That Nobel laureates C.V. Raman and S. Chandrashekhar were Presidency old boys is trivia. Now the old lady at Kamarajar Salai is looking ahead with a four-star by the University Grants Commission's National Assessment and Accreditation Council.
To the credit of the rest of the toppers, each have brought a high degree of excellence to education that has propelled them into the survey's most coveted slot: a place on the honours list of arts colleges.