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|February 6, 1999||
Indian venture capitalist comes to Columbia's rescue
Arthur J Pais in New York
Nearly seven years after the idea was first mooted, and after several fund-raisers including the premiere of films by Shyam Benegal and Ismail Merchant, America's first endowed professorship in Indian political economy is about to take off at Columbia University largely due to the $ 500,000 donation by a self-effacing Indian business executive.
Two years ago, the fundraisers suffered a serious setback when the high-flier businessman Kurian Chacko, who had offered a $ 1 million donation, found himself in a jail on charges of financial fraud.
Now, Sreedhar Menon, a retired deputy president and former member of the board of American Express Bank, and currently the head of a Manhattan venture capital firm, RRE Investors, has come to the rescue. Instead of naming the $ 2.5 million chair either after him or his parents or his alma mater -- as the tradition is -- he asked it be called the Jagdish Bhagwati Professorship of Indian Political Economy.
Professor Bhagwati, the internationally wellknown economist, is a member on the Columbia faculty.
Columbia University is among a dozen universities across America that have either set up chairs on Indian studies or are in the process of doing so. The money from the chairs come from individuals -- mostly business people. The interest accrued from the endowment is partly used to pay the salary of a professor who does not have to depend on university largesse.
The Columbia University fund-raising campaign began in 1992 and had reached a standstill until Menon's donation suddenly appeared last year, said Philip Oldenburg, associate director of Columbia's Southern Asian Institute. More than 1,000 donors contributed to the programme, but the money was still not enough.
Menon's donation made it possible to gain a matching grant from Columbia and a grant from another department, which brought the total to $ 2.5 million -- enough to get the programme up and running, according to the Star Ledger newspaper.
''We had taken a pause in fund-raising a year-and-a-half ago," Oldenburg said. "We said we are going to rest for a while and then suddenly we had it."
The professorship will study India's economic reforms and the vibrancy and influence of the Asian nation in the world today.
''India is often used as a museum piece," said E Valentine Daniel, director at the Southern Asian Institute. "That is a misconception. I think this is the perfect recognition of what the real India is," a country with a significant future.
Menon said he sees the professorship as filling a critical need for scholarly attention to the economy and politics of India. The new position, he hopes, will ensure that India's political economy will not be lost on second- and third-generation Indian-Americans. "If you don't teach it, they will forget," he said.
Columbia officials say they will now begin a worldwide search to find a suitable candidate to fill the professorship.
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