It was a long time coming, you gather on hearing Mallik Putcha explain the focus of his passion, for two mighty giants in engineering education to come together with an understanding of what could be done if they joined forces for the betterment of research and teaching future technocrats.
As he watched on Tuesday morning, September 28, the fruits of his labor and of many other alumni from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) system came together in the form of a Memo of Understanding for academic and research collaboration between the IIT Madras and Rice University. And to sign the document were Dr. M. S. Ananth, Director of IIT Madras and David Leebron, President of Rice University at the campus on Main Street.
Dr. Ananth was accompanied by two other professors from IIT-M: Dr. Bhaskar Ramamurthi, the Dean for Planning and Alumni Affairs and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Dr. Ram Nagarajan, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Principal Coordinator for L-RAMP (Lemelson Recognition and Mentoring Program), an innovation-incubation initiative. The three are on a five-city tour, visiting Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, Houston, Boston, and Toronto on this trip.
The culmination of the MOU was celebrated during a dinner and panel discussion on "Challenges of Globalization of Higher Education" held later that evening at the Westin Galleria Hotel and attended by about 80 people. Panelists for the evening were Dr. Ananth, Leebron and Dr. Renu Khator, Chancellor and President of the University of Houston system with Indian Consul General Sanjiv Arora as a guest of honor. The proceedings were emceed by TiE Houston President Ashok Rao in his characteristic witty style.
For Putcha, a Systems Engineer with NASA, who has been in the US since 1972, the MOU was a culmination of his dream of linking his alma mater, IIT-M with Rice. He was among the first batch of students of the IIT-M, newly formed in 1959 through German collaboration, taught by German professors speaking English. Through the sheer determination of its first Director, Dr. B. Sengupto and Deputy Director Dr. S. Sampath, the vision of an India's first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru for an institute devoted to higher education of engineering and technology took shape. Indeed, as we know it now, the IIT system has become one of India's crowning jewels and rivals many counterparts in other countries.
Putcha was also the founder of the IIT Madras Alumni Association of North America, a group established in 1980 and devoted to serve its alma mater and alumni and a Director of the IIT Alumni of Greater Houston, established in 2004. The conference room was full of IIT alumni and students from Rice, who heard the panelists speak after dinner and participated in a brief question and answer session that followed.
In starting off the presentation, Arora likened the IITs to temples of modern India, among the best institutes in the world and its students as the crème de la crème of graduates. He appreciated that "Mallik Putcha's heart still beats for India" and presence of a large number of Indian students in the US only made the MOU a natural acknowledgement of the strong ties between the two countries.
Dr. Ananth, who has studied in from Gainesville, NC stated that the internet had opened up more venues for knowledge for students and then went on to enumerate what he considered to be grand challenges for a global economy: energy, water, food cultivation, healthcare, sustainability, environment and climate change. "These will be problems for a long time," he stated, "and there are no simple solutions." He suggested that there were many 'drivers' – science, industry, society, contextual factors and knowledge bases – that could bring out solutions. Ananth believed that restructuring issues and "bringing unlike minds together" through global cooperation between teaching institutions would foster the grounds for solutions to these issues.
In her remarks, Dr. Khator showed her command of the intricacies involved in the funding of public education in Texas and made a persuasive argument for expanding the role to include expansion overseas and not just through collaborations. She said that the University of Houston already has MOUs with IIT Delhi and IIT Rourkee. "Why should U.S. universities be in the global market?" she asked. "The answer is 'because we have no choice.'" She then expanded on the moral, philosophical, social and political reasons why it made sense and predicted that within the short term, public universities would overcome obstacles to enter that marketplace, either through catering to students stateside, a hybrid degree plan (with 3 years overseas, the last 2 years in the U.S.) or research partnerships.
Speaking from the vantage point of a private university with a smaller student population than UH, Leebron said that international experience enriched the mind of students and that there is stiff competition for students on the global level. "In the past two years, the international students have made up 12% of the population," he said. Comparing the imminent opening of New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi, mostly funded by the Emirate, Leebron understood that economics represented a challenge, but this will all depend of the mix of students and languages. At present, he noted, the US has 22% of the foreign student market.
Although the international marketplace for higher education has many obstacles, the consensus seemed to be that it was one that many institutions would be willing to try to enter, given that the payoffs in research and increased student contact were conducive to cooperation and advancement.