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 Pilani and a management degree from IIM-Ahmedabad, felt the west calling.
He did what many other bright and brilliant Indians were doing at the time for such a passage. “In the 70s, 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 programmes in the US—these programmes 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 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,” 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, Hyderabad.
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. (Economic Times)