Thursday, January 30, 2014

Growing list of Indian origin scholars lead global universities of great repute

It was a wave of sorts and SP Kothari was part of it. The year was 1982, and Kothari, armed with a degree in chemical engineering from BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science), Pilani and a management degree from Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A), felt the west calling. He did what many other bright and brilliant Indians were doing at the time for such a passage. "In the 1970s, '80s and much of the '90s, the only way to emigrate to the US was higher education," he says. "Many of these students, without even knowing a whole lot about academic careers, joined PhD programs in the US — these programs paid full scholarship."

A generation or two later, after achieving academic brilliance, after establishing professorial presence, after operating on the vanguard of research, that Indian wave is reaping another kind of return in the past few years: leadership at the best of international universities. Last week, when Rakesh Khurana was appointed as the Dean of Harvard College, one of the undergraduate schools in Harvard University, it was another reminder of how Indians are swarming to the top echelons of higher learning, especially in the US, and to a smaller degree in the UK and beyond.

It's across disciplines, but the abundance is the most in management schools. "This 'proliferation' of Indian-origin academics heading top academic institutions in the US is a very new phenomenon," says G 'Anand' Anandalingam, currently the Dean of Imperial College Business School, London. Anand recounts that when, in 2008, he became Dean of the B-school at the University of Maryland, near Washington, there were two other Indian-origin deans in the top 25 American B-schools: Dipak Jain at Kellogg-Northwestern and Mahendra Gupta at Olin-Washington University in St Louis.

The list has since grown: among others, Nitin Nohria at Harvard Business School, Soumitra Dutta at Cornell University, Jaishankar Ganesh at Rutgers-Camden, and Kothari is the Deputy dean at MIT Sloan School of Management. They are all in their mid-forties to late-fifties. They are all supremely talented and accomplished academicians.

Theirs is a rich palette of exposure and experience. "Every top institution would appoint the best overall candidate," says Ajit Rangnekar, Dean of the Indian School of Business (ISB)
, Hyderabad. "All these people were chosen because they deserve to be deans, irrespective of their country of origin."

Law of numbers
Yet, their country of origin mattered in that India did not offer these fertile, imaginative minds enough to hold them back, especially in the pre-liberalisation decades. "It was almost a tradition for academic toppers in India to go to US and pursue their PhDs," says Rangnekar.

Being the creme de la creme of the talent pool from India, many of them naturally become successful — in industry and in academia. "Over the past five to 10 years, this crop of Indian immigrant students has reached an age that is suited for leadership positions," adds Kothari. Jaishankar Ganesh, Dean of Rutgers School of Business-Camden, puts it down to "the law of numbers" — more Indians in the academic pool. Data is not available on the share of Indian faculty in American universities. But, according to Ganesh of Rutgers, about 5% of faculty in American universities is of Asian descent; this number triples in B-schools.

In spite of numbers turning progressively favourable, academics of Indian origin have gone through an evolutionary curve of their own. "In the previous half-generation, they focused on being excellent scholars and teachers, and did not think that academic leadership would be entrusted to them," he says. "Over the past 10 years or so, they have realised that they are good at institution building and are willing to compete for leadership positions."

For some of his ilk, the India connection played a part, says Sunil Kumar, Dean at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. "For some of us, the experience of growing up in India and then having an academic career outside India helps provide a perspective that serves us well in managing our institutions, which have faculties and student bodies from across the globe and have global impact."

Fluency in English
Being a dean is a multi-faceted assignment — inward facing but also outward looking, managing internal expectations while forging external relationships. It is as much about managing relationships with staff and students as it is about cultivating donors, alumni, media and the business community. "The role of a dean is to closely listen to faculty, students and staff to help develop a shared vision of our future, and then provide them the direction, resources and support needed to make that vision a reality," says Khurana, Dean of Harvard College.

Besides technical talent, Indians have the advantage over immigrants from other nationalities of being fluent in English. "Academic (or industry) leadership positions call for a combination of skills — technical, soft, managerial and administrative, and communication," says Kothari. "English comes quite naturally to Indians, which positions them well for deanships." 

According to Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School (HBS), Khurana's selection is a testament to his ability to work with others, his willingness to be both a careful listener and a probing questioner, and his passion for enhancing the undergraduate experience at Harvard. "He's a prolific scholar who is well-respected in his field, a beloved teacher in every setting, and a wonderful, generous colleague and mentor," says Nohria. "He also manages to combine vision with practicality and execution."

Globalisation is changing the operating environment for American B-schools. They are becoming more multi-cultural in their student, staff and stakeholder construct. "Indians fit in well with the global community they live in," says Naina Lal Kidwai, Director, HSBC Asia-Pacific, and the first Indian woman to graduate from Harvard Business School. "In many cases, the deans are elected by board members and the attitude and approach of academicians of Indian origin are much liked and they fit well."

Many among this set of Indians grew up in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual environments, and so dealing with diversity comes easier. They also came from modest backgrounds, and learnt the virtues of hard work and diligence at an early age. "Indian academicians bring a valuable global and multi-cultural perspective along with their academic credentials," says Soumitra Dutta of Cornell University. "This makes them very attractive for top US institutions, which are seeking both academic excellence and an open leadership mindset."

Global Orientation
They are also seeking emerging market understanding, amid growing concerns that management education is lagging business, especially in the US. In recent years, a challenging economy has led to a drop in demand for MBA programmes at many schools. Also, recruiters are demanding qualitatively different standards of talent. "All global institutions have a strong interest in emerging economies, but that is not a sufficient reason to appoint Indians," Rangnekar of ISB, said.

This quality finds expression in, for example, constructing programmes. Wendell Pritchett, Chancellor of the Rutgers-Camden Campus and a member of its selection board, says a good professional education must provide students with a solid scholarly foundation and the practical skills. This was a consideration Rutgers made while appointing Ganesh. "Jai Ganesh has an extraordinary record of success in developing the type of programmes that will expand opportunities for our students, and opportunities for Rutgers to serve New Jersey's business and economic growth," says Pritchett.

Anand of Imperial College would like to see universities in the UK follow US ones in elevating people of other nationalities. "US institutions have been willing to let merit rule the day, and hire Indian origin academics to become deans and presidents," he says. "Imperial is the first top-tier UK institution that has decided to hire an Indian-origin dean of its business school. It is likely that UK institutions are also on the way to change."

At the same time, experts are cautious of this trend sustaining. The pool of Indian students from elite institutions going into PhD programmes have diminished dramatically in recent years as graduates are able to obtain well-paying industry jobs internationally. "The lure of going to the West to better themselves off financially through a PhD, as was the case in the 1970s, '80s and '90s has diminished considerably," says Kothari. "Whether this will affect the frequency with which Indian-origin deans will be seen 20, 30 years from now."

For now, Indian-origin deans are here to stay. "We well know that we cannot take anything for granted," says Anand. "Academics of Indian origin strive much harder to make a success of the positions that they have managed to attain.

Source: The Economic Times, January 30, 2014

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