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5 Indians donate millions to US universities

Last updated on: November 10, 2010 11:09 IST

5 Indians donate millions to US universities

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Amitabh Mattoo
In October, the chairman of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata, gifted $50 million to his alma mater, the Harvard Business School, to give back to the school - in his words - a little bit of what it had given him.

Earlier, Anand Mahindra donated $10 million for a Humanities Centre at Harvard. And in 2008, Rohini and Nandan Nilekani had gifted $5 million to Yale University.

These are just a few examples of Indians who are making generous philanthropic contributions to American universities.

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Image: Ratan Tata.
Photographs: Courtesy, Outlook Business.
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While these donations have been criticised as reflecting misplaced priorities, in reality they make a powerful statement, recognising the extraordinary role played by the American education system in not just transforming "individual" Indian lives, but in building arguably the strongest bond between the people of the two countries.

While the relationship has, so far, been asymmetric - with the US playing the commanding role - this too is, hopefully, beginning to change, with India and Indians playing a significant role.

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Image: Anand Mahindra donated $10 to Harvard.

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5 Indians donate millions to US universities

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Indeed, there is probably no other area of India-US bilateral relations which has played a more transformational role than the cooperation in education.

While ties in other sectors may have been able to produce instant "highs" and "lows", cooperation in education has gradually created an extraordinary win-win relationship. This happened due to three factors.

The first is through the initial American intellectual and financial investment in building Indian institutions of excellence.

From 1961 to 1972, USAID supported the Kanpur Indo-American Programme (KIAP) to help IIT Kanpur find its feet.

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Image: Nandan and Rohini Nilekani.
Photographs: Courtesy, IIT-B.
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5 Indians donate millions to US universities

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This included generous material help to build infrastructure, as well as exposure of Indian students to world-class American faculty. Professors from MIT, Princeton, and other top Ivy League universities came to IIT-Kanpur as visiting professors. The results were extraordinary.

Rakesh Pandey, an alumnus, recounted to Robert Blake, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian and Central Asian Affairs, one such example. "A professor from MIT arrived in Kanpur for his assignment.

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Image: MIT.

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The professor's research focused on image processing systems - including televisions (he later helped pioneer digital and HD television) - and to the excitement of students and staff at IIT-Kanpur, he introduced broadcast television to Kanpur."

Indian students were exposed not only to new inventions, but also to American academia's dedication to teaching, research and innovation. IIT-Kanpur was not alone; many Indian agricultural universities were supported by US land grant universities, and the path-breaking research conducted in these institutions is often forgotten.

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Image: IIT-Kanpur.

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In short, a generation of some of the most gifted Indians became inspired by the American commitment to academic excellence.

Second, there was, for several years, a virtual open door for good Indian students to enter top US universities, where they went for further studies. Today, the IIT Kanpur Alumni chapter in the US alone has 5,000 members.

Often, tuition waivers, assistance ships or scholarships allowed Indians from even the most deprived backgrounds to enter the top US universities. Many stayed back and became part of the dazzling Indian Diaspora whose role in bridging the bilateral relationship is well known.

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Image: IIT-Kanpur.

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Those who came back had often been converted to and championed the American dream of enterprise and opportunity, even at a time when autarky and socialism were the reigning mantras in India.

Finally, through programmes like the Fulbright, the US was able to give mid-career academics and professionals, including IAS officers, exposure to the best academic universities through the Mason Fellowship.

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Image: Fulbright program.

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5 Indians donate millions to US universities

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On return, many became natural stakeholders in the bond of India-US friendship. The number of students from India enrolled in US universities and colleges has crossed 100,000 this year, with Indians now the largest overseas student group.

In the past this relationship was relatively one-sided. Compared to the thousands of Indians who went to the US, only a small number of American students came to India, primarily through the Fulbright programme. Even for this limited number the experience was not painless.

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Image: Indian students at an American university campus.
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi.
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During India's honeymoon with the Soviet Union, visas were denied to almost all those wishing to study contemporary India.

It was fine if a scholar wanted to learn Pali or Sanskrit or study Indian philosophy, but not so if the area of interest was the political, strategic or economic life of contemporary India.

Fortunately, this is beginning to change. In November last year, President Obama and Prime Minister Singh launched the 21st Century Knowledge Initiative. This is designed to enhance the India-US strategic partnership in education through increased exchanges and greater academic collaboration.

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with President Barack Obama.

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Also, we may see a flow of students into India once our "world class" universities take shape and the Foreign Education Service Providers Bill is finally enacted.

But even without governments there will individual Indians who help to further cement India-US cooperation in education. Consider this story: John P Kapoor graduated from

The State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY) offered him a graduate fellowship, and he completed his doctorate in medicinal chemistry in 1972.

Kapoor went on to become a great entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical industry. In 2000, he gave SUNY $5 million, increasing it to $11 million in 2010.


Image: State University of New York. John P Kapoor (inset).

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