Nation & World

A vision of collaboration, mutual respect

long read

University broadens engagement with South Asia

Harvard and South Asia go way back.

James Bradford Greenough first taught Sanskrit here in 1872. In the 1880s Harvard established the Department of Indo-Iranian Languages, and in 1903, Charles Rockwell Lanman became the first incumbent of the Wales Professorship of Sanskrit.

But as the 20th century ran its course, the important events taking place in South Asia — the struggle for independence, the partition of India, the emergence of democratic institutions, ongoing conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbors, India’s economic upsurge, continuing poverty in massive numbers — were insufficiently matched by scholarly study at Harvard, at least in any organized way.

“There is a long tradition of Sanskrit and Indian studies at Harvard, but it has been a very thin stream,” said Amartya Sen, the Lamont University Professor. “It never broadened out to include sociology, economics, or government. There have been huge gaps.”

Now, with the launch of an ambitious expansion of research and education related to South Asia, Harvard is aspiring to fill those gaps.

“Today we embark on a multiyear effort to expand our intellectual capacity related to and engagement with South Asia,” said Vice Provost for International Affairs Jorge I. Domínguez, who spearheaded a yearlong consultative process that led to the creation of the initiative. “Our vision for South Asia is one of collaboration and mutual respect. The things our scholars and students study and learn from this dynamic region will inform ideas that will enable Harvard to make positive contributions throughout a region that represents almost 24 percent of humanity.”

In the coming years, the University will strive to expand the number of professors whose focus includes South Asia; increase the number of scholarships and fellowships Harvard provides for students from South Asia; facilitate travel to South Asia for undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard College and the University’s professional schools; increase the number of speakers from the region featured on campus; further executive education programs and other academic activity in South Asia itself; and optimize research across Harvard’s faculties related to South Asia.

Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, is one of eight senior scholars from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard School of Public Health to serve on a newly created steering committee for the South Asia Initiative (SAI), a University-wide entity charged with setting Harvard’s academic agenda, funding student and faculty research, and optimizing activity across Harvard related to South Asia. The creation of the University-wide steering committee and the degree to which Harvard’s approach crosses Schools and disciplines represent an unprecedented level of collaboration and multidisciplinary activity at Harvard.

With the support of Harvard President Drew Faust, scholars who have been conducting research on South Asia will now have the structure as well as the opportunity to learn from and inspire one another. For Faust, the University’s plans for engagement with South Asia are a practical embodiment of her vision of Harvard focusing its intellectual resources in the service of the larger world.

“Harvard is pursuing this initiative in a holistic and multidisciplinary manner — engaging senior scholars and administrators across the University, and public and private-sector leaders from around the world,” Faust said. “Collectively, we have undertaken this effort because we believe deeply that Harvard has much to learn from and contribute to the future of South Asia. This effort is, to me, an imperative. As I said in my recent inaugural address, accountability to the future requires that Harvard increasingly leap geographic as well as intellectual boundaries; and just as we live in a time of narrowing distances between fields and disciplines, so we inhabit an increasingly transnational world in which knowledge itself is the most powerful connector — and the pursuit of knowledge the most powerful engager.”

While Harvard may have been slow to match its intellectual capacity with the importance South Asia plays in the world, the University’s expansion efforts are hardly starting from scratch. There are significant resources already in place. What is needed now is to pull them together into a coherent whole.

“The approach we have developed for South Asia is illustrative of both President Faust’s directive that Harvard actively engage in the world and that it increasingly operate across disciplines and schools as a ‘single university,’” said Domínguez. This approach has been met enthusiastically by both scholars at Harvard and leaders outside the University.

Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, a member of SAI’s steering committee and the author of an upcoming book about the region titled “Billion of Entrepreneurs: How China and India Are Reshaping Their Futures — and Yours,” said, “I’m pleased to contribute to the University’s plans for engagement during this critical time of expansion. The opportunity for Harvard to positively impact South Asia is significant.”

Victor Menezes, the vice chairman of the Asia Society, co-chair of the American India Foundation, and retired senior vice chairman of Citigroup, agrees. “South Asia is a fascinating microcosm of the significant global issues that the world faces. Robust intellectual activity at Harvard related to the area is important for the region and to increase understanding and scholarship across the University,” he said.

South Asia without borders

Sugata Bose, the Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, who chairs the SAI steering committee, sees the expansion related to South Asia as a sign that scholarly study related to the region has finally broken free of an older point of view in which the area was seen as insular and defined by ancient religious and cultural norms.

“The whole notion of South Asia being a repository of unchanging traditions was always a myth, but it is more so today,” Bose said. “Historically, South Asia has been very outward looking and has had important economic, political, and cultural connections with the outside world. South Asia lends itself to study in a comparative context.”

