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Higher education: learning from the U.S.

Prabhudev Konana

The culture of supporting educational institutions is deep-rooted in the American psyche. Indians should emulate this practice.

IN 2002, Mr. Jackson, an oilman and geologist, left his entire estate worth $232 million to his alma mater, the School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin). The estate is now worth over $330 million. Before this he had gifted over $40 million to UT-Austin. The late Mr. Jackson never thought this bequeath a donation to the university, but an investment for the future of Texas and in the younger generation. His passion to learn about the earth that gave him so much wealth and his tremendous pride in his alma mater were reflected in this gift.

Surprisingly enough, his gift to UT-Austin is not unusual in the U.S. academic world. Peter O'Donnell, an investor and Wharton School of Business alumnus, envisioned an advanced research group in computational sciences at the intersection of mathematics, science, and engineering to approach science through modelling and simulation. He wanted the best facilities to be established at UT-Austin. The university leased him a piece of land on which he built a state-of-the-art facility at a cost of $30 million and then gifted it to UT-Austin. He never studied at UT-Austin! The benefits of this interdisciplinary research area had no immediate benefit to Mr. O'Donnell. But, he recognised the profound impact it will have on pushing the frontiers of knowledge to solve complex problems computationally, such as developing new composite material, and studying sound waves and underground fluid behaviour.

In 2001, colleges and universities in the U.S. raised over $24 billion from individuals, foundations, and corporations (Source: RAND Corporation). Hewlett and Packard — co-founders of Hewlett Packard Corporation — family and foundations have given over $800 million to Stanford University alone. Not to be left behind, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, gave a startling $600 million gift to the California Institute of Technology. My own business school is named after Red McCombs who gave a $50 million cash gift.

The above gifts are an exception only from the point of dollar figures, but not in the spirit of giving by the hundreds of thousands of individuals and businesses. It is not necessary to be very wealthy to make a difference; thousands of alumni collectively can make a difference. That's why the total endowment of the top 50 universities in the U.S. is over $160 billion (almost a third of India's GDP)! Harvard University tops the list with $22 billion followed by Yale ($12.7 billion), Princeton ($10 billion), Stanford (9.92 billion), and UT system (9.4 billion). The dream of all these endowments is to make a better future for the next generation, promote excellence, leave a lasting legacy, and simply give back to the school or community that has given them so much. The culture of supporting educational institutions is deep-rooted in the American psyche.

If the U.S. is the land of opportunity and innovations, it didn't happen accidentally. It has been carved and etched over 300 years by the likes of John Harvard, Leland Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Andrew Carnegie, and Elihu Yale, whose generous gifts created universities in their names, and recently by individuals like Gordon Moore, Hewlett, Packard, Jackson, and O'Donnell. In the early 20th century, Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate, gave away much of his wealth of nearly $400 million for education and knowledge creation.

Each and every day, new ideas and innovations take shape in U.S. university labs in nanotechnology, bio-informatics, and fuel cells. Corporate America and the world are ready to explore and exploit the innovations and talent. So when we marvel at the Google or Yahoo! search engines, we have to marvel at the research environment at Stanford that provided an opportunity for the founders of these companies to conceptualise, and experiment with, new ideas (incidentally, Stanford received stock and royalties from Google since the technology was developed when its founders were at Stanford). When we think of the Internet, thank U.S. universities for the enormous brainpower and resources committed since the late 1960s.

There is so much being written about India emerging as a knowledge economy. However, little attention is paid as to whether the Indian higher education system can meet the challenges without broader support for research. Of even more serious concern is whether Indian institutions can attract bright minds to go into higher studies and to take up academic jobs. Given the enormous corporate demand and salaries for bright young minds, there is little incentive to pursue higher studies and to take up academic positions that pay insignificantly.

Culture of research needed

Unfortunately, churning out a large number of engineering and science graduates does not necessarily mean India will make the transition to a knowledge economy. There needs to be a culture of research where knowledge will be created and not just consumed. Surprisingly enough, in modern India, some of the greatest knowledge creation came in the early and mid-twentieth century from the likes of Sir C. V. Raman, J.C. Bose, Satyen Bose, Vikram Sarabhai, C.R. Rao, and Mahanalobis. The Indian Statistical Institute and the Bose Institute have been fundamental in knowledge creation, yet we hear very little of these institutes lately.

Pride exists in India for her educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. However, it is time for these and other educational institutions of higher learning to create knowledge, for which enormous resources are needed. I happened to meet the director of a premier management institute that boasts of successful CEOs and dollar millionaires. Casually speaking I threw the question of alumni gifts to the school. The answer was a smile and a hand sign indicating zero. I realise some graduates from the IITs have established endowed professorships to attract and reward star faculty, but these are few and far between.

Here is the paradox. Most premier educational institutions in India expect government support, but no government interference. Successful alumni expect the government to do more for higher education, but expect the government to be out of people's life and are unwilling to support their alma mater. This is illogical and hypocritical. If an institution expects government resources then it has to accept government regulations and interference; that's how U.S. public schools work too. If graduates and industry expect independence, then they need to support the institutions with gifts, endowments, and sponsorship, and minimise the dependence on the government.

The problem also lies with Indian educational institutions and leadership. The joke about professors' "yellowing" notes used and reused for decades is a well-known cliché. There is little incentive to excel in research or teaching. Those who take their jobs seriously will eventually recognise that the system treats everyone the same, and quickly adapt to the incentive structure that does not exist. That is, if incentives don't match the efforts, then match the efforts to the incentives! Of course, there are genuinely passionate researchers and teachers in India, but they are largely ignored by society. Society assumes a person went into academia because he or she couldn't make it in the corporate world. A newly arrived software professional from India to the U.S., once asked for my resume so he could get me a "real" job!

With great zeal, I wrote to several faculty members in my alma mater in India for instituting a faculty award for teaching excellence. I did not get any response. I have received numerous teaching awards at my university in the U.S. The passion to improve content and teaching methods comes from the recognition bestowed from students, colleagues, and the university, and the healthy competition and environment. Thus, institutions must create an environment for excellence for which money matters! Faculty needs to be rewarded handsomely for teaching and research excellence.

Institutions of higher learning in India have not learnt how to seek gifts and how to build relationships with alumni and industry. When I first gave a small amount to the University of Arizona, the dean of the business school called to personally thank me for the gift, which he said quadrupled with corporate matching grants. I wondered why a dean would call to say thank you for such a small amount. A colleague of mine explained to me that most donors fresh out of college begin with small contributions. But, once a relationship is built, each successive year the contributions become bigger. Often, these donors make large donations once they are out of commitments to their families, or leave much of their wealth to schools or other institutions after their death. That is, universities grow with the lifecycle of their students! The bottom line: schools need to find a way to encourage, appreciate, and involve alumni, industry, and stakeholders. No small gifts should be ignored, under-appreciated, or insulted. At the same time, large donors may need to be recognised appropriately so as to motivate others to do the same. One can create a system and processes for people to dedicate their gifts for their loved ones that can be permanently etched in the temples of higher learning.

The time has come for Indian business executives, alumni, wealthy Indians, and non-resident Indians to create and nurture a culture in India for the research excellence that has made U.S. universities among the best in the world. The early work of Vikram Sarabhai and the Tatas (for example, the Indian Institute of Science) on spreading research culture by supporting numerous institutes has to be replicated in every university in India. If India wants to move to the next level in the global economy and even be considered seriously as a knowledge economy, higher education institutions have a greater role than any individual, firm or an industry.

(The author is Distinguished Teaching Professor, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at pkonana@mail.utexas.edu.)

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