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Rao SCD ’92 is currently a professor of applied mechanics at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai.

President Susan Hockfield was in Delhi, India on Nov. 19 to kick off MIT’s interaction with India. As an alumnus, I received an invitation to attend the symposium. Other presidents of top American universities have recently traveled to India and it seems that since India can now attract official visits from such people, the country has “arrived” technologically and economically.

Of course, every corporate initiative is organized for a reason, so I asked my fellow alumnae what they thought the motive was. One sharp entrepreneur from Bangalore, Mr. Prakash, said “Any top university today will be out of the race if it did not have a reasonable India plan or a China plan and that is why they [MIT] are here.” That seemed about right to me, so I set out to find of if there are any big differences between MIT’s India plan and the plans of other American universities.

Connections

MIT seems to have the right connections in India, both at the governmental level and in industry. This was obvious, since the symposium was inaugurated by Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and an Oxford economics graduate. We discovered that Ahluwalia is primarily responsible for making things happen in Delhi. His wife, Isher Judge Ahluwalia PhD ’76, is an MIT economics graduate and knows how important it is to involve MIT in any planning initiative.

An important corporate bank in India, the ICICI Bank, was the official sponsor for the MIT visit. ICICI Bank already has some joint initiatives with the Poverty Action Laboratory at MIT, using tools for project evaluation to assess the performance of some schemes for poverty alleviation in India. Mr. Vinay Rai ’72, who sponsored the evening reception, is President of Rai Foundation, a private foundation working in education, health care and business enterprise in Delhi.

Some members of the MIT administration have Indian roots, as well. Professor Subra Suresh, dean of engineering, and Dr. Gururaj Deshpande, MIT Corporation member, obtained their undergraduate degrees from IIT Madras, Chennai.

Arrogance of a big brother

The dean of a leading Indian Institute of Technology, who was not an MIT alumnus but attended the symposium, had this to say about the attitude of MIT: “I thought that we at IIT had an arrogance about ourselves, pretending to teach others how to teach, but MIT seems to have an arrogance of a higher order.”

This dean was referring to a proposal for some young faculty from the IITs to spend a few months participating in “Team Teaching” that is done by faculty for some of the large courses at MIT. The idea of “Team Teaching” is laudable and is worth trying, but the belief that MIT has a unique technique, which the Indian Institutes are unaware of, does speak of some arrogance.

When questions were raised as to whether MIT faculty would spend equal time at any of the IITs, we were told that this was heavily debated and it was concluded that it would be difficult for any MIT professor to spend more than two weeks in India. Hence, the message is that MIT is our big brother. We should accept this and maintain a reasonable working relationship with the big brother, because after all, he was born before us, he is experienced, and we are here to learn from that experience. If we in India were to actually accept this as the hidden paradigm, the excitement of working together as partners towards a common goal is definitely diminished.

From the presentations, it seems that MIT is hoping to add an international component to its undergraduate experience through student exchange programs. It isn’t clear to me whether the exchange will always be equal for both sides. It is not clear if the students (both undergraduate and graduate) visiting India on these exchange programs will actually end up getting actively involved in the research being done by faculty in India to the same extent as they may get involved when they are at MIT. I don’t see why this cannot happen, since many top Indian Institutes like IIT already have about 50 years of academics behind them and faculty from the top universities in the world.

Future interaction

When the IITs were started in late ’50s, MIT was involved in setting up the campus of IIT Kanpur, a government-funded technological university. MIT later participated in the establishment of the undergraduate program of a private Institute of Technology at Pilani, Rajasthan, India.

Today’s MIT is entering into a major agreement with Indian government to help India establish an institution that will create professionals that could solve the rural health problems of India based on their strong technical background. It is possibly a worthy investment to help MIT learn about Indian problems and for it to discover that techno-centric solutions alone will not solve all the complexities that exist in an Indian society. Possibly it is a good investment for the Indian government to allow MIT to discover the vast fabric of paramedical and alternate medical systems that already exist in the country and are solving the problems in their own way.

Overall, I feel that it is good that MIT is formalizing the interaction with India. It is useful for the international image of MIT. It is also okay to start with the initial hypothesis that MIT is innovating new solutions to solve the problems of new ecosystems.

Whether MIT actually solves the problems of complex systems like India — which one of the speakers described as a “rich country where a lot of poor people live,” with the second largest population in the world, multifaceted cultures and languages and religions, and a long history in religion, arts, logic, philosophy, science, and technology — needs to be watched carefully.