In the spirit of this outward-looking approach to the region, Bose has initiated a new research plan titled “South Asia Without Borders,” which is committed to producing new scholarship that will contribute to a greater theoretical understanding of the region.

Another steering committee member, Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center, agrees that the University’s expansion plans related to South Asia come at a time when the countries of the region are beginning to interact on an equal basis with the international community.

“There’s a great desire on the part of South Asia for new transformative collaborations at many levels,” he said. “Most of these countries are in a state of tremendous growth and potential, and people are very keen to make links. In the past, the intellectual traffic used to be primarily one-way, but now there’s a more equal conversation, and out of that will come new forms of collaboration.

Training managers

In addition to the scholarship of individual faculty members, several of Harvard’s professional schools have significant programs that entail research and education in South Asia itself. In January 2007, the Kennedy School launched an executive education program for senior members of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Faculty from the Kennedy School and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad have collaborated to design an integrated curriculum focusing on governance, political economy, and policy analysis to be taught jointly by faculty from both institutions. The program is intended to train approximately 360 senior IAS officers over a three-year period.

Rohini Pande, the Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at the Kennedy School and a member of SAI’s steering committee, taught in the executive education program in 2006 with a course on evaluating public policy programs.

“A lot of the reason South Asia is capturing people’s attention is that it is developing very rapidly, but it’s a fast-growing economy with a lot of poor people,” she said. Public policy experts can help the countries of South Asia improve their underperforming service delivery systems.

At the same time, scholars who study the problems of South Asia are sure to improve their understanding of problems in other countries, Pande said.

“The more we learn about public policy in South Asia, the more we will know about things that apply to the rest of the developing world.”

HBS in India

At Harvard Business School (HBS), India’s surging economic growth is amply reflected in the number of professors who are either from India or of Indian origin: approximately 15 percent of the total faculty. In addition, many of the case studies the School uses for teaching purposes are based on Indian companies.

In 2005, HBS opened the India Research Center (IRC) in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) as part of its ongoing commitment to creating intellectual capital for use worldwide as well as to building and strengthening relationships with leading companies, universities, and other organizations around the globe.

“The new Mumbai center will help us expand our ties with prominent business leaders, universities, and researchers throughout India — a key emerging force in the global economy,” said Krishna Palepu, the School’s senior associate dean for International Development and a member of the SAI steering committee. “Our presence in the region will not only increase the breadth and depth of HBS research and case studies — and thereby enhance the learning experience for all our M.B.A. students and Executive Education participants — but also cultivate a constructive dialogue between Indian and other business leaders within the global network.”

Redesigning the world’s most dense city

At the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Niall Kirkwood, professor and chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture, taught a studio course in the fall of 2006 in which students considered the fate of 600 acres of land at the center of Mumbai occupied by 58 abandoned mills built more than a century and a half ago. The 12 students traveled to India for field visits, meetings with stakeholders, and to conduct studies of the city environment. Back in Cambridge, they prepared design proposals outlining their ideas for adapting the mill district for present-day use.

This year, Kirkwood and GSD visiting design critic Nazneen Cooper, who was born and raised in Mumbai, are teaching another studio course called “Mumbai Margins: Rethinking the Island City.” In this course, students will again focus on Mumbai (with an inner-city population of 14 million that is likely to double in 10 years) but on a wider scale, providing analysis and regeneration models that will provide an incremental alternative to the city’s 2011 master plan.

Planning for disasters

Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of international health in the Faculty of Public Health and a member of the SAI steering committee, has been involved in a number of projects related to South Asia, including a study of the demographic and humanitarian consequences of the partition of India in 1947.

Leaning, an expert on disaster relief, has also been involved in creating Web-based materials to help responders deal with future disasters. One of them,, grew out of the Mumbai train blasts on July 11, 2006, and seeks to collect the stories of the thousands of people affected by the blasts in order to better prepare for similar events. Leaning’s next project is an all-India disaster Web site that will offer training for first responders throughout the country.

According to Leaning, Harvard has not been involved with South Asia to the same extent that it has with China, but, with the University’s planned expansion, she looks forward to that imbalance changing.

“It’s long overdue,” she said. “But it’s splendid that it’s getting started, and I’m delighted to be involved in it.”

One university

The approach developed for Harvard’s future related to South Asia may produce benefits for the University beyond the goal of engaging more fully with an increasingly important part of the world. As Domínguez sees it, the initiative may be a way for Harvard to actualize President Faust’s goal of further integrating the various Schools and disciplines and achieving the ideal of “one university.”

“Our approach towards South Asia seeks not to change the University as a whole but, instead, to involve faculty from across the Schools who already have a substantive research interest of their own related to South Asia in order to see whether coordination may be improved, and research and education gain as a result,” Domínguez said. “If it works, a similar approach of consultation, coordination, [and] sharing authority and resources might help us move forward in fashioning a one-university approach with regard to other areas.”